Tougher Than Titanium

“Katelyn, can you open your eyes for me? I need you to wiggle your toes.”

Opening my eyes had never been so hard in my entire life. I slightly wiggled my toes. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to know I could still move my legs. In that moment the feeling of relief that flushed through my entire body was enough to mask the excruciating pain that was running frantically up and down my spine. However, it wasn’t long before the pain returned.

It had been eight and a half hours since I was wheeled back into the operating room when I awoke. My clouded memory had me wondering what exactly happened after the anesthesiologist slid the needle of the IV into the top of my hand. It all seemed to happen so fast after saying my goodbyes to my mother, and I can remember that it was in that goodbye-moment when I had realized my life was about to change forever, and I wondered if I was strong enough for this. With a nurse on each side of my bed I was wheeled away. In my mind I was reminding myself, I can do this, after all this is god’s plan for me.

The room smelled sterile and the color blue seemed to be so prominent. It was the gloves, the gowns, and the paper that wrapped the tools used to operate. All of it was blue, and I realized that this had to be the operating room. As I lied there the IV continued to drip. Drifting off I vaguely remember the doctors instructing me, “Just relax, lay back and start counting back from 100.” The very last thing I remember was the reassurance of a happy ending in the warm smiles of everyone surrounding me.

I woke up in recovery with tired heavy eyes. In a weak and raspy voice I quietly asked the nurse checking my blood pressure, “Where’s my mom?”

The pain that overwhelmed my entire body made it difficult to speak. She answered, “She’s in the waiting room. We aren’t ready for her to come back yet.”

Being in such a helpless state, I really needed my mom. The nurses had lost all control of the pain and weren’t letting her come back until it was under control. With pain so extreme my body was being sent into shock. I was shaking in a way similar to someone with low blood sugar. Finding myself struggling to breath I was on the edge of giving up. I repeatedly asked for my mom. What felt like hours of lying in recovery drowning in the pain seemed to pass so slowly before my mom appeared through the strangely patterned baby blue and mint green privacy curtain that separated me from the patient staying in the room next to me. Following close behind was my surgeon, Dr. Farley. She immediately began asking questions. “What is going on?”

With nothing but blank stares coming from the nurses standing around my room, Dr. Farley began giving orders. Quickly the nurses did exactly what they were told. With one hand on my hip and the other on my shoulder, slowly and carefully, I was rolled onto my left side. I closed my eyes, my face cringed, and I let out a quiet painful groan. Lying limp in the white-sheeted twin-sized hospital bed, I couldn’t find the strength to assist in being rolled over.

The pain was excruciating, and I couldn’t breathe, but the helpless feeling that lifted from my heart when my surgeon had finally discovered the problem gave me hope. The epidural that was inserted directly into my back during surgery had formed a blood clot preventing the pain- lifting morphine from entering my body. I was given fair warning by Dr. Farley before the tubing was pulled out: “Take a deep breath and let it out slowly.”

As I exhaled the shallow breath, which I considered to be deep, I could feel the tubing slip out of my back. It felt very similar to the warm, smooth, yet slimy feeling of licking your lips. As I returned to lying flat on my back I helplessly pleaded, “Mommy please help me…”

I watched a tear roll down her face as she held tightly onto my hand and IV medication was finally being started. I was given what the nurses called a “drug cocktail,” slang for a few different medications that were mixed to knock the pain completely out. My mom still holding onto my hand gently ran her free hand across my sweaty forehead. With the drug cocktail and the morphine pump that I could give myself every 30 minutes by simply pressing a button, I once again, much like before surgery, drifted off.

I was at peace in a sleep so deep that I had my nurses worried. Finally, in my room, I could hear my nurse and mother standing over my bed talking to me. However, their voices seemed to blend together.

“Katelyn, can you hear me? I need you to open your eyes.”

“Honey, just look at me.”


I was trying so hard to open my eyes. They felt as if they were glued shut, and opening them seemed to be impossible. I fought and failed to get the words “I can’t” out. When I finally got them opened a crack I was told I needed to keep them open, but I couldn’t, and again they closed. I quit trying, it was too hard, I was too weak, and I really couldn’t do it anymore. For a split second I caught a blurred glimpse of the wall behind my mom. There were colorful cut-out butterflies – an image forever engraved in my memory. With my eyes closed in the midst of the darkness I could still see them. In my mind I questioned, why me? I felt so weak, yet relaxed and with the simple orders from my nurse to keep my eyes open repeated I finally mumbled, “I can’t.

I really can’t do this anymore.”

My body was no longer in shock. In fact, it was in such a state of peace that it didn’t feel the need to function. With my eyes still closed an oxygen mask was placed over my nose and mouth. Involuntarily, I didn’t want to breathe and my heart didn’t feel like beating. Down to six breaths and twenty-one beats a minute, my nurses were on a fine line of waiting it out or treating me for an overdose. They decided for me to wait it out. With all medication shut off and the oxygen mask on my face I went back to sleep.

