Our modern veteran – leaving the battleground doesn’t always mean an end to the battle

 

Standing on the platform of a 34 foot tower he adjusts his harness, creeps toward the edge, and thinks, “What in the hell have I gotten myself into?” There are still two trainees in front of him so there’s some time to make last minute checks. Carabiner secure? Check. Attached to the overhead cable? Check.

 

Only one in front now and it’s not the screams of the grown men before him that elicit terror, it’s the logic in his mind. “This cable will actually hold me? I’m not the lightest guy here… I’m not the heaviest either so we should be good. Maybe the cable’s been worn down by all the guys before me? Is my harness secure?…”

 

Private First Class (PFC) Drew Mullee is 2 days into US Army Airborne School and he’s sufficiently out of his element as he toes the edge of the platform. He’s not an experienced sky-diver, at this point he’s made a grand total of 0 jumps…

 

No, he chose Airborne with the promise of increased combat action and if nothing else, a little excitement.

 

“…Idiot,” is the thought running through his mind as his sweat-soaked hand releases the handle, pride overcomes him, and he leaps forward.

 

Little did he know, learning to be a soldier and all the training in the world wouldn’t prepare him for the challenge of his life…

 


 

A military history in the family

 

The only son of a Vietnam War Veteran, William Andrew (Drew) Mullee, felt a calling to enlist early in life. With Drew’s father, a cousin, an uncle,… His family tree had military blood coursing through his veins. In spite of the history, he wasn’t pushed to join – the Mullee’s would much rather have had their only child be a professional athlete, finish college, or run the family appliance business.

 

As you’ll come to see though, when Drew has his mind made up, he’s not one to waiver in belief.

 

Drew relayed his thought process, “The country was at war and this was a real job. A job that should be done. There was no reason not to [enlist].”

 

In July of 2007 he committed to serving his country.
 

 

Enlisted man
 

 

“In the Army, things always seem worse when you’re doing them. After the fact it’s like, ‘that wasn’t too bad,’” was his description of boot camp and Advanced Individual Training (AIT). Mr. Even Keel has a way of not getting too high or too low.

 

“I tried to keep my push-up count around 1000/week to stay under the radar.” If there wasn’t something you messed up, Drew told me the NCOs (the sergeants – bosses) would get a bit creative (they’d create a problem). He figured that being Joe Average was the best approach. That way NCOs didn’t target him for either dogging it or trying to show off. “[NCOs} had a way of ‘rewarding’ those types.”
 

 

After AIT we find ourselves back up on the training platform at Airborne School. Day 3 (described in the introduction) had Drew attached to a zip-line 34’ in the air looking through a fake airplane door with a group of fellow trainees at the bottom waiting to, “Break his fall.” What could go wrong here?

 

The government can be known for its glacial pace in dealing with certain matters – Airborne School is apparently not one of those traditional matters.

 

Those that passed the 34’ ‘baby’ jump graduated to a 250 foot platform on week 2. This time we subtract the zip-line and arms-wide-open buddies, and add an inflated parachute with an exponential increase in anxiety. You’re asked for your last name and the last 4 of your ID number right before you jump. Drew gave ‘Mullee’ then jumbled his last 4. “Good thing they didn’t know my number… At least I got my name right.”

 

Week 3 is the real-deal. It’s jump week. This time it’s from a plane at 1200 feet.

 

I asked Drew if he was nervous. “…Hell yes I was. Once you’re on that plane though, the decision is already made. You’re jumping one way or another. Either you jump voluntarily or you refuse, get a ‘failure to jump’ (too many of which fail you out of Airborne School), and get a boot [that propels you out the door via your rear].” He found the courage, no boot required.

 

The future Mrs. Drew

 

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Over the next several weeks, Drew completed Airborne School, began living Army life, and received orders to station in Germany for what would amount to the next 3 years.

 

That wasn’t the only thing going on in his life though… There was this girl… and her presence in his life was one of those things he had decided on early. Luckily for the story, and for things that come later on, the feelings were mutual.

