Sunday Interview with Michael Schlitz: For me it was, 'This is where I am going to die; I am going to die right here in the dirt in Iraq'

You probably don't know Michael Schlitz.

But you should.

Eight years ago, Schlitz -- a U.S. Army sergeant assigned to the 10th Mountain Division in Baghdad -- almost died in a roadside attack.

He was burned beyond recognition, lost both hands and partial sight. The three soldiers in the vehicle with him were killed.

Today, Schlitz lives in southern Harris County and travels the country telling his story of service and survival.

He can talk candidly about suicide because he has contemplated it. He can talk about pain after 83 surgeries.

He recently sat down with Ledger-Enquirer reporter Chuck Williams and shared his remarkable story.

Here are excerpts of the interview, with some of the questions edited for length and the order of some of the questions rearranged for clarity.

February 27, 2007: How did your world change?

It was an average day. We got up early, we got the guys prepped, got the vehicles prepped, did our mission briefing.

You were in Baghdad, right?

We were in southwest Baghdad in a little place called the Sunni Triangle. The media at the time had kind of named that the "Triangle of Death" just because of the KIAs we had. It was just littered with IEDs -- Improvised Explosive Devices.

My Infantry platoon was attached to the Engineer unit, and our job was to drive around and look for those IEDs.

If we found it, obviously we called in, we'd try to disarm it. We'd call EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) in to explode it in place, whatever we needed to do. And sometimes we didn't find them and they would explode, but we had large up-armored vehicles.

About two weeks before us being ambushed, we were again blown up so much the mechanics couldn't turn our vehicles around fast enough, so I had to substitute the Humvee that didn't have the kind of armor that the up-armored vehicles had.

And I had just made mission, so I made that my vehicle.

I put it in the rear; we really didn't have a lot of experience with the rear vehicle being hit because 10-to-1, they were probably going to try for one of our other vehicles. So, we sat out that morning. It was probably going to be a 15-hour patrol to clear the route we had designated.

About three hours into the patrol, we had to clear a dead-end road. And anybody who has been in combat -- anybody with common sense -- knows you don't go over the same path twice. You keep moving around so they can't pinpoint you.

On a dead-end road you have no choice. So, as we were coming back up the road they did a command det -- meaning they triggered the IED so it would hit my vehicle. My vehicle was the weakest link.

How many were in the vehicle?

There was four of us. We had picked up the pace a little bit, going from 2 mph to closer to 5 and 10 mph. Then I heard the boom. Before I could even get a choice four-letter word out, I remember hitting the ground. I kind of hit my shoulder and head on the ground and rolled a little bit. For me, being a leader, they always teach battlefield assessment. Get your battlefield assessment before you make any decisions.

As I lay there, I kind of looked up and saw my vehicle -- nothing really out of the ordinary at that point. What I didn't see was my guys moving. I got up to run to the vehicle. As I ran to the vehicle and got closer, I could feel the flames hit me in the face. That is when I realized I was on fire. Because the flames were hitting me in the face, I felt the majority of the flames were in my torso area. So, I went ahead and dropped my body armor and went down to roll. I got a roll and a half in and the heat was so extreme that my muscles locked up.

I wasn't any longer able to roll. I was face down in the dirt. A lot of things go through your head. You always hear these stories about your life flashing in front of your eyes. For me, it was "this is where I am going to die; I am going to die right here in the dirt in Iraq." About the time I started having those emotions -- this is my last moments on earth -- I could hear my guys yelling for me.

I didn't know how far out they were; and I didn't know even if they got to me what they could do for me. And before I knew it, I felt that fire extinguisher hit me. It went from that extreme heat sensation to the extreme cold. It is one of the hardest things to explain because it felt that good.

One second you are on fire and the next second you are freezing?

It wasn't like I was freezing. It was like this cooling sensation coming over me. You didn't feel like you were freezing at all. It was like somebody had put a nice cold blanket on you.

These were the soldiers who were ahead of you who had gotten back to you, right?

