#134: Yoga, NYC Body Shaming & Taking Your Own Leg – Combat Wounded Amputees Dan Nevins & Elana Duffy (2023 NYC Veterans Day Parade Series)

Wednesday January 31, 2024

Could you make the decision to remove your own leg. What if you’d already lost the other and taking the second meant starting over? For the final episode of the 2023 NYC Veterans Day Parade, Fran Racioppi and Psychotherapist Drew Newkirk were joined by Dan Nevins and Lana Duffy; two Army soldiers who were faced with one of life’s toughest decisions. 

Dan nearly lost his life in an IED explosion in Iraq, now after losing his legs, he shares how Yoga and Wounded Warrior Project saved him from depression, substance abuse and suicide. Lana suffered for years with an undiagnosed brain injury that prevented her physical recovery; today she’s the parades honorary Grand Marshal explaining how to navigate NYC’s culture of beauty and perfection with a body that doesn’t look like everyone else. 

Life is full of difficult decisions and most often the toughest decisions are thrust upon us. Are you ready to take action and do something when most are unwilling?   

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Yoga, NYC Body Shaming & Taking Your Own Leg – Combat Wounded Amputees Dan Nevins & Elana Duffy (2023 NYC Veterans Day Parade Series)

DanElana, thanks for spending some time on The Jedburgh Podcast live from the 104th running of the New York City Veterans Day Parade. We’re about halfway through or so. We got the U-Haul trucks going behind us. The Air Force just went. Dan, I’m honored to have met you for the first time. The incredible career service that you’ve had which we’re going get into.

Combat wounded Amputees Dan Nevins and Elana join Fran Racioppi on The Jedburgh Podcast

We’re going to talk about your career, your service, and the injuries that you’ve sustained but more importantly than that, what you’ve done since and what you’ve been able to achieve having been a double-leg amputee. I’m going to tell you, after we talked last night, I walked away and I’m like, “I’m a piece of shit.” It’s incredible what you’re doing and we’re going to get into it.

That’s healthy humiliation.

I ordered another tequila to make this go away.

I guess we’re just going to drink them. That’s fine. That’s the healthy part right here. He’s like, “I feel like you’re not supposed to do that but we’re just drinking away the humiliation.”

We had a conversation late last night in which I walked away from the bar begrudgingly, but there were a couple of drinks I had left on that table for me. We got to have fun.

You’re here as an honorary Marshall this year. You served in military intelligence in the Army. The parade as we are sitting here is 104th running means so much to the veterans and the City of New York because this is the largest Veterans Day event in the nation. Dan, you’re working now with the Wounded Warrior Project. They are a huge supporter of the parade but this time, they’ve taken it up 3 or 4 rungs. Talk for a second about the importance of the parade. As you sit here as a veteran, what does it mean?

It’s incredible you say that because I have heard about this parade forever and I’ve seen glimpses of it on TV. Being involved with the Wounded Warrior Project for the last nineteen years, I’ve always heard, “We go do this thing in New York,” but because of my life every day, the day I was born was November 10th, I never made it up for the parade. It’s awe-inspiring to see so many people come together not only to march and to show their support for our men and women who have worn the uniform but also the people who line the streets.

Combat wounded Amputees Dan Nevins and Elana join Fran Racioppi on The Jedburgh Podcast

Being that representative or ambassador for the Wounded Warrior Project, leveled up by our CEO, Mike Linnington, who is the Grand Marshal. It’s great to see over a thousand warriors and their families come out to support and walk. It reminds you that you’re a part of a fraternity of brothers, sisters, and families of veterans. There’s a tagline that came from the Wounded Warrior Project that was developed by Vietnam veterans. It was that the greatest casualty is being forgotten.

[bctt tweet=”The greatest casualty is being forgotten.” username=”talentwargroup”]

Days like this and the way that people come out reminds us that we’re not forgotten. It makes me feel proud. It’s not that I needed a parade to feel proud about the time I spent in uniform but to realize that the world acknowledges it still today even though it’s not frontline news, I’m inspired and awe-struck by the support.

Where else do you get to sit and tell your story with the marching band?

Do you have one of those too? Ours is just in our heads.

Elana, as an Honorary Marshal this year, as Dan said, we have the opportunity to sit down with General Mike Linnington, the CEO of the Wounded Warrior Project as this year’s Grand Marshal. What does that honor mean to you?

I have been volunteering for the parade since 2014. It’s almost a little awkward to not have a clipboard but usually, I just roll up at this point and they hand me a clipboard. I was like, “I wasn’t volunteering this year.” “You are now.” It’s great because I never get to see everything because I’m always working. It’s a huge honor. I think everyone at some point should just stand back, watch, and see all of the support and all of the people that are coming through.

A lot of the people are organizations that are supporting veterans. The amount of love that this city has to give, I’ve been living in New York on and off all my life and in the New York area. I never even came to the parade in my entire life until this point. It’s adding a little bit of character and a little bit of the international flavor. We have the Port Authority. That’s my jam because I grew up in Jersey right next to Newark. The Port Authority is my jam.

