By Army Sgt. 1st Class Jason B. Baker
Special to American Forces Press Service
March 5, 2009 - A roadside bomb in Afghanistan cost Army Sgt. 1st Class John "Mike" Fairfax his right leg, but it didn't take away his spirit. In November, Fairfax -- a Special Forces intelligence noncommissioned officer assigned to Headquarters Support Company, 3rd Special Forces Group -- became the first amputee soldier to complete the Army's Jumpmaster Course here.
The journey to Fairfax's milestone began in the summer of 2005 in a remote region of Afghanistan, when his truck was struck by an improvised explosive device. He suffered a severe injury to his right leg, as well as injuries to his right eye and left lung. His team's medic, Army Sgt. 1st Class Derrick Coyme, quickly went to work to stop the massive bleeding caused by Fairfax's severed femoral artery.
He knew he was not in the best condition, he said, but he felt committed to recovering from his injuries.
"It never crossed my mind that I wouldn't get back to a team," he said. "My only goal was to get better and continue on with business as usual."
Through several surgeries and battles with infection, doctors were able to save Fairfax's leg, and he began the long road of rehabilitation. In December 2005, he returned to the group, and his leadership gave him one mission: "Go get better."
Six months later, Fairfax was back to work, but he spent more athan a year struggling with pain. After several surgeries failed to make his leg more functional and reduce the pain, a friend and fellow amputee joked that he should just cut the leg off.
Fairfax gave the option serious consideration. After consulting several doctors and amputee soldiers, he said, he decided to go through with the amputation.
A year prior to the day of his graduation from the Jumpmaster Course, he had the operation to remove his right leg. The next year would be spent dealing with a cycle of rehabilitation and antibiotic-resistant infections. Each time an infection would come back, he was forced to remain off his prosthetic leg.
Once an infection healed, he would have to rebuild the muscle strength to walk in the socket again. When it was time for the Jumpmaster Course, it had been only three weeks since his last bout with an infection and his return to using the prosthetic leg.
"Only being in the socket three weeks really increased the physical demand," Fairfax recalled. "It takes time to build up the hip flexors and other muscles. I was pretty sore each night during the course."
The majority of the course focuses on the jumpmaster personnel inspection. The sequence requires the jumpmaster to squat or bend to visually inspect the jumpers' equipment. Most jumpmasters will go into a deep squat during this portion, as going to a knee takes more time for getting up and continuing the inspection.
During the final test, students must inspect three jumpers, and in five minutes must find all deficiencies and conduct the inspection in the exact inspection sequence. For Fairfax, his only option was to drop to a knee.
For fellow students in the course, this was the only clue that he was missing a leg.
"Most guys saw him kind of limping around, but didn't know he was missing a leg," said the noncommissioned officer in charge during the course, Army Master Sgt. David West. "It wasn't until our first rotation in the [jumpmaster personnel inspection] circle, and he dropped down on the concrete slab. It made such a loud sound [that] all the guys turned and looked. The crack was so loud it sounded like rounds were dropping in. One guy asked him, 'Did that hurt?' and he responded, 'No, I don't have a knee.'"
No changes were made to the course's standards to accommodate Fairfax. Typically, half of the students who start the course wash out before graduation.
"Before the start of the course, I told myself, 'Failure is not an option,'" Fairfax said. "I knew I would be paving the way for other amputees to go through the course, and I didn't want this to be something they couldn't do."
His success inspired not only fellow amputees, but also fellow Green Berets.
"The majority of the guys and all of the instructors were impressed," West said. "Most were saying to ourselves, 'Holy smokes, would I be able to do that?' To do what he did with a prosthetic leg is a very real inspiration. These are the kind of guys you want in [Special Forces] -- the guys who are going to find a way to get things done, [and] no matter what the circumstances are, they will accomplish the task."
West added that this is the kind of soldier Fairfax always has been.
"When you wear [a Special Forces] tab, you hold yourself to a higher standard," Fairfax said. "If this can give another guy a glimmer of hope, then that's a good thing. Sometimes you need someone to look up to -- someone to look to when you're down."
Fairfax expressed gratitude toward his command for supporting him through his recovery and providing him a way to continue contributing to the group.
"[Being a jumpmaster] has always been one of my goals," he said. "If I can't be on a team, at least I can be a productive soldier in the group."
And just as any good soldier does, Fairfax has set his eye on more training and goals for the future. "I don't want this to be the last thing I do," he said.
(Army Sgt. 1st Class Jason B. Baker serves in the U.S. Army Special Operations Command public affairs office.)