Mitchell Kieffer, a retired captain for the U.S. Army, almost lost his life after being ambushed while deployed in Iraq. The 31-year-old was awarded a Purple Heart as a result of his injuries, which included seven broken vertebrae and a traumatic brain injury resulting in post-traumatic stress disorder. The four-time All Air Force Triathlon team member and two-time Ultimate Champion at the Warrior Games will be participating in cycling and track and field for the U.S. at the 2016 Invictus Games.
While active in the Army, why were you so eager to be deployed and put yourself in harm's way?
Kieffer: I feel like honor had a lot to do with my personality: Being able to push past barriers or just work harder than others. It's just something I found to be almost spiritual to me. I felt very proud of myself for doing things like that. At the same time, I'm a little bit of an adrenaline junkie. I ran with the bulls back in 2013 after I had already been wounded. I've done plenty of other things that are questionable, but I also feel like it's kind of our duty; if you're in the position to protect others, then you should. I felt like I could, and I wanted to do my part. America has a ton of blessings that it gives us -- and I wanted to earn it.
Take me through your experience of how you were wounded in combat.
Kieffer: It rocks your world, especially in the military; you're so driven, you know what path you're on. You know if you want to make the next rank, what kind of job you need to get, what type of performance you need to have on your report and you know where you want to go. It's an easy hierarchal system. So when something like that, being wounded, plays with that, you start to second guess what path you're supposed to be on and the path you were on before. For me, I had already earned a prestigious spot to have my next assignment be a master's degree in operations research analysis, which is all applied mathematics and computer programming and stuff like that. And so for me, it was really the first time I was scared of the future. Usually, I would just say I'm gonna kick ass type of thing no matter what it is that's in front of me, but when I was in my Forrest Gump stage, which lasted a good year, I couldn't comprehend or banter back and forth with people jokingly or just carry on conversations. It was almost like English was a second language: My brain just didn't process it. Then I had pain in my spine from the seven broken vertebrae, so it felt like I'd lost my purpose and I didn't know where to go.
What exactly happened on that day?
Kieffer: We were visiting a project site about three hours east of Baghdad and usually we go there by helicopter, but there were no flights that day. If we don't go by helo, then we go on the big MRAPs, armor plated [vehicles]; they can handle quite a bit. That site had been a little bit hot in the past. [The MRAPs] were in the shop that day though too. So we were left with these lightly armored SUVs that can basically only handle a round of bullets. On weather hold, we waited and waited and waited, and finally we were about five minutes away from calling off the mission and the weather hold came off. So we went.
On the way back, [the insurgents] set up a complex attack. The first out of four vehicles was hit by conventional IED. Our vehicle, the third one, got hit by an explosive formed penetrating IED, so it basically entered the left side of the vehicle and traveled through and splattered inside. Luckily, I didn't get any fragments in the body, but that's what broke the seven vertebrae and gave me a traumatic brain injury. I was knocked unconscious for a short time. My boss next to me had gotten a fragment wound on his leg.
After I woke up, there was smoke and all sorts of stuff inside. All of the lights were dislodged and hanging by their wires. Upholstery was ripped apart everywhere, and I tried to think of what I should do at this point. I was in la-la land. I didn't really know what was going on. I was kind of wondering if this was real. So I just kind of pushed my boss down to keep him safe as much as possible.
Watching out the front of the vehicle, we were getting shot by RPGs right off the side of the road, and if those would've hit us, then it would've been game over. After the RPGs were done, they had about 10 guys with AK-47s just spraying all the vehicles with bullets. So they had a fast-break layup, and they bricked it -- is really what happened. It's the best analogy I could say, because none of us should've made it back. But divine intervention, I believe, is what brought us out of it.
How did that experience affect your mindset moving forward?
Kieffer: That really speaks to a book that I just started to read; it's all about essentialism. So when times get tough, it's best to concentrate on those few important things that matter and go full bore and do them. And that's really what I did in my recovery without consciously knowing it. So being wounded -- or being reminded of the fact that there's more important things in life than some other things, is what it did. It made me realize that a lot of the nonessentials I was worrying about really didn't matter. It helped to simplify life.
For the Invictus Games, what's your favorite event?
Kieffer: I love cycling. It's my forte, especially in triathlon. The bike was always my best leg. And probably because I used to squat 500 ponds back in high school when I played football. I liked the sensation you'd get from making your quads burn. It's almost like what I tell all of my personal-training clients, which I do as a hobby: Embrace pain like a lover. I love to push myself past where I thought I could go before, and I think that carries over in a lot of other areas of your life. When you're having difficult times at work, you're gonna not be so easy to give in and give up or let it bog you down. You're going to find a way around it.
Is there anything from your experience in the military, any lessons you learned, that translate to competition?
Kieffer: In the military they say, 'Embrace the suck.' Sometimes you just have to embrace that it's not gonna be that fun. That you're going to do things that you don't want to do. You're going to do difficult things. So just to embrace those, instead of letting them become obstacles that are in your way.
What goes into your preparation for the Invictus Games?
Kieffer: Unfortunately, I didn't start training due to some medical things until about four months prior; usually it's six months out. But training on a weekly basis now consists of about four bikes, four runs a couple days. I'll do two-a-days. Some other days, I'll take a rest day. It can be anywhere from 45 minutes to two to three hours. I'm a contractor, still, for the military, so my job can take precedence. I've been left with trying to work out either early morning or late at night.
When did you realize that participating in athletic competition would be something you'd be interested in and able to succeed in at a high level?
Kieffer: When you have something happen to you that rocks your boat, you start to look at what was normal before and try to figure out what's going to be normal now. What you're doing is, you're finding your new normal, and for me, it was still pretty similar; because I knew that I loved the pride I felt in my own effort, knowing if I could bring myself to throw up in a workout, I was proud of that. Finding that they allowed us to participate adaptively, that was a big help. It was the fact that I wanted to continue doing sports and competing. I race to train. I love training, while others train to race because they just love competition. It gave me the ability to have those goals again.
What does it mean for you to represent your country in the Invictus Games?
Kieffer: I love these types of competitions because others get to live vicariously through you, as well as get inspired by you. So I'm getting inspired all the time by the athletes I see around me. My teammates, my competitors -- it helps me come back to that essentialism point of view when I'm starting to complain about things that really don't matter. So that's what excites me about the Invictus Games, getting that jogged memory again and really trying to inspire others that are going through difficult times. Just because you get out of the military doesn't mean that you still can't protect or stop serving. Philanthropy is a pretty big part of my life, and I consider this as another way to give back.
Any final words?
Kieffer: Two things that are really important to me: Obviously, I don't have an injury you can see, but for me, the internal battle of all the nerve pain and the daily sitting in a chair being a difficult thing, it wears on you. And a lot of people just don't understand, especially for someone that's in shape. They still see you and it's difficult for them to give you the benefit of the doubt that what you're saying is true -- for others not to judge so quickly. Then for those that have a brain injury -- whether it's from a car accident, military or football -- the best thing they can do are just natural remedies. I've tried plenty of pharmaceuticals and therapy techniques that didn't work at all. It was basically putting my own mind through the ringer by learning. And another aspect of it was getting a nonprofit to sponsor me for hyperbaric oxygen therapy. It was tremendous what both of those two things did for my recovery. So it's best for people to really get back to the basics, instead of letting them go down the path of meds that'll most likely lead them into worse trouble.
A senior researcher for ESPN the Magazine, Max Tyler has a particular interest in college football, although he has contributed to the coverage of a variety of sports in his almost two years with ESPN.