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Saving Master Sergeant Waldo

Issue 4 and Volume 10.

“The timer on the oven sounded, and I got excited because that meant 20 minutes of Barbie was up and now it was time for 20 minutes of action-packed Emergency!,” says Mike Reynolds as he tells the story of how his mother kept the peace between her second graders during rainy days that kept them indoors. He and his twin sister, Michelle, were required to play whatever the other wanted on an alternating 20-minute schedule. Michelle wanted to dress up Barbie dolls and push them around in the Barbie car, and Mike would endure anything to get his 20 minutes of Emergency!

He continues his story: “I ordered my sister under the smoke-filled collapsed structure (which was mom and dad’s bed) and ran to my room, put on my red fire helmet with the functioning red light, and responded. I had to size up, triage, rescue, and treat the patient before my 20 minutes were up! Ten years later in emergency medical technician (EMT) school, I learned about the Golden Hour and thought, ‘That’s no big deal, because I’ve been trained to get it all done in 20 minutes.'”

Early Involvement

While in high school, Mike participated in a mentorship program that allowed him to work one hour after school at the Murray County (GA) Emergency Medical Services (EMS) office and ambulance station. There, he washed trucks for Director Larry Ballew and eventually got to do a few ride alongs. Mike quickly saw his Emergency! childhood dreams of being like Johnny and Roy becoming a reality and couldn’t get enough. His one hour after school quickly became three, four, and five hours—basically until his mom made him come home.

The day after high school graduation, Mike was at the fire station for his first day as a volunteer firefighter. One night at the EMS office, he was given the nickname Waldo by two Murray County paramedics while they were watching VH1 videos. Waldo is the nerdy kid surrounded by teachers in Van Halen’s 1984 music video “Hot for Teacher.” Of course, the two medics were making fun of Mike’s desire to hang out at the EMS office instead of taking girls to movies. When he did muster up a date, the first stop was often the EMS office or the fire station. There were many first dates with no follow ups. “Who knew the girls really were not interested in trauma kits, stair chairs, and fire trucks?” Waldo recalls.

Waldo split his time between college, the fire station, and finishing up EMT school. He applied to several EMS departments, but none would hire him because he was not 21 years old. So with an associate’s degree and no employment opportunities to fulfill his calling, Waldo joined the United States Army as a flight medic. “You had to be 21 years old to be covered on an EMS department’s insurance to drive the $88,000 ambulance,” he explains. “But the Army put me in charge of a $5.9 million Blackhawk.” He traveled the world, spending three years in Germany and doing a lot of growing up. After four and a half years, he transitioned to the Georgia National Guard and began working part time at Chatsworth Fire Department and eventually at Murray EMS in May 1999.

During this time, Waldo met and dated Kim, they got engaged, and they married on Christmas Day 2002. A couple of weeks later, he left for a 15-month deployment. After returning home, he continued to be deployed to various locations to serve as a medic. In 2005, he took a full-time job as a medic with the Georgia Weapons of Mass Destruction unit (the state civil support team force), and in 2008 he became the noncommissioned officer for a medical company in the Georgia Guard.

Deployment

In June 2009, Waldo deployed to Balad, Iraq, leaving his wife and three-year-old daughter at home. Waldo entered a torn nation whose citizens welcomed United States soldiers in some communities and tried to kill them in others. As Waldo’s unit continued drilling and training in Iraq, he did his best to set the example. He wore all the same gear as his soldiers, no matter the conditions. He knew and emphasized the importance of hands-on training and quickly saw that not everything they needed to know would be covered in a course curriculum, a lesson he had learned in fire recruit school led by Training Chief Mike “Moe” Baxter. Waldo would often reach out to Moe for help in practical leadership matters—those things that come only from the experience of leadership.

Early into the mission, nearly half of his medical staff were reassigned to other positions and, as with any staffing cuts without workload reductions, it was all hands on deck. The units responded on and off the base to both military and local citizen emergencies. The incidents ranged from helicopter crashes and vehicle accidents to mortar attacks and an unbelievable number of pediatric cardiac arrests. The local Iraqi hospital preferred not to take children into its care, so word quickly spread to the community that if you had a sick child, the American medics would treat them. Families would show up at the base gate holding lifeless children suffering from high fevers, severe respiratory infections, and more.

While in Balad, Waldo frequently relied not just on his experiences with the fire and EMS departments back home but on the array of mentors from Chatsworth, Dalton, Murray, and Whitfield County. The things that are so routine for us in the fire service were foreign skills in another country. Daily truck and equipment inspections were implemented, and documentation was enhanced. This type of direction wasn’t available from the manual, but it was what was needed to function.