 

Jennifer had been in Drew’s life for a few years but when the orders came down to station in Germany, the two were left with a choice – keep it casual and see how things go, or start their life together.

 

With only a few weeks left before crossing the Atlantic, he asked and Jenn said, “Yes!”

 

The two told family members on a Friday and were married the following Wednesday – August 20, 2008. Hey, when you know, you know.

 

The parents were a bit surprised at the speed of the process but as we’ll come to find later, the two are perfect together.
 

 

Stationed in Germany

 

We’re not in Airborne School anymore, so back to the glacial pace of government…

 

After the wedding, the newlyweds had about 10 days to get things in order before Drew left for Germany. Short notice aside, it took until the middle of October (2008) for Jenn to get cleared to join him in country.

 

In the honeymoon period, spending a workday apart can be agonizing, multiply that by 2 months and things can get a bit ridiculous. Thanks to Al Gore (sarcasm) the two were able to communicate face to face and before too long our couple was reunited and actually able to settle into life in country.

 

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Life went well in Germany. About 11 months in country, Drew was promoted from E3 (Private First Class) to E4 (Specialist). Add that to the fact that the couple would take weekends exploring Europe or getting around their local town and it equated to a pretty nice year.

 

Pretty soon though, the honeymoon would have to be put on pause.

 

Deployment I (October 2009-November 2010)

 

Close to a year after stationing in Germany, Drew and his battalion received orders to prepare for deployment. In October 2009 they left the family and life they knew behind to go to war.

 

It wasn’t exactly what Drew had pictured. “I was pretty ignorant to it all. I had watched too many Mel Gibson movies and thought I knew what to expect, but that wasn’t the case. In the end it was great to stay liquid (flexible).”

 

There are some obvious downsides to life at war, but let’s start with some positives.

 

For about 18 months now Drew had been living military life and in his words, “If you don’t know how to do something just pretend you do and figure it out as you go.” One of those things was understanding the huge number of acronyms thrown at you. You know, ASAP (as soon as possible), ETA (estimated time of arrival), and the like. Those are pretty straight forward, but if not explained to you up front, some others can take a while to register.

 

“I’m reading these briefs and reports daily, and if it’s a 500 word report I would see ‘ATT’ at least 20 times. I had no clue what they meant.”

 

Shortly into deployment he heard someone break character and utter the actual phrase, “At this time (ATT),” and it was an enlightening experience.

 

“It was like I could see the world through a better lens. Everything made sense!”

 

Another great thing about being deployed: “I was in the best shape of my life. We were in northeastern Afghanistan, in the mountains, and carrying 40-100 pounds of gear on patrol will get you in solid shape.”

 

He did note a few downsides…

 

“I had a rocket fly directly over my head twice. When that happens, all you hear is a whistle then a loud bang. You check yourself, change your pants, and go on about your day.”

 

At that time in northeastern Afghanistan there was a lot of indirect fire. Meaning, the Taliban would shoot over mountains, fire while hiding behind rocks, and attack in other ways when they could not be seen by our military. This method was not highly effective, but it did lend to the constant threat of attack.

 

His Combat Outpost (COP) was continually attacked with mortar rounds. “They never hit the COP. We did have one hit the outer wall once, but that was it. Whenever a [mortar] round would come close, we’d have to go play cops and robbers.”

 

This led to the discovery of Drew’s other favorite acronym – the POO site (not what you think).

 

Based on crater shape and direction at the Point of Impact (POI) our soldiers are able to determine the Point of Origin (POO site) to within about 1 kilometer. A patrol would then travel to this town of about 50 or so people and begin knocking on doors.

 

I imagine the conversation went something like, “Hey guys, any idea who shot this big rocket at our base?”

 

“No sir. No idea.”

 

Drew confirmed my suspicion but with a bit more colorful language.

 

“It was ridiculous because we knew this mortar came from this town. The rocket would be pretty huge and very loud, and nobody saw or heard anything??? I don’t think so.”

 

There were too many possibilities, and without a cooperative witness there wasn’t much that could be done.