Dan, let’s talk about your call to serve. You served as an engineer. You went to Iraq and you got blown up. Let’s talk about the day. It changed your life 100% in a different direction.

It’s completely different. I grew up a poor kid in Baltimore. My dad served in Vietnam. I never thought I’d served because of the way that he was treated when he came home. He told my brother and me, “Don’t ever do it.”

This didn’t happen.

Combat wounded Amputees Dan Nevins and Elana join Fran Racioppi on The Jedburgh Podcast

Yeah. I grew up in a low-income neighborhood so recruiters were right there ready to pounce at any moment. It was the first Gulf War where I saw that my dad might have been wrong about the Army because he was watching these farewell ceremonies for the people deploying to Desert Shield. What I saw was people in uniform leave their families and then come together as a different type of family. I was inspired to join and serve but like a lot of people that fell into that category at that time, the war was over before I ever even got to basic training.

I did that on eight years of active duty. I left. I was in Germany in Fort Bragg. I got out to go back to school and stay in the National Guard. After 9/11, I remember I’m still in the garden. I was interning at the stock brokerage and my boss said, “They’re talking about going to war. You’re going to have to go to war.” I was like, “No. I’m in the National Guard,” especially the California National Guard, not to disparage the California Guard and all.

I was in the training room looking at training records. They hadn’t shot their weapons in six years. There wasn’t enough money in the training budget to buy bullets to qualify a platoon at a battalion level. We’re talking completely unprepared. When we got deployed, we were not ready. We, unfortunately, learned some tough lessons because we got attached to a military magic wand that re-designated all as provisional infantry.

We did that. We do field artillery.

I’m sure that the top brass would say, “We completely understood the mission,” but I’m not so sold on that. When you get that mission, you just drive forward. We learned baptism by fire that if you wanted to fulfill your goal of being at least an efficient combat unit, the consequence, of meeting that goal, and that your best friends die. That gravity has a way of snapping people in the shape and we became really good. I’ve never been more proud to have been the leader in that situation. I was the third platoon’s first squad leader.

[bctt tweet=”When you get that mission, you just drive forward.” username=”talentwargroup”]

That’s the greatest job in the Army. At the squad level is where you have the most impact on soldiers.

You’re 100% correct and I debated because I almost took a direct commission. I was in the combat engineer company and I graduated college. They’re like, “You’re eligible for this direct commission.” At the time, I was going in the pharmaceutical sales one week in a month. They said, “It’s eight months of engineer OBC.” I was like, “No. I’m just going to stay as a squad leader.” I’m so thankful because soon after that, we got deployed and it is the best job in the Army to be the maestro of the battle space where it counts house-to-house and door-to-door.

You lead up and down because you got your squad. You have soldiers that you have to bring up, coach, teach, mentor, and train but then you also have your platoon leader who is looking to you for that experience if they’re willing. I got to say, “These people might know something a little bit more than I do.” They’re looking for that. If you develop that bond, you’re now developing a future leader.

Logistically, the squad leader is the only enlisted person in your chain of command or the first enlisted person in your chain of command. I love the job but when you fast forward to Phantom Fury was happening in Fallujah. I didn’t serve in Fallujah, but the Marine Corps needed a medic so they stole my medic. I got a new medic. I remember we got some intelligence that some of the insurgency is leaving Fallujah to come attack LSA Anaconda. I was in Balad.

I was in the city of Balad.

On what year?

It was in 2005 and 2006.

We would pass through that because I was up at Anaconda but we worked a lot with the units just South of us because you guys were almost right off the South. We would come down and work with you guys periodically covering that AO. It’s because most people probably wouldn’t even know where all the water was.

I didn’t. When we got this intelligence that they were allegedly going to fire 120-millimeter Chinese rockets, we knew about where they were supposed to be so we drew up battle plans to meet them where they were. It was supposed to be the 72-hour dismounting operation but the idea was we’d convoy out and then our dismount team which I was leading was going to go find the bad guys. Take care of business and come home.

We were not even a kilometer outside the main gates of LSA Anaconda on this beautiful dirt road. It’s 4:00 in the morning. It’s pitch black with a low-hanging cloud cover. There was no moon or stars. I remember my head was bowed in prayer like I was before every mission because we expected engagement. We expected casualties. We were getting in the mental space for that. I was in that prayer and then the road erupted beneath my M1114 up-armored Humvee.

I remember being in that prayer when the explosion happened. I could feel and hear the truck disintegrate around my body. I might have been knocked out for a couple of seconds. I’m not sure because when I opened my eyes, I became acutely aware that I was lying in the dirt. I blew the door off my Humvee. I’m lying in the dirt. The dust was still in the air. I still couldn’t see but there was some lingering fire from the blast. I can start to take a picture of my surroundings a little bit because there was no light at all.

