Warrior Games 2013: Airman fights to overcome 'invisible wounds'

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Mareshah Haynes
  • Air Force News Service
By looking at him, you would never be able to tell he is a battle-tested, combat-injured Airman. He is a testament to invisible wounds and just how their effects can become visible in everyday life.

Capt. Mitchell Kieffer is a mathematician at heart and an operations research analyst at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va. The three-time Air Force triathlete and personal trainer was stationed at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., working at the Air Force Research Laboratory there when he got the opportunity he had been waiting for: a deployment.

He had volunteered to go into an engineering job at AFRL to increase his chances of deploying. He got his wish in 2010 and left for Iraq with a team from the Army Corps of Engineers.

"I was an Air Force guy in an Army uniform," Kieffer said. "I was attached to the Baghdad Resident Office, and I volunteered to be an operations officer for them. I planned and executed a lot of movements to the different project sites. We were there to build police stations, hospitals, telecommunications centers, tank facilities for their Army and all sorts of stuff."

Keiffer said for the most part, the deployment went smoothly. He had been there for five of the six months of his deployment and travelled outside the wire more than 40 times without incident. Typically, he and his team would use lightly armored SUVs when they traveled downtown and mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles on the outskirts of town.

But on this particular day, things were different.

"We were going to a place that was a one-way-in, one-way-out type of a place, so that's really not the best-case scenario," Kieffer said. "And this time instead of taking MRAPs, we were in the lightly armored SUVs because the MRAPs were in the shop that day."

Other factors that day would soon lead to a tragic chain of events. Kieffer said no close air support was available, and the team was going out later in the day than normal.

"Basically we got ambushed," he said. "The first out of the four vehicles got hit by a conventional (improvised explosive device). Our vehicle, the third vehicle, almost simultaneously got hit by an explosively formed penetrating IED ... that basically punches through anything.

"That went through our vehicle like butter about two feet in front of my forehead, and I was sitting on the blast side."

Three of the four vehicles in the convoy were hit. In addition to the explosively formed penetrator, the attackers sprayed the vehicles with automatic weapons fire and rocket-propelled grenades.

"I was knocked out for a few seconds. I can't really remember," Kieffer said. "Then I woke up inside (the vehicle) and the major, my boss, was next to me screaming, and I was just like, 'What the heck is going on here?' All of the lights and AC displays were dislodged. They were hanging by the wires. The entire inside was fragged with the copper fragments; the interior was all ripped; smoke was inside.

"I was like, 'OK, he's higher ranking than me,' so I basically just laid on top of him and let the contractors do what they needed to do to break contact to get out."

The British contractors subdued the attackers, and all four vehicles in the convoy made it back to the base. The team changed their flat tires and fixed whatever damages they could before making the two-hour drive back to base with three busted vehicles.

"It was an act of God that we all made it out, especially with our vehicle being fragged," Kieffer said. "Before I left, my cousin Chris gave me this four-way medal that St. Christopher is part of, and he's the guardian of travelers. That was the main reason for Chris to give me this, so I never took it off since the day he gave it to me. And I have yet to take it off, except when I have x-rays or when I wear my blues ... I feel like that had a great deal to do with me getting out alive."

Once they reached the base, each person on the team was examined by the doctors. It seemed everyone was fine -- until it was Kieffer's turn. He couldn't pass a preliminary traumatic brain injury test. He was sent to the hospital in Baghdad for doctors there to observe his condition.

"While I was there, things weren't getting better," Kieffer said. "I used to joke around with the British contractors, and we would make fun of each other and banter back and forth. I was so slow mentally, it felt like English was a second language because the processing speed was so slow. They would ask me how I'm doing and it would take a bunch of time to figure out what they said, to hear it, to break down the message, to figure out what they're trying to get across and how I would respond. That's a long time to say, 'I'm good.' So the bantering back and forth stopped."

Besides not being able to keep up with the quick-witted conversations with his comrades, Kieffer said he was worried he wouldn't be able to do the things he really enjoyed.

"I was pretty darn scared because I always felt like school was pretty easy," Kieffer said. "I was a math guy and I enjoyed intellectual kinds of things. It scared me quite a bit. It actually brought me to tears one time thinking I was going to be that slow forever."

Kieffer spent a week in the hospital in Baghdad and then returned to the United States to be treated. He said after a month he began healing but he still faced some huge challenges. His TBI not only affected his cognitive thinking skills: Physically, it left him to deal with excruciating headaches that nothing could soothe.

He tried to keep his injury under wraps but an upcoming assignment would put him to the test. Prior to being wounded, the Purple Heart recipient was accepted into the Air Force Institute of Technology 's engineering graduate school program. Just six months after returning home from his deployment, he was scheduled to start school.

"The first assignment I did there took me seven hours straight sitting at a computer," Kieffer said. "I had to get it done. I had to figure everything out, and it was so frustrating because I knew it shouldn't be (this hard). It was a probabilities and statistics course and this was stuff I had known for a long time and had mastered before."

As Kieffer pushed himself to keep up with his studies, he stumbled upon a treatment for his TBI.

"As time went on in the program, that seven hour assignment became five hours and then four hours," he said. "After a year and a half in school those assignments were taking an hour and a half, two hours tops. I think that has been my best therapy for improving my cognitive capabilities after the traumatic brain injury. It's been basically just doing mental workouts.

"I thank God that I was able to go that assignment because I don't know if I would've had the motivation to do all that learning on my own," he said.

He also used his time in school to research the issues he and other injured, ill and wounded Airmen were facing and used it as the subject of his thesis.

These days, Kieffer continues to exercise his mind and his body.

Since his injury, Kieffer married his wife, Ana Maria, and inherited two daughters, Ana Paula and Ana Cristina. The couple was married in his wife's native Peru and her family only speaks Spanish. Kieffer said learning to speak Spanish as part of a bilingual family is something that helps him keep his cognitive skills sharpened.

"I noticed that if I don't do anything intellectually, it'll start to fade again," he said. "That stuff goes if I have lack of sleep or high stress. Now it's just a point of coping with it."

Keiffer, who has scored 100 points on every active-duty physical training test he's taken, continues to work his physical muscles in his personal training business and as an athlete in the 2013 Warrior Games. He will represent the Air Force in the Ultimate Champion, a pentathlon-style event that pits warriors from each branch of service, including Special Operations Command, against each other for the title of Ultimate Champion.

No matter what the score cards say, the resiliency and gumption displayed by wounded warriors like Kieffer, pushing through their pain -- physically and mentally -- has already earned them the title of champion.