 

The Taliban could have shot from a truck or drove into town and set a delayed fuse then fled. They could have bribed the townspeople. They could’ve been townspeople. Maybe they threatened to kill someone’s family?

 

In any case, this was a generality of the first deployment.

 

There were some tense moments throughout his time in Afghanistan, but on 1 November 2010 the battalion had completed its deployment and were headed ‘home’ (back to Germany).

 

There was this other thing too… It happened on the plane flying home. Drew had applied for promotion to sergeant (E5) during the end of his deployment. He went in front of the promotion board, which is basically a group of higher ranking individuals that fire questions and statements at you to determine whether or not you are fit to lead.

 

He was deemed fit to lead, completed the remaining requirements, and on the plane flying home received word he will be promoted to Seargent. Nothing bitter about this sweet day. Flying back to see his wife, survived deployment, and newly promoted. No doubt a high point in life.

 

Return “home” (November 2010)

 

Drew and Jen spent the next 10 months in Germany then were headed for a change of scenery, they were newly stationed back in the states – Seattle.

 

I asked him how this compared to their first post in Germany. “I wasn’t an ignorant private anymore. This time I had a better idea of what to expect with the day-to-day of being a soldier not on deployment.”

 

For one, there wasn’t a whole lot of excitement on the domestic base. “Every once in a while we’d get to go to the range and shoot, but most often we had just regular jobs to do. I don’t know about you but there’s only so much inventory I can do.” You mean, compared to carrying a rifle, going on patrols, hiking in the mountains, and searching for the enemy – inventory and layouts doesn’t stack up??? Alright, I see what he means.

 

There were definite perks to being back in the states – the two were able to have a somewhat ‘normal’ life. Football games were back on the TV in the fall and the simple things we sometimes take for granted that aren’t available in Germany were back in play in Seattle. Domestic flights to see family members, burgers and fries, and not having to use converters for powering electronics were just a few benefits.

 

You looking for another perk? Well, the two were ecstatic to hear this news: Jenn was pregnant and the two were expecting a child!

 

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As things typically go in the military, a change was on the horizon. Shortly after the news of baby Mullee, and toward the end of 2011, Drew had orders that deployment II was coming somewhere in early-to-mid 2012. It was what he signed up to do so sergeant Drew Mullee went back to work.

 

The battalion began preparation for deployment and the culmination of this was a pre-deployment training at Fort Irwin California (November 2011). Drew recalled things were a bit hypocritical. “Our leaders would always tell us, ‘train like you’ll fight,’ but then we’d not be able to use ammo or practice the actual tactics we would do in the field because they were too dangerous.”

 

The whole thing seemed a bit off from the start.

 

The group was preparing for war so I imagine those in charge were toeing the line between protecting their soldiers during training and preparing them for battle in Afghanistan. I’ve never walked that line so I don’t know for sure but I would imagine that to be a difficult task.

 

Drew remembered some terrible news that happened toward the end of training. “We had 1 casualty during this training. A vehicle roll-over on an E7. He was a well respected guy and a guy that trained me. It was terrible. You never expect to lose someone during training.”

 

The group was expectedly shaken.

 

Pre-deployment training was scheduled to go through the end of November but the commanders called an end a few days early. They sent the soldiers home just in time for Thanksgiving. Maybe they knew the difficult challenge ahead, thought the group could use a lift, or they had completed all their intentions, but in any case the group was grateful. Spending those holidays with their families was a hard-earned and much appreciated change of plans. Especially so because they knew what was coming in the near future.

 

In January of 2012 they received orders to deploy in April.

 

Deployment II

 

For Drew, this one was completely different from the start. First off, there was the extra someone to leave behind. The couple was expecting their first child in October and saying goodbye to his pregnant wife was understandably more difficult than it was the first time. On the plus side, deployment was scheduled to end about a month after the presumed due date so Drew expected to be home without missing too much of the excitement.

