Losing a limb is a shattering, deeply traumatic experience

By Capt. Clayton Hinchman, USA-Ret., deputy director of Outreach for MOAA and a wounded soldier

It was midnight. The pitch-blackness of the hot Iraqi night envelops the back of my CH-47 Chinook helicopter. I sit on the rear ramp listening through headphones to the pilots’ conversation and thinking about Leslie, my loving wife waiting for me back home in Fort Drum, New York.

I’m a platoon leader, working with the 10th Mountain Division, commanding a force of 50 combat-ready soldiers. Tonight, we’re flying across the burning desert on a treacherous mission: to capture or kill as many al-Qaida in Iraq as we can.

Suddenly, the helicopter comes down hard, crashing into the hot sand. Crates of supplies tumble through the craft and several of us are trapped under heavy pallets. My platoon scrambles out of the chaos. A landing that normally takes 56 seconds has gone on for 12 long minutes.

But my soldiers move quickly to their positions and set up two roadblocks. I give the order for my main-effort squad to accompany me toward the suspected training camp, which is our main objective.

Suddenly, I feel a wave, like water crashing over me in a kind of fluid, slow motion. But this is not water. It’s a wave of energy from the detonation of a pressure-wire IED — a thin copper wire connected to a battery, a blasting cap, and a 122 mm mortar shell. As the force crashes over me, I try to muscle my way through. But I can’t. I fall on my back, facing up at the stars. All I feel is pain. I scream for a medic. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. There are so many rocks in my eyes I can barely see. My glasses lay smashed on the ground. My body won’t move, but my mind is racing: How many of my soldiers are injured? How many dead? I begin to think of my past. I think about Leslie. And then there’s just darkness.

Days later I woke up in a hospital. I’d lost my leg. My days as a soldier and a platoon leader were over.

Losing a limb is a shattering, deeply traumatic experience. I don’t know how I would have faced it alone. Thankfully, I had the support of some great people to help me recover — physically and mentally. Leslie and I also discovered we had a tremendous ally in protecting our benefits — an organization that has been there for America’s military men and women for more than 80 years: MOAA and its subsidiary, Voices for America’s Troops.

MOAA is the nation’s largest and most influential association of military officers. With about 370,000 members from every branch of service, it’s a powerful force representing the interests of military officers at every stage of their careers — including their post-military careers. MOAA is working on our behalf for:

  • earned retirement pay (which Congress is trying to shorten for people like me, and maybe you, too.);
  • health care for servicemembers and their families;
  • career opportunities for military spouses and families; and
  • maintaining military retirement benefits.

I believe so strongly in their mission I’ve come to work for them. Thank you for your support and membership in Voices for America’s Troops.