They were. Typically, vehicle separation is 50 to 75 meters in front of us. So, them coming back, it takes time -- you figure 75 meters is a football field. They had to run to get to me. They were not going to bring the vehicle back because it would have taken even longer.

The second thing that kind of came over my body when the fire extinguisher hit me was the emotional aspect of it. Instantly, you go from thoughts, "I am going to die right here in Iraq," to "OK, I still have a fighting chance to live. I can still make it out of this."

All of this happened over what time span -- seconds, minutes?

Under a minute from the time of the explosion to them getting me. It couldn't have been more than a minute. Otherwise, I probably wouldn't be here.

There were three guys who were lost in that ...

My gunner, who was up top in the Humvee, was pretty much killed instantly on impact. The IED was two artillery rounds and a propane tank. We think it was deep buried about 6 feet under ground. As it came up and sprayed shrapnel through the vehicle, it also put out propane. Sgt. (Richard) Soukenka was in the hatch and was killed. My driver, Cpl. (Lorne) Henry, from my understanding passed away in the vehicle from burns. My medic tried to do an escape but by the time he got the door open he slumped out and also died. That was Sgt. (Jonathan) Cadavero.

You were blown out of the vehicle, right?

If I had not been thrown from the vehicle, I would be dead. There is no doubt in my mind.

You were obviously taken to a field hospital. How long was it before you were sent stateside?

It was actually pretty quick. Going back -- laying on the ground, a couple of the younger guys wanted to grab me and drag me away from the vehicle. We had spare rounds in the vehicle.

So, a lot of stuff that could blow up?

And the rounds were already starting to cook off. You could hear the rounds starting to cook so they had to get me away from the vehicle. But, had they grabbed me and just started dragging me -- if you think about a big chicken and you pull it out of the oven and how the skin and the meat just falls off the bone.

I had essentially been cooked, so had they drug me, everything would just kind of come off and it probably would have killed me. One of my young sergeants, Sgt. (Jonathan) Redmond wasn't one of my best young sergeants. I actually was actively seeking to kick him out of the military for some bad decisions he had made.

He's the one who told those guys: "Stop, you've got to get him on a spine board, you've got to get him situated." So, here's a guy that knew I was gunning for him because of his decision-making process. Multiple people saved my life: the guy who got the fire extinguisher, Sgt. Redmond who got me on the spine board and got me away from the vehicle. I can remember laying off to the side; the guys had to pick up security, they had to get the reports, so a lot of things were going on at that time.

And you were conscious?

I was conscious. I think once I knew I was safe I went into shock a little bit. There's no sense of time at that point. You don't know if a minute has passed or five minutes has passed. I can remember asking my guys how far out is the medevac. It was like 10 minutes. The next time I asked it was like 10 minutes. I said, "You just said that."

What does that say about the Army that here's a guy you're actively seeking to have discharged and he makes a decision that probably saved your life?

I talked with Sgt. Redmond. He ended up getting out and I've talked to him several times. He has some serious issues from that day, but we're so close over there and a lot of things can happen.

But you're always going to watch out for that guy on your left and right. That's all there is; that's all you have over there. So, whether or not you like the guy or dislike the guy really doesn't matter, because ultimately, when you're in the thick of things, you're going to do what you've got to do and that's exactly what he did.

So, then the medevac came in. I can remember being loaded in. When the bird was coming in there's all kind of rotor wash so the guys laid on top of me to protect me. Loaded me up and the flight medic -- I remember being female -- asked me my name and my social. I know I got my name out, maybe some of my social, and then obviously the drugs kicked in. I was taken to Balad and ultimately to Brooke Army Medical Center.

The battalion chief hit me with the medicine on the helicopter. I have one memory, and I don't know if it was in Balad or in Brooke Army in San Antonio.

But I remember coming off of a helicopter, an aircraft of some sort, on a gurney with guys pushing me toward the building and that's the last thing I remember for four months.

Later on I had the opportunity to talk to the surgeon who worked on me in Balad. That was the first place they took me, and had to immediately take me to surgery. I was constantly flatlining; they kept losing me, so they had no other alternative but to start operating on me right away.

