A land mine, a fateful step, the aftermath
On the Web
By JOSEPH AX
THE JOURNAL NEWS
(Original publication: August 29, 2004)
The Russian PMN-1 mine lay silent for decades, hidden from sight in an unused field not far from the main runway at Bagram Air Base in the rocky Parvan province of Afghanistan.
It had retained its deadly force through years of Soviet occupation, through violent skirmishes between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance, through wind and rain, heat and cold. It had never felt the heavy fall of a footstep, had never had cause to unleash its destructive power, until a young man from Tarrytown gave it permission with one false stride.
Staff Sgt. Michael McNaughton stepped on the mine on Jan. 9, 2003.
The explosion lifted him into the air. When he hit the ground, his every sense was engaged: The blast still rang in his ears; he smelled smoke, tasted TNT, saw flames — and felt agony.
"I don't know how far I went up in the air," he remembers. "My whole bottom half was tingling, my right hand was tingling. I heard people screaming my name."
The mine had destroyed his right leg above the knee, blown two fingers off his right hand and left him lying in a pool of blood.
Now, 19 months later, he is stretching, carefully, his prosthetic leg scraping against the pavement. It's a rainy Sunday morning, Aug. 1, and McNaughton, a handsome 32-year-old with earnest eyes, a quiet voice and a Southern drawl born of years spent living in Louisiana, is preparing for the Hope & Possibility race in Manhattan's Central Park.
He has never run as many as five miles on his leg before, but he seems wholly unconcerned. His wife, Kim, is there, along with his parents, Mary Anne and Randall McNaughton, both teachers retired from The Hackley School in Tarrytown, and a few other relatives, bearing umbrellas and happy smiles.
"It's a good thing my leg is waterproof," McNaughton says, only half joking, as he glances up at the unforgiving storm clouds.
'Wanted to do something'
In conversations in New York and Louisiana, McNaughton and his family recalled his arduous journey, from televised images of burning skyscrapers to unseen dangers in the heart of Afghanistan — and, eventually, to the struggles of repairing his ruined leg and shattered self-confidence.
On Sept. 11, 2001, McNaughton watched in horror from his home in Denham Springs, La., as the twin towers of the World Trade Center collapsed into fiery rubble. His sister, Margie Ford, six months pregnant, and her husband, Thomas, lived in Manhattan at the time.
The relief he felt at learning of their safety soon gave way to a profound sense of guilt.
"Being from New York, I felt like I wanted to do something," he said. "I felt like I let the Army down by not being there in the first place."
McNaughton had left the Army in December 2000 after a decade of service. At Sleepy Hollow High School, McNaughton was a self-admitted "screw-up": getting into trouble, not putting enough effort into his studies.
"I needed discipline," he said. "I got plenty of that in the Army."
By the time 2000 arrived, McNaughton had spent time in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bosnia, but the months away from his family were wearing on him.
He decided to leave the Army and join the civilian work force, landing a job at an engineering company in Louisiana, where he lived with Kim, a Louisiana native.
"Everything was going pretty good, and then Sept. 11 happened," Kim said. "He was angry with himself because he wasn't in the military and couldn't do something."
His decision to join the Louisiana National Guard came as little surprise to Kim, who knew he saw patriotism as a way of life. Even before Sept. 11, it was not uncommon for McNaughton to run around the living room with his children, waving an American flag.
"My wife is kind of used to it," McNaughton said. "She was with me when I was active-duty. She knew I volunteered for stuff. Of course, she wasn't happy about it, but she was proud."
"I knew he wanted to do it," she said. "I knew it would mean a lot. I just hung in there and made the best of it."
McNaughton's unit was called to Afghanistan in the spring of 2002, and he volunteered to go early. When he learned the Army needed volunteers to clear mines, he asked for the assignment without hesitation.
"This is Michael's job," Margie Ford said. "He always said, this is what he's trained for. It's part of what he is."