Combat wounded Amputees Dan Nevins and Elana join Fran Racioppi on The Jedburgh Podcast

I remember I tasted blood in my mouth and my face felt hot. I had a sickening knot in my stomach and my ears were ringing and I was like, “I’m pretty fucked up.” The first thing I saw was my weapon was stuck in the door of my vehicle. I was telling myself, “Dan, get up. Put your weapon in operation,” and I couldn’t move. I still don’t know why. I don’t if it’s shock. I’m not sure. I listened and I heard my team moving and shouting out commands securing the perimeter and doing everything they were supposed to do.

I’m supposed to be the guy saying these things and I’m saying nothing. They’re doing everything right. When the dust descended a little more, I noticed Mike, my platoon sergeant who offered to drive the vehicle that day because he was supposed to have hernia surgery. He’s the type of guy that’s like, “A driver, you’re done. I’m going to be with my guys as long as I can.” I saw Mike make the ultimate sacrifice. When I saw the condition of his body, I knew that I was probably hurt a lot worse than I thought. I went to pull my helmet and it came apart in two pieces in my hand.

I was like, “It was made by the lowest bidder.” I started with my head. We check ourselves out like we’re trying to do. I was feeling the back of my hands. I got that pins and needles feeling. I reached up for my legs and my legs were stuck in the floorboard of the truck. What happened was it was 255-millimeter artillery shells that blew up under Mike and my feet. I was sitting right behind Mike. It had folded up underneath that vehicle and pinned my legs in the truck. They were still attached but they were there. That’s one of the reasons I couldn’t move.

My back and lower back or on the floor, but my legs are still stuck in the truck. There’s a fire starting to go off my vehicle and I’m seeing Mike. I’m like, “I’m going to work on myself.” When I reached up for my legs, that’s when I felt the unmistakable arterial blood spurt with every beat of my heart. I knew I was going to die. I was making my peace with God. I was saying goodbye to my wife. I had a ten-year-old daughter at the time. I was giving up. Losing what seemed like all of my blood in this miserable place or this canal road, this silty dirty road in the middle of Iraq.Combat wounded Amputees Dan Nevins and Elana join Fran Racioppi on The Jedburgh Podcast

I didn’t want to be that guy. I was getting to the point where like, “I wanted to go home.” It was a year into my deployment. It was supposed to be six months, and now I’m a year in. I had six more months to go and I was done. They say when you’re about to die, you probably heard that your life flashes before your eyes. That wasn’t my experience. It was more like watching a slideshow of things I wouldn’t get to do.

I remember the quality of that experience, but not what they were until the last one. I remembered it was my daughter and I saw her all grown up dressed in white head-to-toe walking down the aisle without her dad. I shot up. I was like, “Damn, I’m alive.” I reached my hand on that wound almost up to my wrist. You can see the void where a giant chunk of my body used to be. I was screaming like MacGyver and pinched off the femoral artery. I pressed. There’s still some shrapnel lodged in my femur.

I pressed and prayed that maybe the medic would get there in time. I blinked my eyes and my medic was right there. It’s a guy with his long blonde hair that was way out but it’s National Guard. Somebody cared. He looked at me right in the eyes and lied to me. “Sergeant, you’re going to be all right.” I blinked again and there was a tourniquet on my leg.

My team leader was putting an IV in my arm because I lost a lot of blood. I got my blood volume back up and shot up with some morphine that I didn’t even feel. My whole team came up when the area was secured. They put themselves in harm’s way to remove what was left in my legs from that vehicle that was still on fire.

How did they get your leg out?

I’m not sure because their bodies were in between me and my legs. They got them out and I remember they flopped. They were still attached but not in great shape. I got my quick helicopter ride back to the main gates of LSA Anaconda. We were not even ten minutes later. I’m back landing on a bird, getting the happy juice in my IV, and then I was out.

After however long the surgery was, I remember waking up and there was a combat nurse’s face right in mine still in Anaconda. I’m still right there. She was right here and said, “Sergeant Nevins, you’re a lucky man. We managed to repair your femoral artery. It was pretty gnarly. We had to take your left leg below the knee. We managed to save your right one for now, but you’ll probably lose that one too,” and she was right.

I remember that moment like the pity party set in. I’m like, “What can a guy with no legs do? How is my wife going to love me? How is my daughter going to respond to a dad that didn’t have legs?” I started to spiral down and you’ll appreciate this. I looked off to the side and it was a tent. I’m in the combat surgical hospital and it’s a tent. I looked against the wall of the tent and there was my whole team waiting for me to wake up. They surrounded my bed and we told horribly inappropriate jokes.

It was more in the vein of like, “I guess I got to return the roller skates I got for Christmas,” or like, “You’re a lot shorter now.” It’s that whole thing, but then we talked about Mike who I wear this bracelet for every day. We shared some tears together and I fell asleep. I was there for a week and then got to Walter Reed where I met one of the founders of the Wounded Warrior Project at my hospital bedside with a backpack full of comfort items. All the things that I didn’t know that I needed to have but it was everything I needed for that next journey in my life.

