JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON — By helping his fellow soldiers heal their war wounds, Army Master Sergeant Marcus McClain is learning to deal with his own.
“I have a new mission now,” said McClain, a soft-spoken 36-year-old Indiana native whose calm, thoughtful demeanor contrasts with his job as a sergeant in an infantry brigade.
After getting shot in Afghanistan, the combat engineer spent six months at a military hospital in Germany, where he underwent the transformation from a “10-foot tall and bulletproof” paratrooper into someone with a new appreciation for the daily battles fought far from the front lines of war.
“It was a very enlightening experience, something I’ve never experienced before that has opened my eyes to the fact there’s a whole different portion to combat,” said McClain, who has been deployed three times to Afghanistan, once to Iraq and twice to the Balkans.
Through a unique workout program called CrossFit, McClain began working with other wounded soldiers, using exercise to help them through the difficult process of mending broken bodies and minds.
“I think there’s a reason for everything and that God has a plan,” he said. “This has given me an opportunity to impact soldiers’ lives in a different way.”
McClain’s story begins on June 1, 2012, when insurgents in eastern Afghanistan attacked Forward Operating Base Salerno with a massive truck bomb detonated at the base’s perimeter. Sitting in his company headquarters, McClain was jolted by the explosion less than 1,000 meters away.
“We felt the shockwave from the blast, it knocked things off the wall,” said McClain, a member of the 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division.
McClain and Sgt. Fernando Alvarez-Lopez, a medic, hopped in McClain’s pick-up truck and headed for the action. They first arrived at the dining hall, which they found heavily damaged by the explosion. Alvarez and McClain loading injured soldiers into the back of the truck and hauling them to an aid station.
“We just started throwing folks in the pick-up, trying to find a safe route to the aid station, he said.
After two trips shuttling injured soldiers, the men decided to take a different route toward the fighting. As they neared the airstrip under attack, McClain and Alvarez encountered an insurgent firing from behind a container. Alvarez shot the attacker, who then exploded.
“We saw body parts flying over the truck,” McClain recalled. “We were like, ‘That’s a little closer than we wanted to be to a suicide bomber.’”
The two men jumped back in the truck, and McClain drove to pick up more injured soldiers. Somewhere along the route, he got shot in his left hand— though he never felt the bullet.
“Sergeant Alvarez came to my side of the truck and was like, ‘First Sergeant I think you’re shot,’” McClain said. “I said, ‘I think I am, too.’”
McClain drove back to the aid station, where he dropped off the injured — which now included himself. He said he nearly passed out from the pain in his hand.
“I think the shock wore off,” he said.
McClain underwent a pair of surgeries in Afghanistan before being transferred to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany to continue his recovery. That’s where his perspective began to change.
“I’d always been the guy downrange putting the kids on the helicopter, but I never really knew what that meant, never knew what that entailed until I went through the whole process and then was at Landstuhl seeing the kids come in every day from Afghanistan and realizing the toll that has on our health care providers and our psychiatrists and those soldiers,” he said. “We don’t always understand the folks back at the hospitals and what the war’s impact is on them and their families.”
Although his injury was less severe than many at the hospital, McClain said he began having his own issues with depression. Being away from the front lines, he said, is a big challenge for soldiers trained to fight shoulder-to-shoulder with their companions.
“It was some of the most challenging times I’ve had in my career,” said McClain, who joined the Army when he was 20-years-old.
After he arrived in Germany, McClain’s two sons came to visit him in the hospital.
The youngest — an 11-year-old — couldn’t take his eyes off his dad’s bandaged hand.
“Every time I moved it, his eyes followed,” McClain said.
The experience of being a wounded soldier and coming so close to death rattled McClain in a way he never expected.
“I feel like I’m mentally tough and it wrecked me,” he said.
McClain has always been a fitness nut. Just two months before his injury, he organized the first Pat Tillman Run held at FOB Salerno, something he’d done at other bases during his previous deployments to Afghanistan.
A couple years ago, he picked up CrossFit, a relatively new fitness program that puts devotees through a variety of exercises that include “constantly varied functional movements performed at relatively high intensity,” according to www.crossfit.com.
CrossFit’s heart-pounding workouts are scaled to match each person’s individual abilities, according to Keri Chen, who owns Mat-Su CrossFit in Palmer.
“It’s not for everybody, but everybody can do it,” Chen explained.
A sample CrossFit workout might include a series of sit-ups, burpees, squats, lunges and pull-ups — all done for time. That means people of different fitness levels can complete the routines side-by-side, which Chen said breeds a strong sense of community among participants.
“The last person to finish is cheered for the loudest,” Chen said.
As luck would have it, Landstuhl is equipped with a CrossFit facility, where McClain went to find solace during his recovery process. Although he didn’t know anyone at the gym — and was limited in what he could do because of his injury — he quickly found himself right at home.
“They just filled the void. Complete strangers, we had a common goal,” he said. “I found comfort and solace in those people.”
As the weeks went on, McClain — who is certified as a CrossFit trainer — began working out with Wounded Warriors whose injuries were severe. As he did, he said he also began listening to the soldiers’ stories and sharing their struggle to rebuild shattered lives.
“The scars on their soul can be pretty deep,” he said.
McClain found that through CrossFit, he could help the injured learn to find meaning in their lives. Although they could no longer use their bodies as they once had, McClain said CrossFit helped the wounded soldiers push their limits in new ways. Because the program emphasizes improvement, it’s something even the most severely limited can find useful, he said.
“We were able to open their eyes and broaden their horizons and show them they could be competitive in other ways,” he said.
Being able to help others with their physical injuries was a revelation for McClain.
“There was a breakthrough,” he said.
He’d found his calling.
McClain began talking with the soldiers, helping them with both the physical pain of recovery and the mental anguish that comes with trauma by letting them share their stories with him.
“I just want soldiers to know they need to explore those things and they need to talk about them,” he said. “It’s okay to bring those subjects up, there’s nothing wrong with it.after that hard workout, maybe that’s when someone wants to talk.”
In the process, McClain was able to work through his own battle-related issues. Rather than dwell on what he could no longer do downrange, the sergeant found an avenue to be a leader in a whole new way.
“This has given me an opportunity to let me know I can still impact soldiers’ lives,” he said.
Chen said it’s not unusual to see lives changed through CrossFit’s community-based approach.
“The success stories that come from it are just amazing,” she said.
McClain said he plans to retire once he gets 20 years of service in — with no regrets.
“The Army has provided me an opportunity to see and do things that I never would have had the opportunity to do,” he said. “You know, being part of the military is a challenge, but it’s one that’s very rewarding and I think I’ve had the ability to impact a lot of people’s lives.”
After he leaves the Army, he wants to continue helping others through CrossFit, a program he’s used to overcome his battle scars by helping others heal theirs.
After six surgeries, McClain’s hand is fully intact, but his left index finger barely moves. Still, he can use it to point the way for others on the road to recovery.
“I probably will never play the guitar again. I tried the other day and I can’t even hold a chord,” he said. “It’s a little frustrating, but maybe God’s given me a new talent I can use.”