by Air Force Staff Sgt. Robert Barnett
JBER Public Affairs
7/10/2014 - JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska -- Sgt.
Mark McElroy wanted to follow in the footsteps of his father and his
grandfather. His father was a bodybuilder prior to spending 21 years in
the Army, and his grandfather served two tours in Vietnam. Both were
airborne infantry, and McElroy said he felt it was the right thing for
him to do as well.
A native of Delphos, Ohio, McElroy joined the Army in 2010 at the age of
18 and completed basic training, Advanced Individual Training and
Airborne School at Fort Benning, Ga. He then got orders assigning him to
Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, where he joined the 1st
Battalion (Airborne), 501st Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Brigade
Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division.
McElroy was stationed here less than a year when he went to Afghanistan.
His experiences overseas tell a story of a Soldier's year in the
desert, one that cut his military career short.
"When I was over there, it was almost like you're not human," he said.
"It's kind of like you're a robot. You just get used to doing crazy
The Soldier said they had no showers or means to wash their clothes, and
ate only MREs for the first several months. His uniforms became covered
in dirt, salt and sweat. His uniforms would literally stand up on the
ground when he took them off, he said.
"I mean, the living conditions were beyond what people have here, which
wasn't even a big deal," he said. "It's just some of the stuff we had to
do. You're taught to feel no emotion as an infantryman. You're taught
to just do your job - you're so set on your job you don't really know
what's going on around you outside of being deployed."
He also carried a Mark 48 machine gun and a thousand rounds - adding up
to 180 pounds of gear with his other equipment - daily for the duration
of the year-long tour.
McElroy went on the deployment weighing 215 pounds. Between not eating
and going on patrols, he got down to 171 pounds in three months, he
"We had it real tough out there," he said. "We only had each other to rely on."
Their two platoons lived on a combat outpost, smaller than a forward
operating base, "so small, you could stand at one end and throw a rock
at the other end," he said.
"We'd go out and do a mission, and we'd come back and have to pull a
12-hour tower guard shift," he said. "You were lucky to get three hours
of sleep within a 24-hour period of time. Not three hours straight, 15
minutes here, 30 minutes there."
On missions, they organized seven-man teams where they would go out and
set up ambush positions, he said. Sometimes they were out there a few
days, sometimes a week or more, just waiting for the enemy.
"It just became a part of me while I was over there," McElroy said.
The Soldier performed more than 250 patrols 'dismounted', or on foot.
"We did do some convoy patrols, but the Taliban's a lot smarter than
people think," he said. "You can only go so many places in vehicles. You
can go a lot more places on foot where they can't plant the IEDs."
It was March 1, 2012 when, on a dismounted patrol, he was hit by an IED. He was ten meters from the explosion.
"My team leader was on point," he said. "I was beside him and we were
walking through a field. He made a slight right turn and as soon as he
did, I saw the ground flex out of the corner of my left eye. My
adrenaline just started pumping."
The Taliban had dug the hole too deep, causing most of the blast to
travel straight up instead of spraying the Soldiers, who got down as
quickly as they could, ready to return fire, he said.
"My ears were ringing; I couldn't hear anything," he said. "My head hurt
so bad; I don't know if I blacked out or not. I got up, helped my team
leader and another Soldier get back to cover. There was a stone wall
about 50 yards behind us. After that, it's hard for me to remember [what
happened]. Throughout the deployment there were multiple firefights, we
did a lot of big missions and there were more IEDs, but that one 10
meters away was the closest I ever got. That's thirty feet away."
After completing his deployment, McElroy returned to JBER October of 2013 and went through a month of transition training.
"They teach you how to become normal again, whatever normal is," he
said. "To me, [normal] is a setting on your dryer. You can't go from
'fight-fight-fight; kill-kill-kill the enemy' to coming home and being a
normal Joe off the street. It just doesn't work like that."
McElroy said the Warrior Transition Unit helped him out.
"I'm here because of multiple reasons," he said. "[Post-Traumatic Stress
Disorder] is a major issue. Coming back from combat was a struggle. I
deal with reintegration, flashbacks, nightmares, severe anxiety and
panic attacks where I don't even know what's going on. I don't even
drive my vehicle - my wife does the driving. I can't drive and focus on
my surroundings. If there's a box or something, I still think it might
be an IED. If you really think about it, it's kind of crazy, but that's
my thought process [after] being over there."