I spent two years at Walter Reed and 36 different surgeries mostly trying to save the right leg, but then ultimately, the best decision in the world was to take that leg off because it was the one holding me back. I remember the backpack and the promise that whatever I and my family needed, they’d be there. That was the beginning of a relationship because it was not just the Wounded Warrior Project, but they were the focal point at that time. There were providing opportunities for guys like me and women.

Combat wounded Amputees Dan Nevins and Elana join Fran Racioppi on The Jedburgh Podcast

They give you these adaptive sports opportunities to prove that your disability didn’t define you and that I got to define what the rest of my life was going to be like. I’ll be forever grateful. I used to work for the Wounded Warrior Project but I haven’t for the last eight years. I was a solopreneur telling stories and keynote speeches. Also, I teach you yoga all over the world. It’s random. I climbed Kilimanjaro.

I got to do all these cool things because some people got together and decided to create these opportunities so I would learn early on that I could still get things done. Now, it doesn’t hold me back. I’m grateful. As you mentioned earlier, I felt like a piece of shit because I’m out there doing stuff. I love to play golf. The golf course I play is a pretty popular golf course in Florida called TPC Sawgrass. I’ll be warming up and hitting balls.

Did they do the PGA event?

They do. They have the players there. I’ll be hitting balls fairly well as a double amputee. People come from all over the world to play there and it never fails. I’m warming up or something and people look and they’ll take pictures. It never fails and I live for it. They’ll go, “What’s your handicap?” I go, “I don’t have any legs, asshole.” I let them sit in shock for a couple of seconds before I let him off the hook.

It’s nothing like a good handicap show.

Talk about the mental health journey. Drew is a psychotherapist here in New York City. He works with a lot of folks with a range of different backgrounds, but our journey through mental health as a veteran is challenging for those of us who don’t have injuries from combat. You had to make difficult decisions that were going to affect the trajectory of your life. You said that your right leg having it was always holding you back. Talk about your mental health and the stages that you went through as you went through your recovery journey.

As I look back, it is clearer. I’ll say this. I was grateful for the physical wounds because it gave me something to focus on. I had to get better. I have to stand up for more than two seconds and I have to learn how to take a step. I have to take two steps. It was almost like a coping mechanism so I didn’t have to deal with the emotional wounds and then the moral injury.

I just had to deal with, “This is happening right now to my body.” It’s easy to be very present in that moment and focus on physical healing.” As a result of going through Walter Reed at that time, it was full of people that were worse off than me like triple amputees. There were people that had some mild burns but then the people that were burned. I lost at that time one leg and I was saving the other. I was like, “I lost one leg below the knee and maybe this one hang on but at least I have the hands.”

You’d see people that didn’t have their arms or didn’t have a hand or they lost their dominant arm. I put it in perspective so I was able to find gratitude very early on. To be grateful that it wasn’t worse and that sustained me mentally until everything was good and going on. We talked about self-medication a lot. Usually, it’s focused on drugs and alcohol.

I self-medicated with accomplishment and achievement doing something. I ignored the mental injuries. There’s one more thing I have to prove. I have to prove to somebody, to my ego that I can still do things. I can climb a mountain or I can ride a road bike, but not an adapted road bike. I want to ride an unadapted road. I’m going to do it for 100 miles. I’m going to do it faster than the guy with legs. Those were the things that I can’t say were healthy, but they kept me from being unhealthy mentally.

Combat wounded Amputees Dan Nevins and Elana join Fran Racioppi on The Jedburgh Podcast

People always talk about the greater need especially when it comes to mental health. We learned in the Vietnam era that the greatest need for Vietnam veterans was in 2011. It was the most needed. Thirty-plus years later and it was ten years for me. I had to have a complete revision on my right leg. The difference was I wasn’t rehabbing from that surgery at Walter Reed with a bunch of other amputees. I was at home alone.

My marriage was broken as a casualty of the war. I think that is pretty safe to say and my ten-year-old is now nineteen and had joined the Army herself, which was its own mental journey for me to not want to choke her to death for choosing that. I had another three-year-old that I shared with my wife, but I couldn’t chase around the three-year-old on crutches and one prosthetic leg so I was home alone. I had to take FMLA from work so I couldn’t lead my team. I couldn’t call my team.

Every friend I had in the world was my team at the Wounded Warrior Project. I was working for them at the time. I wasn’t allowed to call my friends. I wasn’t allowed to do my job. I wasn’t allowed to lead. I wasn’t able to ride a bike, climb a mountain, or do any of those things and that’s when I had nightmares for the first time. That’s when the gravity of that whole situation was crushing me.

I knew all the stats. You have 52,000 injured and 400,000 with PTSD. At that time, 320,000 live with a brain injury. I get it but I didn’t get the stat at the time that was being held. It was 22 a day that took their own life. I never understood it until I was at home alone. I’m so grateful that I had the light at the end of the tunnel. In eight weeks, when I heal from the surgery, I’ll get my leg back. I’ll go back to work and I can resume as normal.