Injured In the Line of Duty

After less than four months in Iraq, Waldo suffered a serious traumatic brain injury (TBI). He doesn’t remember many of the details, just snapshots. The ambulance he was riding in, an armored Humvee with a solid-steel framework and three-inch-thick glass, was forced off the road at the same time that he removed his helmet to pull his body armor over his head. He sustained multiple injuries but was afraid he would be punished for not wearing his helmet, so he tried to continue on as if nothing had happened. He developed methods to cope as he started losing track of time, forgetting names, and having difficulty remembering patient information. As the excruciating pain in his head was becoming unbearable, thousands of miles away his wife could see there was a problem; her husband had stopped remembering when he had last communicated with her.

Over the next few months, Waldo was in and out of the medical facility and struggled to function in his unit. Neither his commanders nor the medical staff knew enough about TBIs to recognize the real problem, and many of his symptoms were dismissed as poor performance. No one questioned why he had gone from a top-notch soldier to a problem. His commander threatened him with a Court Martial and sent him back to the United States on an R&R flight before his medical evaluation was even completed.

Upon returning to Fort Benning, Georgia, Waldo was lost in the process for weeks. A base social worker sent him to a physician’s assistant for evaluation, which resulted in his transfer to the Wounded Warrior battalion, but his brain injury was still not diagnosed.

Days turned into weeks and weeks to months; pretty soon, a year had gone by. Waldo’s stuttering worsened, and he had to rely on strictly regimented routines to function. If one thing was different on any given day, it would throw him off and he would be lost until someone would notice and help him back to his room. His counselor eventually recommended him for an evaluation by an off-post intensive rehabilitation program. It was there that an astute nurse began to unravel the events of his past two years. She demanded that he be admitted to the Army’s Traumatic Brain Injury program, a 30-day program where he remained for 149 days and finally received the help he needed.

Fire Service Support

As his recovery progressed, Waldo returned to the Wounded Warrior battalion where he would be placed in a job, a practice intended to help injured soldiers relearn basic life skills. The first job they offered him was dispensing hand sanitizer to everyone who walked into the hospital. He asked to work at the base veterinary clinic instead, but they rejected his request when they were told about the symptoms of his TBI. Then Kim, who had moved to Fort Benning in the meantime, encouraged him to try the fire department.

“On a warm day in early August, I met with the Fort Benning fire chief in his office,” Waldo recounts. “He was a retired Air Force Command sergeant major and seasoned combat veteran. His demeanor was brief and to the point. I told him of my love for the fire department and almost 20 years of public service. I shared with him magazines I had been published in and a three-inch binder filled with certifications. He flipped through the documents and references I had provided him as I stood, nervous and desperately trying to organize my thoughts. I told him I had no expectations of being a firefighter, and I desired only to come and wash fire trucks and work around the station to keep it clean. He said they had never had a Wounded Warrior at the fire department, but I felt he understood my silent plea for help. Then he went on to give me the contact information for the assistant chief at the station closest to the Wounded Warrior compound and told me not to be late the next morning for my first day of work.”

Waldo explains how his role at the fire department changed over several months: “They saw my level of commitment and also how I had much rather be spending time with them than sitting alone in my room watching television. The deputy chief came in one day and said, ‘Why do you wear that (my Army combat uniform) here every day? If you are going to be one of us then you need to look like the rest of us. Go see supply and get some uniforms.’ Soon after that I was able to begin observing their training. The chief tried to expose me to more and more aspects of the fire service. During training exercises, he would attempt to find me tasks. As I began to master the simpler tasks, he would make things more complicated for me. Ultimately, I ended up providing critiques and perspective from my civilian fire and EMS background for the department’s drills and training. I became their free, non-biased, third-party consultant and head chef for Station 3. I had finally found a place I belonged.”

The fire department naturally morphed into the role of secondary guardian. Waldo had frequent medical appointments, and it had become clear that the level of care and the communication with the medical staff were noticeably enhanced when his wife was with him. So when Kim couldn’t make an appointment, one of the fire chiefs went with him. When his apartment complex was torn down for a new development and he faced moving back into base barracks, the fire department would hear nothing of it. They cleared out a room and moved him into the fire station closest to the Wounded Warrior compound.

Waldo was making vast improvements while working at the fire department, and Kim decided it was time to put up a fight with the Army to make sure he got the best possible care available. Her relentless follow-up and refusal to take no for an answer caused quite a stir within the system. And by this time, she was not the only one asking questions. Other soldiers’ spouses and relatives had reported a toxic leadership problem within the unit, and Kim took her concerns to their state representative in Congress. Receiving no answers, she submitted a Congressional Inquiry Request. This still did not provide answers or initiate the changes needed to prevent similar events from happening to another soldier.