I don't know what the procedure is called, but there is a procedure they're not supposed to do on burn victims and the surgeon went ahead and did it anyway.

Had he not done it, I would be a quadruple amputee because I would have lost my legs too. He had to make that quick decision. Yeah, Brooke Hospital is the burn hospital. They make all the calls on how to operate on burn people, and had he listened to their policies and their decisions, I wouldn't have my legs, so I'm pretty thankful for that.

They had to send a special airplane down from Germany to come and get me. I think I was under operation for eight to 10 hours, then they got me on that bird to Germany at Landstuhl. There they had to start operating on me pretty much right away to stabilize me. They kept losing me. I know I flatlined a few more times and in about 24 hours of stabilization, I made the trip and I got to San Antonio on 2 March.

Do you think about the events of that day every day of your life?

Oh yeah, and maybe not about the whole event, but bits and pieces. It's a big part of me. How could it not be?

Have you asked how did I survive this?

All of the time.

What answers do you get?

There's all kinds of things. You can "what if" things, or even say "why me?" Sometimes things are explainable. Obviously, I have faith and there's always a purpose, there's God's will, so there's a reason why I'm here. But yeah, you always kind of have it in the back of your head.

So, when you started coming back to consciousness four months later, you had lost both hands ...

Originally, I was at the wrist of my right hand and I had a palm but no fingers, but I had calcium buildup in the joints. So, that is why I can't straighten out my arms; it's pretty much in every joint of my body.

... So, the palm was good, the fingers weren't good on the left side so they took the fingers. Later on, about a year and a half down the road when I started doing prosthetics, wherever your arm is, which now is mid-forearm, that's where the battery and motor and everything that makes this prosthetic work starts. So, if you think about me being cut at the wrist, that is my hook way over here.

And it wasn't functional for me, and I was talking to the Army to get them to cut it down, but they wouldn't do it. They wanted me to go ahead and try to get that palm moving a little bit on this side so I could use it like a paddle or a brace or something. I just wasn't interested in that. I wanted to go with another prosthetic function, so I got a consult to go see Dr. (Chris) Peterson, who wrote the book on hands.

Where was he?

San Antonio. He worked on a lot of the San Antonio Spurs' basketball team. When they would have injuries, he was the guy they'd go to. So, we talked about it, and he said, "Yeah ... but probably the most you're going to do is use it as a paddle." I said, "If I brought in a prosthetics guy, could you guys determine the best amount of room to give me the most function?" And he said sure, so we went ahead and did a reduction to mid-forearm and it worked so well that I actually got him to go ahead on the right arm and do another reduction. So, now I have the best functional size arms for me.

How long did it take you to adjust to being able to use the hooks?

Honestly, the very first day. Obviously, everybody goes through a bunch of emotional roller coasters when they are injured. I've been through depression. I've been through anger. I've been through suicidal thoughts. So, before my prosthetics, I was still head to toe bandages at times.

But there was not one thing I could do on a daily basis by myself. I couldn't feed myself, I couldn't dress myself, I couldn't take myself to the bathroom, so life was very, very bad during that time frame. That night I was able to feed myself. I was able to move it.

That was how long after the injuries?

About 18 months from the time I put the first prosthetics on.

What was it like to do something as simple as feed yourself?

It was uplifting, but it was a glimpse. Everything leading up to that is very little light at the end of the tunnel. So, when there is no light, obviously you're in a dark place -- and again going back to the suicide thing -- but by being able to go home and pick something up or feed myself, obviously Mom had to make my food and cut everything up, but the fact that I was able to sit there at the table and eat gave me that little bit of hope, a little bit of light to kind of what's the next thing I can accomplish.

How many surgeries have you had?

I've had 83 right now and 84th coming up in August. And that will be an eye surgery.

Eighty-four surgeries in eight years.

Really, it's 83 in seven years because I haven't had a surgery in over a year.

You've had just about every part of your body cut on, haven't you?

Yeah, pretty much. Actually, I can say there's nothing on me that hasn't been touched at some point, because the majority of my body is a skin graph. So, what little bit of good skin that I had had to cover the rest of me.