In that whole mental fight, I found myself not being able to sleep because if I fell asleep, I had nightmares and then I couldn’t get back to sleep. I take a handful of Benadryl and suck whiskey out of the bottle and hope I didn’t wake up in the morning. I got to that point where I knew I needed some help. I didn’t want to call the Wounded Warrior Project because of ego because I was a leader in the organization. I didn’t want to be seen like, “Dan is such a strong dude and now, he is showing weakness.” It wouldn’t have happened that way but that’s the way it felt.

I called a friend who happened to finish a yoga teacher training. I wasn’t holding that against her. I shared everything I was feeling for the first time, snot, tear, and the whole thing. She listened and then when I was finished talking, she said, “Dan, you need some yoga in your life. It was like, “That’s the dumbest fucking thing I ever heard.”

I was like. “What makes you think?” That’s again ego or whatever it was. She suggested meditation and I started to sit in meditation. It wasn’t a miracle cure, but it eased all of the symptoms. When I got my leg back, I went back to work. I called my friend Anna to say thank you and she said, “I think you owe me some yoga.”Combat wounded Amputees Dan Nevins and Elana join Fran Racioppi on The Jedburgh Podcast

I reluctantly agreed and cashed in my man card to go to Lululemon. I refinanced my house to get a pair of shorts, a T-shirt, and a yoga mat. I learned to practice yoga and it sucked. It was terrible until it wasn’t. I decided to try it without my legs on and I know I’m talking a lot but sometimes I revisit these experiences and I still get moved by them. I did my first. I agreed to three private lessons. I did my first one and I was like, “This sucks. I’m never coming back again. Fuck you. Fuck this. I’m out. I tried it,” but I committed to three.

I reluctantly showed up for the second one and it was the same suck fest. It was hot because it was hot yoga. I’m sweaty. I’m balancing on prosthetics and wobbling all over the place and still in pain because of the surgery that I just had eight weeks before. I said, “Can I do this with my legs off?” Nobody got to see me with my legs off. My legs were like my best feature because I was never a big guy but I had strong legs.

I could throw 80 pounds on my back and run. Also, rock and do all the things. When my legs got blown off, I had to deal with that body image shame that went because what was like my best features now is this atrophied, shriveled, scarred, and hideous version of what used to be there. When I finally decided to take my legs off and deal with the shame of a human being seeing them, she was saying this weird yoga shit like, “Root down to rise up.”

I said, “What does that even mean? It’s like you’re talking your hippie nonsense,” but I got so frustrated. I gave in and surrendered like, “What does root down to rise up mean?” I visualize roots growing from my legs against the Earth. I was definitely a warrior, to lift your arms over my head. I was visualizing root down to rise up.

When I plugged into the Earth and connected physically to the planet for the first time in a decade, I was not floating above it on prosthetics. This is not a metaphor. I got this electrifying jolt of energy into my body from Earth. It was like, “The Earth was safe, Dan. Where have you been for the last ten years?” I flew up in this yoga pose and tears were streaming out of my eyes. I went from feeling the most insignificant ever. I’m on my knees with this 5’3” yoga teacher towering over me probably wondering, “What am I going to tell this guy to do on a yoga mat without his legs on?”

She said, “Yeah, let’s do it.” When I said, “Can I do this with my legs off?” She was probably terrified of like, “How am I going to cue him into a pose,” or whatever. I did that all on my own. I lifted my arms in the air and I never felt more powerful and alive in my life in that moment. It lifted me up and I was hooked. A week later, I was in Yoga Teacher Training.

I’ll say this. I don’t think Yoga Teacher Training is for everybody, but I’ve been to a bunch of great leadership schools, and I’ve been too involved in the community of healing for a long time. Yoga Teachers Training was the best leadership school I’ve ever been to in my life because it wasn’t about leadership philosophy. It was about, “Here’s a methodology that you can employ for leadership.”

Combat wounded Amputees Dan Nevins and Elana join Fran Racioppi on The Jedburgh Podcast

It was like, “I got to understand who I was as a man and as a leader underneath all of the to-do lists that we have and the assignments that we put on ourselves as a parent, as a man, as a peer, as a warrior, and as a veteran. It was more under all that, “How am I doing?” I had a lot of healing to do from asking for forgiveness for a lot of things that I did in my life and even parental relationships.

It was like going back to the root of even growing up and forgiving myself for how I behaved in situations. Also, I forgave my parents for not being rich and for growing up poor. I came through all of that to heal in a way that is more powerful than what I can put into words. I have peace in my life where I didn’t have it before because it was always self-medicating with something and now, I don’t need it at all.

The sad and the great story that we all live in is that pain is going to find us. Some of it is more extreme and some of it is very subtle. Your story is subtle and extreme as you capped it off there. The subtle is all this stuff that was buried over the years anyway had to come out from this extreme thing. Elana, I want to integrate some of these questions of shame. You’ve shared yours. Just opening up in my own life, this is how high I can lift my arm and this is from birth.