But eventually the right people got involved and took personal interest in the case. Facts emerged and timelines put names to decisions, and a full investigation and report recommended significant changes in personnel and procedures. This would have never been possible without the fight from Kim and the help and support she received from the Wounded Warrior Battalion.

The Next Step

At the age of 37, Master Sergeant Michael Reynolds was retired from the Army. But his struggles were not over by a long shot. Once they were back home, Kim knew that Waldo couldn’t just sit around the house with no purpose, so she once again went to the fire service. Calling up Waldo’s former training chief, now the chief of the department in Chatsworth, she asked for help. There was no hesitation when Moe Baxter said, “Yes,” but it wasn’t that simple. Waldo could not be a traditional employee, but somehow he was going to be a part of the Chatsworth Fire Department family, a move that required Baxter to get approval from the mayor. Having Waldo volunteer at the department required a lot of people to say “yes” and to have a greater affinity for what is right than for the worries of what could possibly be construed as a liability.

In perfect form, Waldo was the hardest working guy at the department. Whether cooking, cleaning, building training props, running errands, or waxing trucks, he was just happy to be there. The social bonding and familiarity increasingly helped him recover.

“As fall turned into winter, it came time for the annual Chatsworth Fire Department Christmas party,” Waldo remembers. “We spent the day scurrying about the kitchen preparing ham and turkey with an assortment of enough sides to feed a division of soldiers. I picked up our daughter, Katie, from school and returned with her to the fire department. Although Kim was disappointed she could not attend, she remained at the hospital with her mother, who had fallen ill with a heart infection. That night, we would all eat together and laugh as we watched a slideshow of the year’s events. Then Chief Baxter would stand at the front and thank the firefighters, families, mayor, and council members for a successful year before recognizing the recipients of the department’s annual awards.

“As he presented the awards, Chief Baxter called me to the front to be named the Part-Time Firefighter of the Year for the department. I was speechless. I did not know how I, the only firefighter in the room who could no longer fight fire, could be Firefighter of the Year. I had only been there since August. It hardly seemed possible. I would later learn that the chief and deputy chief did not even vote. It was the firefighters who voted for me. It was then I began to see the leadership, integrity, and love that they cultivated throughout the department. As the evening came to a close, all of the firefighters who were new to the department were sent to the pole room and told we would receive our official nickname from the chief as we exited. Little did we know, those who were looking down the pole from the floor above would then cover us in ice water and flour. As we exited, we were no longer to be considered the new guys. Our initiation into the brotherhood was complete. I would never doubt how deep the bond was that we shared and the acceptance that they had for me from that day on.”

Relapse

We have all either read about or watched the news reports on problems with Veterans Administration hospitals, and Waldo found himself once again lost in that system. Although he had made some tremendous improvements, he still required constant medical care. It was difficult to get appointments. When appointments were made, they were sometimes canceled at the last minute. Pretty soon, Waldo’s condition began to deteriorate. Kim, who had never stopped battling the Army, had to redouble her efforts as she continued to seek adequate care for her husband. As Waldo’s condition worsened and the headaches and balance issues returned, it got bad enough that Kim had to take him to the hospital.

“The day after I was admitted to the hospital, Dalton Deputy Fire Chief Baggett called before coming to visit. On the phone, he proceeded down a cordial list of questions, which included asking if there was anything he could bring when he came,” Waldo recalls. “In an effort to retain the slightest bit of dignity I had remaining, I told him I detested having to wear a hospital gown. He would later arrive with a T-shirt, shorts, and a sweat top and bottom for me to wear (Dalton FD issue). Little did he know how emotional something like this would be for me. They had not come from some box stashed in a closet but from his personal go bag in the back of his car. As I put the shirt on, a flood of emotions came over me. It had been stored beside his turnout gear and had the distinctive odor I immediately recognized could have come only from the smoke of a working structure fire. Overcome with emotion, I recall looking to my wife and sadly admitting, ‘I remember when I used to come home smelling like that, and I will never be able to do that again.’ She smiled and agreed. I would continue to lay in the bed through the next week, occasionally having Kim open the blinds so I could watch the ambulances blast through the intersection with lights flashing and sirens blaring responding to someone’s call for help. I was possibly the only patient not annoyed by their sound. Again, I would look at my wife and say, ‘You know, that used to be me.’ “

Fighting for Care

Waldo recovered enough to be discharged but not enough to be fully functional, and Kim once again found herself fighting with the insurance company to get him into a residential rehabilitation facility. Her only choices were home health care or a nursing home. Of course she chose home health care. There were good days and bad days. A new commanding general of the Georgia Guard had taken personal interest in Waldo and his family. The numerous fire departments in the area continued to provide tremendous support not only by visiting Waldo but also by helping Kim take care of day-to-day life.