You said you had suicidal thoughts. Talk about that.

Going into it, I can remember when I was in ICU still and Mom trying to convince me that I had lost hands. We've all heard the term "phantom pains" -- it's the nerve pain from losing a limb. I had some phantom pains in the beginning, but not its phantom sensation.

I feel like I have hands but there's no pain involved. I hadn't come to really accept that I had lost my hands. I had to wear these goggles because my eyes had been burned so I couldn't see. So, ultimately when I would try to do something I found out, yeah, I really don't have hands. So, I had to come to terms with that. Because of the burns, I had lost a lot of muscle. I was 165 pounds when I was injured. I was 114 in ICU.

And you were probably in tip-top physical condition.

I was in pretty good shape. And they said if I had not been in as good a shape as I was, I wouldn't be here because I had to physically endure just the rehab aspect of it. But I lost a lot of muscle.

I can remember being in ICU and having to learn to walk again. Mentally, I knew how to walk, but when I stood up, I kind of fell over. I had to build myself back up. Some days it was just get out of bed and stand up. Then it was to take a couple of steps and then walk down the hall. It was all of this stuff that kind of piled on.

Every day I had to work harder and harder just to survive. It puts you in a very, very dark place -- is it really worth it? And then, obviously, there is survivor's guilt, stuff with my guys being injured and not being in combat. Even though I had my family there and I had a lot of military support -- I had a lot of people come visit me in the hospital, so I was constantly surrounded by people -- just that everyday grind was enough to put me down that dark path a little bit.

How close did you come to ending your life?

I can honestly say I pretty much woke up every day and from the time I woke up until the time I went to sleep, all I could thing about was doing it. But again, because of the support, because I had people around me, it just never presented itself.

Have you had any friends who have committed suicide?

More than I can count, and I do a lot of the suicide part in the Veterans Advocacy. So, I've lost some that I was working with. I was on the phone with one and 45 minutes later after we got off the phone we couldn't locate him, we had the police looking for him. He was out in the field. About 45 minutes after me talking to him, he said goodbye on Facebook and shot himself.

So you've been impacted?

Even within my unit that I deployed with, we lost somebody in my unit. I've actually, as bad as it sounds, I've lost count of people I knew who have committed suicide.

I read somewhere where you said you felt like you needed to live for the three guys who didn't live that day.

If you talk to therapists and psychologists, they will tell you there's what they call survivor's guilt. If you say you want to live your life for your guys, that's survivor's guilt -- you aren't really living your own life. I'm living my life, I just want to live my life so they can be proud and when they look down they can see that he survived and is doing good things because of it.

I don't like the term survivor's guilt. Obviously, I know I lost guys. I think about them all the time. I have what they call survivor's pride. Because I'm proud of the guys -- what they stood for, the men they were, proud that I served with them -- I carry them in my heart every day. It just irritates me that there's a lot of pride and if you want to tell stories, that isn't bad. It should be called survivor's pride. That's how I look at it.

Was that part of wanting to survive, wanting to fight, to find out what this new world is going to be?

I'm lucky. I was 30 years old when I got blown up. There's a little more life experience, a little more maturity than, say, someone who is 18 who graduated high school, went to basic, went to a unit and got deployed, got hurt right away and hasn't experienced anything after high school and a few months of combat.

Those guys struggled a lot more than I did. I had a lot more to revolve back on. My whole military career was always don't quit, never give up. And there's a lot of time when you want to give up but you just don't do it. This was this same situation. As a leader, you give back, you watch out for the other guys, and that's kind of the role I was taking on.

In 2010 you went with a group back to Iraq.

It was called Operation Proper Exit. It was run by Troops First Foundation. It was run by Rick Kell, who I had met with some people at Walter Reed -- other people in my unit who were injured at different times.

Rick was coming to San Antonio and I said, "Hey, I want to get up with him." I heard he was taking people back and I wanted to go back. He said, "Well, you're going to have to get yourself in a little bit better physical condition," so my occupational therapy went from just focusing on the little things to just working out, trying to get my body weight down because at that time I was probably about 190 pounds.