I always connect very much with people who have something that can be seen as limiting and also is limited. The limitations I’ve had, the things I can do at a high level, I probably wouldn’t have been able to join the Army because I wouldn’t have fit in the restrictions there. The shame of having that is the thing I’ve had to work through most of my life to become a therapist. We find our way to then start transforming the world through the pain. Elana, I wonder what that shame process is for you if you have one. Is there a part of you that struggles with how you’re seen?

As with women in the military, I have an entirely different experience as it is because we’re constantly having to prove ourselves. We are constantly ignored by most of the men. We’re ignored and not only that. If you show any sign of weakness, it’s almost like it’s expected of you. They’d be like, “It’s okay little lady. We understand. It’s because you get emotional.”

You can’t do any of that. You can’t show anything. It becomes such a part of you that most of even the women veterans that I know will still be like, “You have to be ten times stronger than the men that you’re around because that’s the only way to even get seen as equal.” That becomes such a huge part. My initial injury to my leg was two weeks before my IED. There was a massive car accident that I’m still processing with my therapist. “We’ll make it the twenty years or whatever since but we’ll get there. It takes time.”

Even then, I knew something was wrong. They used to save me in physical therapy and because I was doing limb salvage not just because I wanted to keep my leg. It was because I can’t be seen as weak. When I was hit by the IED, two weeks later, I had a severe traumatic brain injury. I got up and I still had to do my job because if anyone even thought something was wrong, I would get pulled off the road. I don’t remember a lot in the last 15 or 20 years now, but immediately following, I only know what happened for the next couple of months because someone either reported on it or someone told me about it.

Combat wounded Amputees Dan Nevins and Elana join Fran Racioppi on The Jedburgh Podcast

The only thing I remember is we cleared the scene and so forth. I couldn’t remember anyone’s name. I’ve been working with people for months at this point. I was reading name tags. I was reading the name tape and let me tell you, I was working with Samoans and those names, some of them are very long and very complicated. I was like, “Can you come over here, Sergeant?

The problem is that I was in MI. I was in collections. I was in interrogations and investigations. We don’t wear name tapes and I couldn’t remember my partner’s name. I couldn’t remember my interpreter’s name. When we continued the mission, I was hiding everything. I was making it up and thank God for muscle memory. I was falling over because I couldn’t stand on my feet.

When your high school was busy beating mine and everything, I was on the gymnastics team. I was on the balance beam. That was my jam and now, I couldn’t walk in a straight line. I tumbled down the berm to try and go and find the person who had triggered the IED. Again, all of this is in reporting. That’s the only way that I know it. Ultimately, we pull up to another house. We continued the mission and the entire reason we were out that day was because I needed to get to two sources.

We pulled up to one of their houses and I probably have been talking to this guy for a couple of months at this point. We get to the place where we’re supposed to meet him and I said to the infantry guys. I was like, “We’re setting up a checkpoint here.” They were like, “No. This is where you told us you needed to be now.” I had a photographic memory. I never wrote anything down. I would maybe drop down a grid coordinate or how to spell somebody’s name, but all of a sudden, I didn’t know who this guy was. I didn’t know what I was supposed to talk to him about.

My partner walked up and he was like, “You are all set for this.” I was like, “What are we doing here? I have no idea what’s going on.” At that point, he realized something was wrong. I was like, “Don’t tell anyone because if you do, I’m screwed.” Not only that I was profiled. They weren’t looking at brain injuries. They just thought I was losing my mind. I thought I was losing my mind.

I’m falling over things. I can’t remember what I’m doing. It turned out that the guy that we were going to see that day coincidentally had been the same guy who had told us that IED would be on the road. He was like, “In two weeks, there’s going a daisy chain. They’re setting them up on this road so I knew it. They pulled two of the IEDs off that morning and they were like, “We only found two. They must have placed a third one.”

Combat wounded Amputees Dan Nevins and Elana join Fran Racioppi on The Jedburgh Podcast

I love the surreal nature of all this. There’s a sense that the stories you guys are telling are filled with lots of movement and energy. You have to be on your swivel all the time. We are trying so hard right now to block everything the fuck out to tell these stories. I think we’ve done a pretty good job.

I’m telling you, a little bit later on, I was trying to ride a motorcycle and I still have no balance. To this day, I have no balance. It’s worse because now I only have one leg. I had to convert it to trike because I lost most of my vision on the right side because it took them two years for me to even admit that there was enough wrong that they finally did an MRI. They were like, “You need to get to Walter Reed. You had a brain hemorrhage. When did this all happen?” I was faking it because as soon as I said, “I’m seeing some shadows.” They were like, “You got PTSD.”

