CAMP SABALU-HARRISON, Afghanistan – As a boy growing up in Mt. Juliet, U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Mathis dreamed he would one day become a soldier.
Sitting beside his grandfather, listening to war stories, Mathis would act out his grandfather’s tales with his little green action figures.
Those stories, of courage and brotherhood, inspired Mathis to enlist as an Army infantryman in 1995. He then lived his lifelong dream, serving on numerous combat missions. On one unforgettable day in April 2003, while serving in Iraq, those dreams nearly came to an end.
While on patrol with his squad, Mathis encountered three Iraqi civilians who said there was a large amount of unexploded ordnances in a nearby courtyard. One Iraqi wanted Mathis to walk behind a house to see more, but instinct kicked in and he refused. He had a gut feeling that something wasn’t right.
“I was arguing with one of the men,” Mathis said. “A second guy threw an explosive right at my feet.”
The blast severely injured both of his legs. He was evacuated to the nearby combat support hospital. Medics said he would likely need one leg amputated.
What followed was numerous hospital stays on the way back to the U.S. Mathis remembers at each one a chaplain gave him support and comfort. That sense of hope and encouragement was something he wanted to repay someday.
“My life has changed tremendously,” Mathis said. “I put my faith in Christ, and having faith changed me personally.”
When his wife, Jennifer, received news of his injury, she knew their lives would never be the same.
“It was very surreal because one minute everything was OK, and then the next minute everything had changed,” Jennifer said. “I was in shock. I thought the worst that he might die. I thought about our daughter and all the things that were about to change.”
Once stateside, doctors said Mathis had options regarding the loss of his leg – a life-changing decision would have to be made.
“Either have the leg amputated or live with the excruciating pain. I wanted to keep my leg, but I also wanted the pain to stop,” Mathis said, with a sense of humor. “My leg and I have been attached my whole life. Yeah, I’ll think I’ll keep it.”
Doctors operated 15 times to reconstruct Mathis’ leg. During this trying time, the Mathis family pulled together and grew stronger. After months of rehabilitation, he credits his wife’s support.
“It’s the little things spouses will do for each other that may not seem like a big deal, but if you’re the one that can’t move too well, it’s a big deal,” Mathis said. “My wife took care of me and our 2-year old daughter. I was in a wheelchair for a while, and I needed help just to make it upstairs. Getting up the front porch, which was three steps, was a challenge.”
After months of struggling in a wheelchair and painful physical therapy Mathis would go through a medical evaluation, which cleared him to continue serving in the military.
He was given a list of possible occupational specialties and there was one that caught his eye, a chaplain’s assistant. Today, as a staff Ssrgeant, he supports the 18th Military Police Brigade soldiers deployed to Camp Sabalu-Harrison and their families in their time of need.
“It felt like I had a purpose,” said Mathis. “This is still taking care of your own. It is very rewarding to be able to help out soldiers, especially months down the road when they are succeeding in life.”
“I supported him in staying in the Army because it was his lifelong dream to be a soldier,” Jennifer said. “He is very dedicated and is always there for his fellow soldiers when they need him. He gives 100 percent and never less.”
In early 2004, when his unit returned from Iraq, the Army awarded Mathis the Purple Heart. He’s grateful to the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division for giving him the support he needed to continue his career.
“This journey has brought me to a deeper relationship with God,” Mathis said. “As far as the journey of being a soldier, it’s all about the support you get from your chain of command.”
For fellow soldiers facing severe injuries, he mentions how determination is key – as the Warrior ethos instructs, “I will never quit. You have to embrace that,” Mathis said. “Know that it is not going to be pain free.”