I needed to make sure I had the energy to go over there. I made my first trip back into Iraq December 2009 going into January of 2010.

How many times have you been back?

Three times.

So, the first trip was late in '09?

Yeah. The first time I went as a participant. Basically, you go back to gain closure. See what Iraq was like. See how things have changed. Go to the different areas. Every FOB (Forward Operating Base) or patrol base, everywhere we went we did like a town hall meeting where we would sit at the front at tables and they'd pack the room full with the service members who were over there and we told stories and we'd allow them to ask questions.

It was two parts. One for us, it was the healing aspect -- the more you tell your story, the more you come to accept it. A lot of the guys hadn't told their story before and a lot of the guys were very emotional. And a lot of the guys who were serving hadn't seen anyone like us yet. So, they had questions. We opened it up at the end, no holds barred -- you could ask us anything and everything you could possibly think of. We tried to use some humor to kind of lighten the mood.

Did you go back to the spot in Baghdad?

We couldn't because of the area. We flew everywhere. Obviously they didn't want to put us in a vehicle so that we wouldn't get injured again. We flew over the area I was injured at.

What do you think of Iraq now and the Islamic State?

Obviously, people. The whole reason whether or not we found weapons of mass destruction, whether or not you agree ... it is irrelevant. The relevance is when I was over there we saw people who wanted more freedom. We saw brutality. We were there to make a difference whether or not that was portrayed in the media -- it's hard to tell people that because they weren't showing it on the news. Now, they're showing it on the news because we're not there. So, now the same thing that was going on, is going on again.

The Christians are being persecuted and killed. Villages are being overrun. I think that was the whole reason we were there. We took care of them. They left because we were there. When we pulled out we knew what was going to happen. We predicted this. Anyone who was over there knew it's going right back.

What do you think about that?

I want to go over there and kill people.

Unfortunately, violence isn't always the answer, but like a lot of things in the world, violence is the only answer. If a bully thinks he can beat up on you every single day, he's going to beat up on you every single day. But if you put a deterrent in there, that bully isn't going to want to do anything because there's that one thing he might not want to go up against.

You know, if you think about North Korea versus South Korea, North Korea could have come down multiple times and reengaged South Korea. There's a deterrent -- the U.S. is it. We have service members drop that whole peninsula.

We have them on the DMZ, south of the DMZ going all the way down to the tip of the peninsula. That's a deterrent. If we had left more people there, scattered about, even if we weren't actively engaging but just a liaison with the military, the Iraqi police and Iraqi military, this probably wouldn't be going on right now.

What do you think when you seem some of the acts -- the beheadings ...

Again, they do it for attention. They do it because they can. It's evil. Bottom line, a lot of people say it's all Muslims, all Islamics, but there are extremists.

They are on the extreme side. They take the Koran and twist it into the way they want to do things. And for that, if you aren't Muslim, you should be killed. But you also have to understand in their culture over there, the Christian crusades have never ended over there.

If you look at the hierarchy of the U.S. -- God, country, family and our belief system -- over there, they really don't have that same standard that we do. Like just trying to get the Iraqi army to defend their country is so low because they worry more about the religion, the tribe, the family. Country was way down here. There is no sense of patriotism. There is no sense of nationalism. No sense of wanting to take care of anyone, really, outside of that area.

If things would get hot, oftentimes the Iraqi army would pull back because there was no incentive for them to defend what they had. And we are seeing that now too with ISIS coming in, the Iraqi army was basically laying down arms. They had no motivation.

That's got to be frustrating.

It is.

Being a former Ranger instructor, where do you fall on women going through Ranger School and beyond?

Obviously, we don't know what the "beyond" is. It's a test phase, I'm all for a test phase. I know some women who are pretty physically fit that would probably PT the crap out of me. I don't know about the mental strength. We haven't tested that enough to find out if there's mental strength.