When I would do that, I would have to fake it to them because, at that point at MI, anyone with a top-secret clearance could lose their clearance if they thought that there was any type of anxiety or anything. I couldn’t tell anyone. I couldn’t say anything. Finally, when they did that MRI, they were like, “You got to go and get your brain vacuumed.” It took two and a half years for me to figure out, “I’m not just going crazy. Yes, it’s all in my head but at least it’s physically all in my head.”

It took forever because I’m still doing limb salvage. I’m still trying to figure out what’s going on with my leg. In the military especially with women, if you are not a PT stud, you have a problem. I couldn’t run because they had been like, “It’s probably just sprained,” and then it wasn’t until they started doing bone scans because I had to keep saying something but they don’t believe necessarily that you’re hurt as much. They’re just like, “You don’t like to run.” That’s also true. I don’t like to run. I never did. If there are cupcakes at the end of that run, I will run for baked goods.

You’re working through this because we never stop working through this stuff. The beautiful thing about grief for me as a as a construct not just sorrow or sadness but the pieces of grief because grief to me is like a machine. It comes to your aid. It has all these different pieces and all of it is moving towards acceptance, but then acceptance again. On your deathbed, looking down at your legs and having some kind of feeling about it that hurts a little bit and accept it again.

[bctt tweet=”Grief is like a machine that comes to your aid. It has different pieces and all of it is moving towards acceptance.” username=”talentwargroup”]

We’ve talked a bit about being a female. Your physical presence is such a critique thing from the beginning. How are you dealing with that now as a woman? I don’t know if you have a family or kids. Are you single? You’re out there. How are you working through being in your body, being present, and allowing yourself to be seen for who you are?

It is tough especially because it took me many years to finally acknowledge that there was enough wrong that I could not continue. I was stepping off a curb. Three blocks from here on my way to work, and I would tear a ligament in my leg. It was so bad that I couldn’t cross the street. Finally, I got the surgery and I’m still saying to people and they are like, “How did you lose your leg?” This is New York. People just walk up and they’re like, “How did that happen?”

I would be like, “It’s a combat injury,” and it’s it all comes back full circle. People are still surprised. Another female veteran at one point even said she was like, “How did you get that? Weren’t you just admin?” I was like, “That would be an extensive paper cut for me to lose a leg for it?” It’s hard, especially someone who I had been with for a while and who I was dating at the time of my surgery. It ended up not being able to necessarily overcome it. I’m self-conscious even just starting to date somebody. Also, it’s hard enough especially because internet dating is the worst.

I say with internet dating if you can detach from it, it’s the only way it can work. If you don’t give a fuck about it but still go out on the dates, you have a chance. I don’t even read that. I use it. It’s a tool but once you have expectations of that person being cool, good, not sending you a dick pic, or whatever it is, you’ve lost already.

It’s funny because when I started dating, I was like, “At least one of my photos has to be with the leg,” because I don’t want someone to roll up and be like, “Never mind.” Also, because I waited so long to do it. I was first injured in 2005 and I waited until 2019 to finally have enough and have the leg taken.

You didn’t lose the leg initially.

Combat wounded Amputees Dan Nevins and Elana join Fran Racioppi on The Jedburgh Podcast

No. I had the injury and then because of the brain injury, I had such bad nerve damage that the leg couldn’t heal because there was nothing running to it. I had already torn the ligament. We didn’t know because I couldn’t even feel it. They would always say. I would go to something and I’d be like, “What’s your pain level?” I’d be like, “It’s like a three.”

It’s because I had nothing. It took me a long time and a lot of those stupid boots. It was every winter. I was like, “I’m going to slide down and like break the other leg wearing one of those stupid boots and walking on a slippery sidewalk.” I’m still coming to terms with being a woman who was in the military because people don’t believe me. People are like, “How did you lose your leg? In the Army. Huh?”

You’ve created throughout life probably but then in the military these careful boxes that you were able to put emotions into to protect and now you have to be vulnerable and open to the process and both of you start opening up that box. Also, dealing with not only what was in there before then the now stuff. The audience wants to know, what are the best and worst dating experiences so far? How much do you talk about your leg on a date?

They want to know the best and worst because I have a list.

I’m married now but I got dating stories.

It is about recovery. I think that’s the focus here. You have this this grief. You go through this evolution. You have this experience and you have to come to terms at some point with, “What’s the next step forward? How am I going to apply my focus?” The parade is wrapping up here. We’ve got a couple more folks who are going to cross by and then they’re going to tell us to shut it down and kick us out. I want to ask you both.

When you made those decisions, can you talk for a second about the point at which you said, “I can do this. I’m going to do this. I’m going to get back and continue to do things at a high level in my life. Also, function at an elite level.” The second part of the question is, what are those things that you do every day to be successful?

That’s a tough question, but it’s a great question. I’ll say to the point you made earlier. It’s once a month I have to say to myself that I’m ready to go be my better self, life happens.

That’s human existence. Let alone are our limitations.