 

Another difference was geography. Drew’s first deployment had him stationed in NE Afghanistan in the mountains, with a more mild and variable climate. This time they were headed to the south where the conditions were desert-like and not so variable.
When the group first arrived they landed in the heart of poppy season. Drew explained, “We would see groups of people moving around the towns that had been employed by the Taliban – during other times of the year the place would be a ghost town. Poppy season lasted about 3 weeks and was critical to financing Taliban operations for the rest of the year.”

 

The Taliban would employ civilians to pick the poppy and then turn-around and sell it as heroin to finance weapons, ammunitions, or Improvised Explosive Device (IED) parts for a large part of the year.

 

“The place was busy with people all over, but as soon as those 3 weeks were up we knew it was game on. Things changed quick.”

 

Because of the change in climate and conditions from the first deployment to the second, the enemy behaviors and attacks were also different. In the northeast, Taliban could shoot from behind rocks or mountains (with little success) but still be closer to our soldiers. Drew remembered, “We would sit there and watch 1 guy hiding behind a rock stick an AK (semi-automatic rifle) over his head backwards and fire a clip or two, throw his gun, and run away. Carrying 40-100 pounds of gear up into the mountains there was no way we were catching him, but our helicopters would follow him a ways and then take him out.”

 

In the south, Taliban forces would hardly ever engage our military directly due to our overwhelming advantage of force, size, and abilities out in the open. Instead they used a large number of IEDs accompanied by other methods of indirect fire. This lead to a different kind of danger. One you didn’t see coming or know where it may be hiding…

 

Another difference Drew mentioned, “This was Kandahar, the home of the Taliban.”

 

Mother’s Day 2012

 

May 12, 2012, the day before Mother’s Day was a day that changed the Mullee’s life in an instant…

 

As an E5, sergeant, Drew was a team leader. Typically his team consisted of 4 or 5 guys. 2 teams made a squad.

 

On this day the squad’s mission was to travel to known IED possible areas and sweep them for IED presence. This task would safely clear the way for later missions or convoys. To do this, Drew’s team was equipped with a, “Mine hound. It was basically a metal detector that could detect IED parts buried underground.”

 

To complete the collective mission, Drew’s team had a few guys pulled from it. One was a branded marksman and was sent for overwatch – which is to cover the group from potentially advancing enemy forces. Two more were pulled for a different aspect of the mission which left Drew and one other team member, Gary.

 

Drew explained that Gary’s role was a vital one. “He was our machine gunner. He carried our SAW (Squad Automatic Weapon – a small caliber machine gun) which is a weapon that needs to be operational in a firefight. So you wouldn’t want him leading a patrol because if the machine gun goes down that is critical time without suppressive fire in a fight.” This would be a huge disadvantage.

 

Drew continued, “I let Gary lead until we got to the target area. Then I ran up to him, advised of the situation, and told him I would be taking the mine-hound. It was the leader thing to do. I posted him on a corner that could cover me from most directions and told him ‘if I go down you’d better be shooting.’”

 

It wasn’t long before things started happening quickly.

 

“As soon as I stepped I knew exactly what had happened. I saw the IED and then I was thrown up in the air. When I hit the ground I was knocked out for 10-15 seconds but I fought hard to combat the disorientation. My legs felt like they were on fire.”

 

The first guy to him was his squad leader who Drew said was visibly shaken. “Every guy has their own medical supplies on their right shoulder. In combat, if you’re treating someone else’s wounds you use their medical supplies so that if you go down later people will have something to treat you with. This guy looks at me and his eyes are about to pop out of his head. He said, “Where’s your med bag man?” I laughed and told him, “On my shoulder you [idiot], same as you.””

 

Drew said things happened quickly from there. Those closest to him were treating his wounds and applying tourniquets. Others were in the vehicle calling for a Medevac (Medical Evacuation). They found out the Medevac was landing on their COP soon which was just a few kilometers away, so once they had Drew stable they put him on a litter (similar to a stretcher) and into the back of the vehicle for transport.

 

Once in the COP they had Drew on the helicopter and toward the surgeons in country to begin assessing the damage and treating the wounds. Drew remembered a few conversations with the helicopter crew chief. “I had a hole in my left hand close to my ring finger. I didn’t know what they were going to do for surgery so I was trying to get my ring off and the Crew Chief must have saw this. He asked me if I wanted him to take my ring. I told him thanks man.”