The next morning I woke up a new person. I don’t know what happened, but my entire mindset changed. Maybe it was the fact that just lying there I felt my back flat against the bed for the first time in six years. There was no lump, no twist, and as I ran my hands down my body I felt no right rib or left hip prominence. The pain returned with a vengeance, and medications were turned back on, but one thing I knew for sure was that I had defeated scoliosis. With two rods, two hooks, and nineteen screws I considered what I had to be a brand new spine. A nice, stiff, straight, titanium spine, and I decided that I needed to take this on with a stronger mindset. It had still been less than twenty-four hours after surgery when I was asked by my nurses if I’d like to try sitting on the edge of my bed. After having an evening like I did the day prior, who was I to doubt myself? I listened closely as I was instructed on what to do: “Bring your left hand over here, grab the side rail and try to pull yourself up onto your side.”

The nurse had one hand on my shoulder and the other on my hip assisting me in rolling to my side. From there she explained, “While still hanging onto the side rail with your right hand, use your left to push yourself up.” Just like that I was sitting up. I hung my head and closed my eyes, but I was quickly instructed not to do so. The blackness had become my comfort zone. I lifted my head back up and opened my eyes. There on the wall in front of me were the butterflies. The view from my room was beautiful, the window seemed to take up half my room, and the sun felt so warm on my face. I sat there for a minute and remember thinking to myself, wow, I’m sitting up.

My nurse asked me, “How are you feeling?”

“Okay,” I answered.

After sitting there for a few more minutes I asked, “Can I walk?”

The look on her face said it all. “Would you like to try to?” I nodded my head, yes.

It took a moment of preparation to be able to stand. With my nurse’s hands around my waist I stood up. I watched as my mom’s hands covered her mouth in shock. She didn’t speak a word, but I could see the relief she felt through the excitement she showed. The heaviness that took over my body felt like I had a backpack on with every hard cover book I owned inside. I was wobbly, but my nurse loosened her grip she had on me. Once again she asked, “How are you feeling?”

I nodded my head reassuring her that I was okay.

“Would you still like to try and take a couple of steps?” she asked me.

I didn’t answer verbally. Instead I slightly and slowly lifted my right foot and put it in front of my left. Just like that I took my first step. I did the same with my left. I lifted it and placed it in front of my right foot. I heard my mom’s voice clearly for what felt like the first time since we had said our goodbyes going into surgery the morning prior. “K-Kate-Katelyn you’re walking… Are you okay? Oh my goodness, honey, you look amazing!”

I looked at her and smiled. She was already smiling. I couldn’t believe it; just the day before I was giving up on simply opening my eyes. I settled for I can’t and now today I was walking. It took that much, but just like that I learned to not doubt my strengths. I’m nowhere near the average person with a titanium spine, but when given a challenge I take it with a “bring it on” type of attitude. After all, “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:13).


Katelyn Treichel

Death Square

While deployed to Baghdad during 2006, the army had begun to utilize MPs in what had become known as “the year of the police.” A year of training continuity that was to be rigorous and detrimental to the development of Iraq’s brittle security forces. Routinely, we were tasked to train, support, and often supply local Iraqi police. Assisting them in whatever endeavors our higher-ups could concoct.

We were assigned several Iraqi police stations that were to be our designated “patrol zones” for the forthcoming year. During the beginning, we constantly and consistently strived to remain “Ever Vigilant,” remembering this motto from an excerpt of a speech our battalion commander had given during our pre-deployment ceremony. We were continuously alert, prepared and ready each time an ambush or an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) would ensue. But, as the deployment traipsed forward and the attacks began to increase, our motivation and morale became stagnant. We allowed ourselves to become complacent.

I recall actually thinking that it was nearly time to return to the FOB (Forward Operating Base) and remember looking forward to some downtime and maybe the possibility that I would get to call my daughter that evening. I hadn’t spoken with her in several days and had developed a severe pining just to hear her laugh. Contact with family at this point was sparse at best. It was the witching hour, as the guys in my squad liked to call it, the hour just before sunset when insurgent activity tended to spike. We had been dispatched on a routine call for body patrol, receiving a call to assist the Iraqi police in picking up a dead “haji” (our nickname for locals) that had been found in an area we called “Death Square.”

The area was well known not only to our squad, but throughout the entire battalion. Our squad had been hit with IEDs five times there alone in the last month. It was a quarter mile by quarter mile square block that held an abandoned TV station in the middle of an open field, and was surrounded by “mahallas,” the Iraqi word and our nickname for Baghdad neighborhoods. We knew it was bad news. Everyone was somber, our moods instantly changing. We entered the northeast side of the square and began to defensively position our trucks for egress in the chance that we would have to move to cover. The standard military police TTPs (Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures) that had been drilled into our brains since basic training were to dismount our up-armored hum-vees and conduct a 25-meter walking perimeter check around the vehicle after the gunner had stood up in his turret and conducted his 5-meter check for potential threats.

Before exiting the vehicle, I recalled an intelligence report from another patrol that morning that had suggested that the enemy was possibly rigging mopeds with IEDs, essentially turning them into vehicular improvised explosive devices, or what we refer to as VBIEDs. My gunner called the all-clear to exit the vehicle and I reached for the handle, shoving my shoulder into the five-hundred pound door. I stepped out, and almost into, what looked to be a crater from a former IED blast. I could see the Iraqi police and what appeared to be a dead, three hundred pound Iraqi, half rotted and bloating in three days of Iraqi sun right beside to them. My heart pounded as my first boot hit the sandy asphalt. Something wasn’t right.

