Photo: US Department of Defense
As we celebrate Thanksgiving, NoVa Caps wanted to share the story of a true American Hero. We hope that this story resonates with all of you, as much as it did with us. We’d like to introduce you to Retired Staff Sgt. Michael Cain who was born in 1980 in Berlin, Wisconsin. Upon sitting down with Mike, he immediately told me that as a young boy there were two things he knew for sure, the first was that he loved hockey and the second was that he always wanted to be a soldier. It’s remarkable how these two passions, both deeply rooted as two of Mike’s earliest memories, have significantly defined this American Hero’s life.
I asked Mike who his favorite team was when he was young, thinking it would be the Minnesota North Stars, the Red Wings or perhaps the Blackhawks – but he surprised me when he told me that when he was about six or seven, he was watching a playoff game between the Boston Bruins and the Washington Capitals.
He said there was a player named Rod Langway who caught his attention, as Langway was really “giving it to” one of the Bruins’ players. Mike liked the competitiveness of Langway, and right then and there, the Washington Capitals became Mike’s favorite NHL team. Little did he know then what his future would hold.
In high school, Mike wanted to “do things his way“. And he never lost the desire to become an American soldier. He established a relationship with his high school’s Army recruiter and upon graduation, Mike enlisted in the Army. The year was 2000, and from a combat perspective, things were quiet…all that would change on September 11, 2001 when Mike was stationed with the 173rd Airborne in Italy. He was training in Germany on Tuesday, September 11th when he and those he was training with were told about the blindsided attack on the United States. While they prepared to be immediately deployed into the war zone, his division was not deployed. Mike was reassigned to Ft. Hood, Texas in April of 2003 and four months later was deployed to Tikrit, Iraq.
On August 9, 2003, then twenty-three years old, Mike was assigned to a 24 hour security surveillance detail. His job was to guard the base. The following day was supposed to be his day off, to rest after a long 24 hour shift. However, the squad was short-staffed and supplies were needed. Mike volunteered to travel to get the required supplies. He was seated as a passenger when a pair of buried landmines detonated underneath the vehicle he was in.
Mike remembers the explosion, and he very calmly spoke to me about it. He remembers the door and the window were blown off of the vehicle. When the medics arrived via a Blackhawk to medivac him to Baghdad, he told them: “My Mom is going to kill me” and then he said “Tell my family that I love them“. And then, Mike became unconscious.
In Baghdad where Mike was treated, his right leg was lost in the explosion – but he also sustained severe injuries to his left leg, his hip, jaw and thumb. His left leg was saved, at the time – however, it was amputated about 10 years afterwards due to severe nerve damage and chronic pain. Mike told me that if it was not for the extreme heat of the blast, which cauterized his blood vessels, he would have died at the scene of the explosion due to loss of blood.
The entire time Mike was in Baghdad, he was unconscious, and at some point he slipped into a coma. After he became stable enough to be transported, although still in a coma, he was taken to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland for recovery and rehabilitation. His flight plan to Bethesda would take him through Germany and there was a point in his transit where they didn’t think Mike was going to survive – but he did.
He awoke from the coma after approximately three week’s time. And upon waking, the nursing staff asked him if there was anything he wanted. Before asking them any questions, his response was: “I’d like a Big Mac, Large Fries and a Coke!“. And then he said, “I want my family“. And they were all there, by his bedside.
He told me his mom was bawling, and he could tell his stoic dad had been crying, as had all three of his sisters. It was his mother who told him what had happened to him since the time when he became unconscious. And then she told him about the loss of his right leg – and then, for the first time, he noticed that his leg wasn’t there. And Mike’s response to the trauma and the loss of his limb was “I am alive and my family is here, I’ll be okay“.