I think it's good that we at least test it. Find out right now, numbers. The last I heard was like six females that would even be able to attend Ranger school at the end of the month, to actually pass the requirements of the pre-Ranger course -- that's PT, going through some patrols and stuff. (Editor's note: The number is now up to 12, with one pre-Ranger course still in progress.) So I was out at RTB a few weeks ago, and they let these females (who didn't pass) continue on with training. They can't go to Ranger school because they've already failed something but they were allowed to continue with the training up to Ranger school. That to me is more important.

If they want to train, let's train them. Because think about going back to Jessica Lynch -- if Jessica Lynch had been better trained and the people in her unit had been better trained, that something that happened that day might not have happened. When we talk about females in combat it's easy enough for us to beat our chest and say, "Well, they aren't a guy." But I know some women with some serious trigger time. I think that if they want a shot at it, so be it. But I think they have a tough road. I don't think they quite know what Ranger school is.

You know, when I went to Ranger School I was 5-fot-6 and 165 pounds. When I came out of the swamps in Florida, I weighed 116 pounds. I basically lost 40 pounds in two months. Can a female do that? Can she still carry the weight?

... It's anywhere from about 75 to 100 pounds on an average day. You take somebody, and I hate to say small frame -- when I talk about small frame, when I went to Ranger school, I was a small-framed guy. I was one of the smallest guys in the class. But yet I still made it. I think if they are going to do it, they are really going to have to dig in like anybody else. Whether they go on to Special Operations and be allowed in the units, I really don't have an opinion on that, but if they want to go to Ranger school and they've got what it takes I'm all for it.

But right now, even looking at the Marine officer course, they've been allowing women to try out for the Marine officer course, and nobody has once made it. But it only takes one to make it. And if that one makes it, they will be properly trained.

... The majority of the ones going through right now are triathlete-type women. They do marathons because they have the physical endurance to go on, but just because you can do a triathlon means you can run, you can bike, you can swim, but doesn't mean that you have the body makeup to be able to carry 100 pounds.

And chances are you are thin. No body fat. When I was going to school, I actually was eating cakes to try to put on any body fat. I was physically fit but I was trying to put on fat. Because in Ranger school, if you don't have enough fat to burn, the next thing you start burning is muscle and back when we had the brown T-shirts, everybody's T-shirts were orange because it starts to burn like ammonia. You can smell it, it has a very distinctive smell. You can see that everybody was just burning through muscle. So now if these triathletes come in and they have no body fat they are going to start burning into that muscle right off the get-go. That's one of the worst things you can do.

Let's switch gears. How did you end up in Columbus?

I was stationed here from January '02 to January '06 with the Ranger Training Battalion. I lived off of 13th Street for a time. I just like the area. Columbus has really cleaned up over the years. They've done a great job downtown, more activities for people to go out and do.

I have a lot of military friends here, I have a lot of civilian friends here. And because of the background I had in the military, there's always reunions to come back to. So I was like coming back to Columbus five or six times a year anyway. You don't get a lot of days at home. I'm picking here to live because I'm already where the events will be -- those are days I can come home and not be on the road for any more days of the year.

So this has become your home?

It is, and every time I came back from an event I was like, "That feels like home." So if something feels like home you should make it home.

When did you move here permanently?

I moved here in October. One of the other points of where I wanted to live because I could have picked anywhere in the United States to move to: You know, I have a caretaker, my mother. In San Antonio, she didn't have the support system, like the girls to go shopping with and stuff. For her life, it was very, very bad. No support system. And because we came here so much, she has friends here so now she can do a girls day, go shopping or just for a drink.

She has her support system now. That is one of the reasons we picked here. It was actually our second choice. Our first choice was to go back to Nashville, but again, there was no network there, not as many friends there so we would have been in the same situation as we were in Texas. So this hands-down became the smartest choice for us.

Could you have done what you've done over the last eight years without your mother?

No. Not even a little bit. Not even now, honestly. When people look at me when I'm out and about, whether I'm giving a speech, or I'm in a suit and tie, they see me at my best. Obviously, I'm a public figure. I mean, even just sitting here for this, I'm dressed but I haven't learned to do buttons yet. So with this shirt, I had to have help. People only see what they want to see when they track me on Facebook seeing me doing all these events...