 

It took a few months but eventually the Crew Chief got this back to the family.

 

Secondly, “I remember him asking me to move my left foot. I did and he said, ‘good.’ That’s when I knew something was missing – he didn’t ask about my right foot.”

 


 

Although travel and treatment happened with great efficiency, it took some time. Add that to the time-difference (Afghanistan is ahead of US time zones by multiple hours) and we are well into Mother’s Day in the states.

 

I’ll interject myself into this story just to give you a different perspective for a moment. For reference, Drew and I go way back – like since we were 2 years-old back.

 

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It was Mother’s Day 2012 and I get a phone call from Jenn. As soon as I answered I knew it wasn’t good. She was balling and found it hard to speak. Eventually she said, “Mike… Drew was injured in an IED in Afghanistan. He’s in Germany now and I have no idea what’s going on. I don’t know if he’s going to be OK, I don’t know anything…”

 

It was beyond words terrible and definitely no phone call any mother should have to take – let alone on Mother’s Day. We didn’t know if he was going to make it through and that thought was terrifying.

 

We found out later that Drew was treated in country and then flown to the military hospital in Germany for many surgeries. He stayed there for 2 days and was then flown to Andrew’s Airforce Base and driven to Walter-Reed Hospital. His family was able to meet him there.

 

Recovery

 

The road wasn’t short or easy but Drew did make it through. He was an inpatient at Walter-Reed for 6 weeks and an outpatient for 18 months where he had countless surgeries to treat numerous injuries. He lost his right leg above the knee, suffered significant and almost irreparable damage to his left leg, blew out ear drums, had holes in his body, and still considers himself lucky. “Some of these guys lose both legs and both arms… And some don’t make it through. I got lucky.”

 

Seeing him at the hospital 2 weeks after the IED was like seeing a shell of himself. There were bandages and tubes everywhere and who knows how much pain medicine was running through his body? He did have support. His parents, her parents, friends, and other relatives would rotate in to wish him well and check on his progress.

 

He also had motivation. “Jenn was pregnant and due in October and there was no way I wasn’t going to be walking by that time. I was going to get a prosthetic and make sure that happened. I wanted to be able to do something to help her out with the baby.

 

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Drew kept his promise and worked his butt off. “I beat that goal by about 2 months.” What else would you expect? He had set his mind to it and failure was not an option – there was a baby on the way.

 

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Their baby, Easton Mullee, was born October 6, 2012.
 

 

Life after war

 

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If there’s one thing I’ve seen through this it’s that our country has a great support system for our wounded veterans. Many non-profit groups and private citizens band together to get these guys the care they need and sometimes to some events they’d love to attend. I asked Drew if there were an event or day he loved most that he wouldn’t have been able to be a part of before the bomb.

 

He responded, “For me, it’s not about saying ‘I’ve been to this stadium or that concert,’ that’s selfish and not what it’s about… There is one event that sticks out though.”

 

“…We were asked to attend a Thursday Night Football game at Gillette Stadium (home of the New England Patriots – which is close to Boston) with some of the Boston Marathon bombing victims. We got to meet them before hand, talk, and then watch the game together. That was amazing.”

 

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Drew continued, “Like it or not we signed up to join the Army and to fight, and we knew this [injury] was a possibility. You shouldn’t expect while running a marathon in one of the safest countries in the world to be injured in a bombing – that was terrible.”

 

He loves the opportunities to talk with amputees from non war-related incidents to share his story and the fact that it can all be okay again.

 

Drew’s been called a hero, I’ve seen it happen. To that he responds, “I’m no hero, I’m just a guy that got blown up at work. It could’ve happened to any one of us but it happened to me, and I’m grateful to have survived.”
I'm no hero, I'm just a guy that got blown up at work. Click To Tweet

 

Well, he’s a hero to us. To Drew and to the other servicemen and women – thank you for your service.

 

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– Mike
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