He also suffers from insomnia, he said.
"I'll lie down for 40 minutes and I'll be wide awake, ready to go," he
said. "I still can't get my sleep schedule right. That's pretty much why
I'm here today."
Carrying so much gear every day, being in firefights and explosions, also cost his body.
"That caused severe back injuries, bulging discs, spinal fluid leaking
out of my back, my sciatic nerve's pinched - that's something I have to
live with every day," he said. "My wife has to tie my shoes for me half
the time, I can't even bend over. I can't hear; I'm 80 percent deaf out
of my left ear."
When he in-processed at the WTU, despite a looming medical retirement,
McElroy was determined to make the promotion list. Army Staff Sgt.
Sheree Lapoint became his squad leader and helped him out, he said.
"When I came here, she could just tell I was squared away and she wanted to see me succeed," he said.
Every Soldier is a different mission, Lapointe said.
"[McElroy is] very motivated," the cadre said. "I could tell he was
instilled with discipline. He was the epitome of what an outstanding
infantryman was, so for him to come from combat, being a foot Soldier on
the line and doing heavy ruck sacking, his mentality was shoot - move -
communicate. He didn't know how to adjust.
"He still brought his morals, his discipline, and the seven Army values
over to the Warrior Transition Unit, knowing that it was something he
wasn't used to. He was used to rucking, and we were like 'listen, you're
here to recover from your wounds, whatever you're facing, you're here
to help yourself. Sometimes you've got to lay down your weapon and say I
need a break.' I told him that's what he needed to do."
Outside of his medical appointments and personal recovery, McElroy kept himself busy by continuing to serve.
"He's able to go out into the community and work now," said Lapointe, a
native of Davie, Fla. "He's able to adjust; his work site has nothing
but great things to talk about. He's had great support from his wife.
Everything's been successful for him here. It's really good to see that.
He did what he had to do here."
"I'm really big into body building and dieting and nutrition," McElroy
said. "I work[ed] over at the Health and Wellness Center on the Air
Force side. I work[ed] with an exercise physiologist and a dietitian
over there. We do gate analysis and work out plans for people who need
to lose some weight or get a better score on their PT test. We help them
with their eating habits, or quit using tobacco."
McElroy, who came to the WTU as a specialist, also achieved one of his career goals; he was promoted.
"I'd only known him for about two weeks, and I knew he was ready to go
before the board and stand in front of the command sergeant major,"
Lapointe said. "When I had to stand in front of the command sergeant
major and he asked me how I know [McElroy] is ready, I said he's ready
to lead Soldiers, regardless if he never does it again. Sometimes you
have to take chances on a Soldier, that's what it's about. You don't
know what a Soldier is capable of until you give them a chance.
"I told him to keep fighting, keep working on it. So he went up to the
board. He was outstanding. He was one of the top five Soldiers who got
highly recommended. Lo and behold, he did what he had to do, and he made
sergeant all by himself here at the Warrior Transition Unit. He didn't
let anybody tell him he couldn't do it. It could have backfired on me,
but that's what we have to do sometimes. It's not about you, it's about
You get out of the program what you put into it, she said.
"Coming to this organization, you have to want to be better," Lapointe
said. "The keys are here; everybody wants to help out the wounded
warriors. PTSD is big here, you have to dig deep and gain that trust.
Once you gain their trust, it's like a beautiful flower comes out."
McElroy is transitioning into a medical retirement.
"I plan on going to school full time, and working on becoming a
professional body builder," he said. "I'm training hard for that. My dad
actually won one of the biggest shows in Ohio [in the 1980s] called
'Mr. Ohio.' He just turned 50; he's still huge. A guy who helped train
my dad is training me right now online."
Despite all the pains and costs of his tour in Afghanistan, McElroy said he misses it.
"I miss the brotherhood," he said. "It was a big thing. I loved being
over there when I was there. You've got a group of 20 or so guys who
would give their life for you in an instant, and I would have done the
same for any of them. When I left, I had the mindset that I was ready to
die for my country; I didn't care if I came home or not. That's how I
lived every day over there, that's what kept me alive. That's what kept
me on my toes."