'I still have a fighting chance’: Wounded warriors share stories of survival, recovery

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Sgt. First Class Michael Schlitz lost both his hands and suffered burns over 85 percent of his body after his unit was hit by a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2007.

His life didn't flash before his eyes that day, he said, but "I was coming to terms with the fact that this was where I was going to die."

Schlitz survived. And after an anguishing series of surgeries, Schlitz is today a motivational speaker for other wounded warriors.

On this Veterans Day, Schlitz' account is just one of many inspiring stories that wounded veterans have to tell. Three warriors who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan told their stories in detail last week during the Wounded Warrior Experience, an annual panel discussion held at the Navy Memorial in Washington, D.C., and hosted by American's Veterans Center and the Military Order of the Purple Heart Service Foundation.

Schlitz, who spoke at the event, described how he was thrown from his humvee after the propane-filled explosive device ripped through its floor, setting everything on fire. Schlitz was left face down on the side of the road, on fire.

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    "Before I knew it I felt that fire extinguisher coming over my body. Two things came over me at that precise moment. One, the physical relief, an absolute cooling sensation, putting away that heat and the emotional aspect of 'hey I'm being saved, maybe [I] won't die here. I still have a fighting chance'."

    His progression to becoming a motivational speaker for other wounded warriors is just one of the inspiring feats these men have accomplished.

    "The first four months, the first 30 surgeries, I really don't have any recollection of it," Schlitz said. "Coming out of it, they took skin from the bottom of the feet, they took it from every area they could give it and slowly piecemealed it together."

    Schlitz said that he lost nearly a third of his body weight while he was in the hospital. Much of that weight, he said, was burned away in the attack.

    After being released from the hospital, Schlitz said the idea of suicide overwhelmed him and that he'd thought of a million ways to kill himself. But there were two major turning points for Schlitz.

    First, he said, was getting his prosthetic arms and gaining back independence. "I kept pushing through the rehab and one day I finally got that first prosthetic and that night I got to go home and feed myself. Just that little bit of independence, that little bit of freedom was enough to say, 'Okay, I have a fighting chance again.'"

    Schlitz said it was also very therapeutic to travel back to the site of the attack on three separate occasions, eventually serving as a military mentor for wounded soldiers in theater.

    But for many returning vets, the pain and suffering is mostly psychological -- namely post-traumatic stress that leads to thoughts of suicide.

    Marine Staff Sgt Jeremiah Workman suffered from severe PTS after serving in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004. He received the Navy Cross for his valor -- after he ran repeatedly into the line of enemy fire to save Marines trapped by insurgents.

    "I would drink a case of beer at night to go to sleep," Workman said. "I was on no medication, seen no doctors. I just thought maybe this is normal."

    He said Marines are trained to bury the pain "and suck it up and carry on with mission." But Workman had continuous nightmares about the three Marines he lost in the firefight. His drinking became so bad he lost his dream job as a drill instructor. And after an attempted suicide, his father-in-law finally confronted him. Workman said when he went to pick up his father-in-law at the airport he couldn't fit his suitcase in the trunk because it was filled with empty beer and liquor bottles. That's when they had a talk that helped Workman get back onto his feet.

    Ironically, one of Workman's setbacks came when he was informed, two years after the incident, that he had been selected to receive the Navy Cross, the military's second highest award for valor.

    "Tears came down my face," Workman said.  "I thought to myself, 'I don't need this.  I don't want this.' I didn't know what to do."

    For a while, Workman refused to even wear the medal. He said it brought him back to a place he didn't want to remember. It wasn't until his senior Marine leaders told him he needed to wear the medal, telling him is was a license to tell the story of his fallen comrades. "So, that's what I did," Workman said.

    Staff Sgt. Erick Milllette, a U.S. Army combat patrol leader in Iraq, also suffers mental wounds. He survived nine direct hits by improvised explosive devices and is now an advocate for veterans overcoming PTS and traumatic brain injury.

    After the eighth hit on his convoy during his time in Iraq, he asked for help. He was essentially told to toughen up and get back in the humvee. After the ninth explosion, and seeing more friends die, things changed in a bad way.

    "On October second 2006 that ninth direct came," Millette said. "It shattered my world and I started to build a prison inside my mind right there on the side of the road in Iraq." Millette said he couldn't eat or sleep and would cry for no reason. He became angry and turned to alcohol.  "I self-medicated. I'd get up in the morning and drink a case of beer and a half bottle of liquor, then nap and try to do it all over again."

    Millette decided something had to change after he passed out from drinking with a loaded gun in his hand. "It's the only day I'll ever say I am happy I abused alcohol. Because I wasn't able to take my own life."

    Millette said after seeking help he was given an equally depressing cocktail of prescription pills.  "It was the same thing, just in a controlled environment," Millette said. Millette credits the nonprofit Wounded Warrior Project for saving his life. He said that during one of their sponsored retreats, a counselor helped him turn a corner.

    "Since last November, I haven't thought about suicide, and self medication is a thing of the past," Millette said. "It's gone."

    The Wounded Warrior Experience panel discussion was moderated by Fox News' Jennifer Griffin.