Mike’s response and reaction to what he had experienced is not the normal reaction – it really is anything but normal. The doctors and nurses at Walter Reed warned Mike that he was going to experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and it would likely come on strong, he would also probably become extremely depressed and thoughts of suicide would be likely – in fact, suicide was a significant possibility. Veterans who sustain injuries such as Mike’s are much more likely to commit suicide than those of the general population. To date, Mike has not had any experience with PTSD, has not contemplated suicide and has had minimal experience with depression. He has defied the odds.
During Mike’s rehabilitation at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Mike was introduced to the USA Warriors Sled Hockey program. If you are not familiar with the USA Warriors, they encourage individuals who have disabilities incurred during military services to the United States to participate in the sport of ice hockey in an environment that is adapted to the level of their ability. The USA Warriors’ programs consist of a standing team and a sled or “sledge” hockey team. For more information about the USA Warriors, you can visit their website by clicking here. Mike has been participating as a member of the USA Warriors since 2004, and he is currently participating on both teams!
Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to meet with Thomas Hirsch who is the Vice President of the USA Warriors Hockey Program. It took me no time at all to realize what a special person Thom is. Thom told me about the severe wounds of the players – and how PTSD is an invisible injury that most all of his players suffer from. And when I asked Thom what he was most proud of as it related to the USA Warrior programs, he said this: “That they are all still here“. He looked right into my eyes and said those words to me – and I just silently reflected on those words. I hear him saying those words in my mind, often.
The USA Warriors Hockey Program is a powerful program that is saving the lives of our wounded Veterans by providing them an on and off ice family who understand their needs in their long term recovery, both physically and mentally.
It is hard for me to appropriately describe in words what I felt when I spoke with Mike about his involvement with the USA Warriors. As you can sense, Mike is passionate about his immediate family – well, his teammates on the Warriors are now also a part of his family. Mike is deeply passionate about his teammates and about the Washington Capitals community, too. The Capitals community of players, coaches, staff – and fans, also support the Warriors. And let me tell you, their support means so much to the Warriors!
I asked Mike what his role was on the Warriors. And he quickly told me that it was to support, encourage and to motivate the players. He told me that someone once said to him: “How do you stay so positive with no legs?” and he said: “How do you stay so negative with real legs?“! He told me the Warriors are like a military unit. “We always have each others backs. We motivate each other – and we hang out often“. Mike told me that without question, he would not be as mentally strong if it wasn’t for the USA Warrior programs.
Donations are extremely important to the USA Warriors programs for the purchase of ice time, gear for new and current players and travel. Most importantly, properly funded programs amount to important physical and mental rehabilitation for men and women injured defending the United States. To find out more about donating to the USA Warriors, please click here.
Mike loves life. He is happy and excited about this future – he is overflowing with energy and positiveness. I asked Mike what else he’d like to accomplish in his lifetime. He told me: “Beckie, I’d like to change the world“! I asked him to elaborate and to tell me more. He went further and shared with me that he was bullied as a child, and then he said, actually – “I’ve been bullied my entire life“. He said he was a skinny and unattractive child. And he was sort of a “nerd” in that he just didn’t fit in. And his peers did not treat him well. He said it was an awful feeling. Mike said he wants to change someone’s life, most importantly the life of a child. He wants to put an end to bullying.
He then told me: “I am not handicapped, I am handicapable“.
After meeting with Mike, I fully agree – Mike is “handicapable” of whatever he puts his mind to!
In closing, as you celebrate Thanksgiving with your friends and family, please take a few minutes to give thanks to Mike and to those who are currently serving or who have served our country – and especially for those who paid the ultimate sacrifice. Our freedom is definitely something we should all be thankful for. Please also join NoVa Caps in wishing Mike a wonderful Thanksgiving and let’s all cheer him on – both on the ice with the Warriors and off the ice in reaching his goal of changing the world by eliminating bullying!
NoVa Caps would like to take this time to wish all of our followers a very Happy Thanksgiving. Each and everyday, we are very thankful for all of you. We are continually reminded of just how very special the Capitals’ community is.
By Beckie Reilly