My grasp tightened around the pistol grip on my rifle. I could see my friend, who also happened to be my roommate, begin to walk toward the IPs with my Platoon Sergeant. “At least someone’s going to help ‘em move the bastard,” I remember saying out loud. Sweat began to bead on my brow. It hadn’t been an exceptionally hot day, for Iraq at any rate. It was mid-October. Football season back home. My heartrate increased with each step I took away from the vehicle, away from safety. I knew something was about to happen. I hadn’t felt this way since my first mission outside the wire in 2004 when a sewage and waste truck we were escorting took an RPG to the driver’s cab.

My eyes darted back and forth, sweeping the ground, trying to cover every inch, every nook and cranny, anything that might seem out of place. I didn’t want to miss a thing. I knew it meant the difference between life and death. I had started to feel a little a more comfortable toward the end of my sweep. Just a couple more steps and I could return to my vehicle. Then I saw it. A ratted, old, rusty moped parked on the curb. My heart leapt. All that I could think of was that intel report. Sweat began to drip into my eyes; my hand gripped my weapon so hard it began to shake. I crept forward, looking for possible wires or anything resembling an explosive. I stepped onward, parallel with the moped. Nothing. I leaned a little closer, still nothing to be seen. An instant sigh of relief escaped my throat, the words “All Clear,” began to form on my lips. Then it hit. One of the loudest noises I still can ever recall hearing. My ears began to ring before I could even register what had created the noise. Imagine your head in Neil Pert’s kick drum at a Rush concert. Now imagine it louder. A white flash seemingly blinded my vision followed by an instant blast of heat. It felt as if I had put my face in an oven. I could smell my own hair burning as I looked up. A second enormous ball of flames was headed directly toward me. Usain Bolt would have been proud of how fast I turned and high-tailed away from what looked to be the sun being hurled in my direction. As I ran I could see my hum-vee in front of me, no more than twenty meters, yet it felt as if I had been running for an eternity. Each step felt as if my boots were filled with cement. It all felt surreal.

Everything moved in slow motion. As I ran, I began to feel debris strike me in the back of the helmet, my arms, legs and body armor. Ignoring it, I ran faster. As I reached the hum-vee, I instantly took cover behind it, meeting my truck commander almost simultaneously. His training had told him the same thing. Get to Cover. I instantly remembered the debris that had struck me from behind. “Pleeease don’t be shrapnel,” I remember thinking as I began to check myself for possible injuries. “No pain, no pain.” I uttered hurriedly.

I patted the back of my legs and brought my hands up to my face to make sure there was no blood, but as I brought them to eye level, my worst fears were confirmed.

They were enveloped in blood. My entire back was covered in it. “But I’m not in pain!” I recall thinking. And then I realized it wasn’t my blood.

Intel reports later informed us that the body had been lying on top of a one-five-five millimeter mortar round that had been placed by insurgents. But at that exact moment, I had completely forgotten about the haji body. I was convinced that it was my friend’s blood. I turned and ran again, this time in the direction of the blast. Adrenalin coursed through my veins and I matched each stride with a guttural growl, forcing my body to move faster. I hadn’t yet reached his vehicle when I saw him. His body had been thrown from the blast and beneath the hum-vee, leaving only his head and arms exposed in a pool of his own blood. I yelled his name. Nothing. “Gleeenn!” I screamed again.

Nothing. I quickly began to pull on his arms, praying for him to wake up. I could see other members of the squad running toward me in the distance with a stretcher. Every ounce of combat lifesaver training I had ever received raced through my mind. In training, they had taught us to methodically check a casualty step by step, ensuring that you missed nothing. There wasn’t time for that. There was so much blood. I had to find the source, if I wasted even a fraction of a second I knew he was going to bleed out.

I began to pat his legs, slowly pulling harder to remove him from beneath the vehicle. And then I found it, a gaping hole, in his left thigh. I immediately began to apply pressure with one hand, while fishing with the other through the small medical pack on my body armor, looking frantically for a tourniquet. “Come on man, come on!” I yelled as I threw everything out on to the ground. Another squad-mate began to apply pressure, freeing my hand, allowing for me to find and unwrap the tourniquet. I wrapped the tourniquet as tightly as I could and began to twist the windlass trying to cut off circulation. With each twist his leg began to shake, then slowly, the bleeding subsided. He started moaning in pain. “He’s okay! He’s making noise!” I screamed. I remember letting out the longest sigh of my life. All that I could do was grin as the Quick Reaction Force turned the corner in our direction to pick him up and take him to the Green Zone hospital. He was going to be fine.

Glen and I remain close friends to this day. He is out of the army and is currently a postman in a small town near the New Jersey shore. Although the awards we received from the events of that day will be placed in a box one day and put away in the attic, I know that whenever I look at them, it will remind me of why I fought. It will remind me of why I am thankful.


Paul Maxwell