With the persistence of Kim and help from other firefighters and fire chiefs across the state, Waldo was accepted to the SHARE Military Initiative, a program offered to veterans with TBIs at the Shepherd Spinal Center in Atlanta, Georgia, initially funded through a private donation from Bernie Marcus, founder of Home Depot. The program can only take a limited number of patients each year. The treatments include speech therapy, vocational counseling, social skills development, and countless medical evaluations and treatments. When Waldo entered the program, his stuttering, headaches, and vision problems were a substantial handicap. In short order, his vision condition was diagnosed and determined to be a direct result of the brain injury. Fortunately, special glasses are available to help correct the problem. This problem was corrected in matter of days after plaguing him for two years. The exceptional professionalism and talent of the staff, along with Waldo’s spirit and determination, proved to be a winning combination. Waldo started yet another long road to another recovery.

The stuttering slowly eased and Waldo was again ready for some purposeful work. Nothing is faster than the “tell-a-firefighter” communication network, and soon the north Georgia fire chiefs were calling their contacts in the Atlanta Fire Department and they went to work. Stations volunteered for dinner details for Waldo and his family. It was not uncommon for Waldo to get a fire department visitor or end up at an Atlanta fire station eating dinner. And pretty soon he was volunteering at the air shop, assisting with repairing breathing apparatus and conducting bench tests as part of his rehabilitation.

By the completion of the intensive program at Shepherd, Waldo had made quite an impression on staff, so much so that they introduced him and Kim to Mrs. Shepherd, cofounder of the hospital. (The Shepherds founded the hospital in the 1970s after their son James experienced a spinal cord injury and the nearest treatment facility was in Denver.) They stay in touch, and in true fashion Waldo never misses the opportunity to return to help out at the hospital, whether speaking to other Wounded Warriors or to a room of potential donors to the program.

After returning home from the Shepherd program, Waldo transitioned to the Calhoun Fire Department to be closer to home and to help out more with his daughter and young son. He is in the training division as a nonpaid member. He still has a lifetime membership with Chatsworth and visits often.

Sharing His Story

Waldo has developed a tremendous presentation that incorporates a prop he calls the “can crusher.” He uses a soft drink can and the can crusher to tell his story (of which you have only heard a small part). He talks about toxic leadership, brotherhood, family, struggle, and hope. He recently invited me to attend his presentation at the Shepherd Center, where he was the guest speaker at the local meeting of the Business Executives for National Security. In attendance was the president/CEO of the organization, General Norton Schwartz, retired chief of staff of the United States Air Force.

Waldo seemed nervous as the staff introduced him. He was seated with his current fire chief, his former fire chief, and a few others from the fire service he had invited. He approached the “can crusher” and looked out at a crowd of wealthy business executives, Shepherd staff, and a retired four-star general and seemed to freeze up. An eternity of 30 seconds went by, and he didn’t say a word. He looked to the table where the fire department guys were sitting. “It’s just us Waldo,” one of the guys said. Waldo turned and stared directly at General Schwartz. “Four star,” he said and paused. He continued with reserved delivery: “I’ve always heard about them but I didn’t know if they really existed.” The entire room erupted in laughter, and Waldo continued without hesitation, sharing his story over the next 45 minutes. He brought the crowd to tears, laughter, and every other emotion imaginable. He talked about how his wife, his brothers in the fire service, the medical staff at Shepherd, and a few caring staff members in the Wounded Warrior program helped save him from a life of helplessness and dependence.

When Waldo was finished, it was time for General Schwartz to speak. He stepped to the podium and said, “There is no way I can even begin to follow that. Mike, you have further reinforced my understanding that all our problems can’t be solved in Washington.” He moved to the side of the podium, stood at attention, and raised his hand to the side of his brow and saluted Waldo. Waldo, sitting at our table in his Calhoun Fire Department uniform, snapped to attention faster than a brand new graduate of boot camp and returned the salute. General Schwartz turned back to the crowd and said, “Folks, you see what can happen when people give a shit!”

There are numerous Wounded Warriors suffering from TBIs, and there are numerous fire departments all across this nation that can step up and take them in and give them purpose.