There was a moment at Walter Reed when someone from the Wounded Warrior Project would come in. One leg is gone and one is traction. I’m gone from surgery every other day. They come be-bopping in my room saying, “We’re taking a bunch of Wounded Warriors out West to go skiing next month. We want you to go.” I’m like, “What the fuck is wrong with you? Do you have eyes dude?”

They recognized where I was at and said, “You don’t get it. We have the best adaptive equipment in the world and instructors. If the hospital clears you to go, we’ll get you to the bottom of the mountain.” At that moment I was like, “It’s possible.” I started putting my mindset on it. I was three weeks into my recovery at that point where I was like, “I can do something.” I got back to the next step and I had to do it again. There’s the next setback and the next surgery where you have to go through the lull to pick yourself back up.

I think the best part of all that is realizing especially for the people who are tuning in because we’re talking about some pretty rough stories, but all humans go through trauma, grief, and stress. Suffering is humanity. We all suffer. Shared suffering is what we experience in the military that brings us together. When we can share our stories independently about our suffering, it brings people together.

[bctt tweet=”Our shared sufferings are what bring us together.” username=”talentwargroup”]

I’ve always made a point to tell my story and talk about it because it gives someone else permission to talk about theirs. Those moments when I’m not feeling the best or I feel like I’m getting fucked over by life as we all do, I’ll encounter someone that needs that I’m like, “I have to say something to this person.” I can pull in the energy to share my story about overcoming something that might pick them up and now I’m lifted as well. There’s a quote from Gandhi, “The only way to find yourself is to lose yourself in service to others.” I’ve used that as my moniker and it’s served me well. I’ve already lost the whole question.

One of the key pieces you touched on was adaptation. That’s what the beauty of grief is and working through your shit. It is an adaptive model and if you continue and we have to use it every day when you’re grieving something if you’re aware, whether you lost your pen or your kid says that you’re a piece of shit in a fight. You use that tool to adapt. It seems like both of you have got a pretty strong hold on that.

What about you? Talk about the things that you’re doing every day to continue to perform and operate at a high level.

I will be flat-out honest. Every day, there is probably at least one moment where I’m still like, “Damn it. Why did I do something?” I’ve got a host of tattoos but one of them is in Vulcan script. It’s super nerd. It’s a Vulcan saying, “What is is.” It’s this constant reminder that you can’t go back and change it. What has happened has already happened.

The only way to get through is to keep on going and you can’t continue hitting on this unless I’m talking to my therapist. It’s something that I got to get up and I’ve got to say, “I did this. I made this decision, or someone else made this decision for me. Someone decided to blow me up that day. Now, I’ve got to decide to get up and move.”

You’re a Star Trek fan. There is a guy on one of these dating apps who has all the juices.

I’m gradually assimilating to the Borg. Every year my Halloween costume gets a little bit more. I have all the different logos. I’m not just a Trek nerd by the way.

We don’t just have one of those.

The other one says, “Great deeds. Great songs.” It’s like keep doing good things because that’s how you’ll be remembered. You’ll be remembered for the things that you’re doing. As long as you keep doing great things, you’ll be remembered for those things. You won’t be remembered for only having one leg.

You won’t be remembered for a brain injury saying essentially that all people look alike because I have facial aphasia from the brain injury. I’m constantly walking up to someone like, “Do I know you,” which by the way New York City subways, don’t do it. I wait for other people to come up to me and be like, “How is it going?” It’s a case of continue doing good things because that’s what you want to be remembered for and that’s what you will be remembered for.

Combat wounded Amputees Dan Nevins and Elana join Fran Racioppi on The Jedburgh Podcast

You said “Great deeds, great songs.” It’s because we started with songs that you guys came in with your song in the background and we’ll end with songs. To me, your story is with that soundtrack behind us, there is a beautiful rhythm that is going to move people. That song is going to move past this place. It was powerful for me. As somebody who has struggled with limitations in my body, when I feel like I’ve already body is conspiring against us, there’s a great amount of shame and a great amount of work that needs to be done day in and day out. It’s true of everyone. We have extreme levels of it, but everybody is looking at their body and going, “How do I walk around like this?” They hate themselves or they have a tough time with this. Thank you for sharing that. I need a yoga class.

These are the last guys coming through. This is the last one. I appreciate you taking the time to sit down with us and tell your story. We’re in a challenging time right now as a country. We look at you know military service and we could talk about it all day. We have to look at the development of that next generation of leaders. Those who are willing to stand up, serve their country, and take that service and leadership into society regardless of the experiences that they’ve had. You guys are doing that.

Every day, you’re setting that example and that’s what builds this country. That’s what built the culture of the country throughout our history and we’ll continue to do so. That’s why we’re here on Veterans Day. We’re here on Veterans Day to honor the folks like yourself, all those who have served, and all those who are willing to stand up and answer the nation’s call now and into the future. Thank you so much.

Amen. Hopefully, it inspires the next generation to stand up and serve.

Thank you, guys, for doing what you’re doing and getting the stories out there.

Thank you.


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