You are in a home that the Gary Sinise Foundation was very instrumental in providing. Most of us know him as an actor -- as Lieutenant Dan in Forrest Gump. How do you know Gary Sinise?

Gary Sinise has become a very close friend. All of this came about when I was going out to L.A. to start my facial reconstruction. Someone from right here in Columbus who was still in the Army at the time, retired Sgt. Major Jeff Mellinger, he was actually the senior enlisted in Iraq when I was injured and we had become friends later on. He knew some people out there and called them and said, "Hey, I have a buddy coming out there. Will you take him to lunch?"

And Leeann Tweeden, who is a co-host on a bunch of different shows, is a model. Yeah, she has been on the cover of almost every model magazine -- a very beautiful woman, very big heart.

So she calls and said, "Hey, Jeff called me and I'd like to take you and your mom out to lunch. So I said, "Yeah, awesome." When she picks us up, she goes, "Oh, before we go to lunch, I have a surprise for you. We went over to the studio. We had no idea what was going on and walked up to this RV, and she knocked on the door and out came Gary Sinise. He was dressed up in character as Detective Taylor from CSI New York. He had his badge on. It doesn't matter what role he ever plays, he will always be Lieutenant Dan. We went into the trailer and hung out quite a bit.

They were filming that day so we went into the studio. We saw him do one quick rehearsal. Then they were filming the scene. After that, he shut everything down and gave mom and I a tour of the complete set -- the ins and outs of everything. We looked at pictures and were visiting and went back to the trailer.

We just exchanged emails and said, "Let's keep in touch." After that visit we did. As I got more involved in the veteran advocacy part of giving back, we would run into each other at events. What people don't realize about Gary Sinise is that he had a lot of military in his family. His father was WWII, his uncle was WWII, his brother--in--law was Vietnam.

... Everybody thinks it's because of his role as Lieutenant Dan that got him involved and that he's only been doing this for 20 years because last year was the 20th anniversary of the movie -- he's actually been doing it a lot longer.

He asked me to come speak at one of his fundraisers in D.C., and you know up to that point we had just had a phone call here or a handshake here and there. That very next day after that fundraiser, he called me that night. He was like, "Hey, you know I formed my foundation, putting together like-minded people who want to give back for the right reasons." He has this thing, a volunteer thing, he said he'd like for me to be an ambassador. I really didn't know what that meant but what it really is, is just being a voice for veterans. If Gary Sinise can't go somewhere then maybe I can go in his place and share his vision, his message.

So he has become a trusted friend?

Yeah. Sometimes we will go together. Sometimes it will be events that are just me and him. Whenever they need me they just give me a call.

What does this country mean to you?

Everything. Just think of the freedom. If I want to jump in the car, I could go anywhere or do anything. I've been all over the world. Different countries. Some of those countries think they have freedom but ... if you've never seen or been to a third world country -- even some of these other countries who think they have freedom -- you really don't know what freedom is because we are spoiled here in the U.S. And I don't mind being a little spoiled.

What's the purpose of your life?

That's a good question because everybody needs a sense of purpose. You know, my entire adult life my purpose was my career. Obviously, Mom means a lot to me, but during my career, Mom took second shelf. I was married for a few years. The wife took a second shelf to my career. That was when I woke up every day and I wanted to work and when I was injured, that sense of purpose was taken from me.

So that again was one of the things I had to struggle with -- what's going to make me want to wake up every day? -- and it was one of the things that put me down toward suicide. It wasn't until I started getting involved that I realized that was my sense of purpose, one more way I can give back to the community.

I live a very great, blessed life. I get a lot of opportunities. I get to go to a lot of places. I get to experience a lot of things. If I didn't want to work another day in my life, I don't have to. I have pretty much what I need. So it's easy for me to say my sense of purpose is to give back because it's easy for me. Often times there are people who work 40-60 hours a week, and they say, "Man, I wish I could give back more like you do." But maybe they give an hour a week or maybe they give an hour a month to give back to the community.

But when you are working and you have kids there's only so much you can do. So you do it. I don't have a wife, I don't have kids, I don't have the typical job. So I'm in a position where I can do a little bit more.