The missed mine
It can be difficult for civilians to comprehend the dangers, both seen and unseen, that soldiers must confront in times of war. Once, during McNaughton's stint in Afghanistan, his sister's family sent him glow-in-the-dark SpongeBob Squarepants Band-Aids.
"We didn't realize that he can't wear them, because of the snipers," Ford said. "You don't think about things like that."
But she often thought about his safety, about the invisible mines that threatened his life.
"Every day. you hope that nothing happens," she said.
By the time Jan. 9, 2003, dawned over Bagram Air Base, 27 miles north of Kabul, McNaughton had already been awake for hours, preparing for the day. The deadly art of mine clearing requires precision and meticulous attention to detail.
"Mine clearing is very tedious, and you have to be on the ball," McNaughton said. "If you have some knucklehead, he's going to get someone killed."
When he offered to run the operation at Bagram, he insisted on being allowed to select his own men.
That morning, he learned that his soldiers would be sweeping a nearby field to clear an area for trash burning.
He had an e-mail conversation with his wife, using a computer at the base. Be careful, she wrote him, before signing off.
The day before, Polish soldiers had cleared a path into the area with metal detectors. Today, McNaughton followed a Polish officer into the field, surveying the area and determining what needed to be done.
It was only on the way back that his foot found what the detectors had not. His right leg was gone, and his left leg had sustained severe damage. In the hospital, before he was flown first to a military hospital in Germany and then to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., his soldiers came to visit him.
"They didn't want to do mine clearing anymore," McNaughton said. "I explained to them how serious the mission was."
Kim received a phone call from one of his fellow soldiers at midnight. She knew before she even picked up that the caller was bearing bad news.
"You get a phone call that late, you know there's pretty much something going on," she said.
McNaughton's long rehabilitation, both at Walter Reed and then at home, was tortuous, punctuated by bouts of despondency and a dozen surgeries. Through it all, Kim was by his side, giving him encouragement when he needed it and getting tough with him when he wallowed in doubt.
When she first saw him, she retreated to the bathroom to cry; she didn't want him to see her tears.
At times, McNaughton descended into deep despair. But Kim fought his self-pity with a determination born of necessity.
"She wouldn't let me feel sorry for myself," McNaughton said. Sometimes, she would stand by and watch him crawl or hop his way to the bathroom, forcing him to rely on his own powers.
"He had his ups and downs," Kim said matter-of-factly. The two have been married for four years.
Eight days after the mine explosion, President Bush met McNaughton during a visit to Walter Reed. The two men spoke of their love of running; Bush promised McNaughton a jog together after he recovered.
Like an infant who has just become aware of his limbs, McNaughton spent months learning to use his new leg, a donation from Hanger Orthopedic Group, the prosthetics company that also flew him to New York for the Hope & Possibility race.
On April 14 of this year, Bush fulfilled his vow. The two men worked out in the White House exercise room and then jogged a few laps around the South Lawn — Bush on his aching knees and McNaughton on his prosthetic leg. It was the day after Bush held a press conference regarding the war in Iraq.
"I told him how he did a real good job," McNaughton said. "He was very open. I could ask him anything."
The rain hasn't let up, but neither has McNaughton. Gasping for air, he comes across the finish line in just over an hour, having navigated the slippery five-mile course with only one fall.
His relatives, huddled underneath sopping umbrellas, greet him enthusiastically.
They are used to his leg now, able to joke around. His mother tells a visitor that he has a special plug in his car to charge his leg, which uses batteries and a computer chip to allow McNaughton to control his movements fluidly.
"I'm just waiting for a policeman to pull him over and ask him to get out of the car," she says. " 'Hold on, I need to unplug my leg.' "
McNaughton, still a member of the National Guard, now earns a living working for the Department of Homeland Security, preparing for a possible future attack. His experiences haven't changed his faith in the president and in the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"If I was able to, I'd go over there tonight," he says. "I believe in what President Bush is doing. Once a soldier, always a soldier."