Army Sgt. Maj. Michael Van Engen untied his boot, and then took his sock off. His foot, which was hit by a bullet this past June, was swollen and purple. There was a big chunk of skin, in the shape of an oval, missing from the outside. Van Engen described his foot as a "consolidated clump of bones."
“The foot is very painful,” Van Engen said.
Van Engen, a career soldier, recently sat down with Channel 2 to talk about his injuries and describe his recovery.
Van Engen, a member of the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division based at Anchorage's Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, said an insurgent shot him from underneath a car in Afghanistan in June 2012.
“Bullets were everywhere,” Van Engen said. “The only thing I remember, really, is my foot up in the air and a big bloodstain on the inside of my foot.”
Van Engen was also hit in the arm. Even the equipment on his back was shot. He can no longer run and he walks flatfooted.
According to Van Engen, a physician’s assistant will decide if he’ll have to go before a medical board in a few weeks, which will decide if he can continue his career in the Army.
“It’s not that it scares me,” Van Engen said. “It’s somewhat stressful. I’ve spent two and a half decades in the Army without being hurt, and now that I am hurt I can’t do a lot of things the younger soldiers can do. It does make me feel guilty. Makes me sleep a little different, I think.”
The 4/25 says 140 of its soldiers were injured in June 2012 during the unit's deployment to Afghanistan. While most returned to their jobs that same day, 16 had further treatment.
Eight soldiers within the brigade were killed.
Van Engen, and countless other soldiers, now try to recover from a long war that has taken a toll on their bodies. They’ve carried huge packs on their backs that weigh from 70 to 100 pounds, they’ve been shot at and hit by shrapnel, and had brain injuries from being near explosions.
Many, like Van Engen, meet weekly with Capt. Rachel Odom -- the only physical therapist attached to the 3,500 members of the 4/25.
“For the most part, I find my job rewarding,” Odom said.
She pushes and pulls on Van Engen’s toes and foot for about 20 minutes during his weekly physical therapy apppointment. He doesn’t flinch, but, when asked, he says it does hurt. Odom also has Van Engen practice a series of stretch and balances exercises at home.
Odom told Van Engen he’s making small progress, but that his recovery isn’t as far along as she’d hoped.
“But he’s a pretty determined man,” Odom said. “I certainly don’t think I want to put those limits on him.”
Contact Rebecca Palsha