JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska - Sgt. Mark McElroy
wanted to follow in the footsteps of his father and his grandfather.
His father was a bodybuilder prior to spending 21 years in the Army,
and his grandfather served two tours in Vietnam. Both were airborne
infantry, and McElroy said he felt it was the right thing for him to
do as well.
A native of Delphos, Ohio, McElroy joined the
Army in 2010 at the age of 18 and completed basic training, Advanced
Individual Training and Airborne School at Fort Benning, Georgia. He
then got orders assigning him to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson,
Alaska, where he joined the 1st Battalion (Airborne), 501st Infantry
Regiment, 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry
McElroy was stationed here less than a year when he
went to Afghanistan. His experiences overseas tell a story of a
Soldier's year in the desert, one that cut his military career
June 25, 2014 - Sgt. Mark McElroy (shown
with his pregnant wife) was in the Army less than a year when he
deployed to Afghanistan. Surviving various improvised explosive
devices and other attacks, he completed his yearlong tour and
returned to tell his story. Through the Warrior Transition Unit,
McElroy has put himself back together, was promoted to sergeant and
is separating from the Army to care for his family and pursue a
career in bodybuilding. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Robert
“When I was over there, it was almost like you're not
human,” he said. “It's kind of like you're a robot. You just
get used to doing crazy stuff.”
The Soldier said they
had no showers or means to wash their clothes, and ate only
MREs for the first several months. His uniforms became
covered in dirt, salt and sweat. His uniforms would
literally stand up on the ground when he took them off, he
“I mean, the living conditions were beyond what
people have here, which wasn't even a big deal,” he said.
“It's just some of the stuff we had to do. You're taught to
feel no emotion as an infantryman. You're taught to just do
your job – you're so set on your job you don't really know
what's going on around you outside of being deployed.”
He also carried a Mark 48 machine gun and 1,000 rounds –
adding up to 180 pounds of gear with his other equipment –
daily for the duration of the yearlong tour.
went on the deployment weighing 215 pounds. Between not
eating and going on patrols, he got down to 171 pounds in
three months, he said.
“We had it real tough out
there,” he said. “We only had each other to rely on.”
Their two platoons lived on a combat outpost, smaller
than a forward operating base, “so small, you could stand at
one end and throw a rock at the other end,” he said.
“We'd go out and do a mission, and we'd come back and have
to pull a 12-hour tower guard shift,” he said. “You were
lucky to get three hours of sleep within a 24-hour period of
time. Not three hours straight, 15 minutes here, 30 minutes
On missions, they organized seven-man teams
where they would go out and set up ambush positions, he
said. Sometimes they were out there a few days, sometimes a
week or more, just waiting for the enemy.
became a part of me while I was over there,” McElroy said.
The Soldier performed more than 250 patrols
"dismounted," or on foot.
“We did do some convoy
patrols, but the Taliban's a lot smarter than people think,”
he said. “You can only go so many places in vehicles. You
can go a lot more places on foot where they can't plant the
It was March 1, 2012, when, on a dismounted
patrol, he was hit by an IED. He was 10 meters from the
“My team leader was on point,” he said. “I
was beside him and we were walking through a field. He made
a slight right turn and as soon as he did, I saw the ground
flex out of the corner of my left eye. My adrenaline just
The Taliban had dug the hole too
deep, causing most of the blast to travel straight up
instead of spraying the Soldiers, who got down as quickly as
they could, ready to return fire, he said.
were ringing; I couldn't hear anything,” he said. “My head
hurt so bad; I don't know if I blacked out or not. I got up,
helped my team leader and another Soldier get back to cover.
There was a stone wall about 50 yards behind us. After that,
it's hard for me to remember [what happened]. Throughout the
deployment there were multiple firefights, we did a lot of
big missions and there were more IEDs, but that one 10
meters away was the closest I ever got. That's 30 feet
After completing his deployment, McElroy
returned to JBER October of 2013 and went through a month of
“They teach you how to become
normal again, whatever normal is,” he said. “To me, [normal]
is a setting on your dryer. You can't go from
‘fight-fight-fight; kill-kill-kill the enemy' to coming home
and being a normal Joe off the street. It just doesn't work
McElroy said the Warrior Transition Unit
helped him out.
“I'm here because of multiple
reasons,” he said. “[Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder] is a
major issue. Coming back from combat was a struggle. I deal
with reintegration, flashbacks, nightmares, severe anxiety
and panic attacks where I don't even know what's going on. I
don't even drive my vehicle – my wife does the driving. I
can't drive and focus on my surroundings. If there's a box
or something, I still think it might be an IED. If you
really think about it, it's kind of crazy, but that's my
thought process [after] being over there.”
suffers from insomnia, he said.
“I'll lie down for 40
minutes and I'll be wide awake, ready to go,” he said. “I
still can't get my sleep schedule right. That's pretty much
why I'm here today.”
Carrying so much gear every day,
being in firefights and explosions, also cost his body.
“That caused severe back injuries, bulging discs, spinal
fluid leaking out of my back, my sciatic nerve's pinched –
that's something I have to live with every day,” he said.
“My wife has to tie my shoes for me half the time, I can't
even bend over. I can't hear; I'm 80-percent deaf out of my
When he in-processed at the WTU, despite a
looming medical retirement, McElroy was determined to make
the promotion list. Army Staff Sgt. Sheree Lapoint became
his squad leader and helped him out, he said.
came here, she could just tell I was squared away, and she
wanted to see me succeed,” he said.
Every Soldier is
a different mission, Lapointe said.
very motivated,” the cadre said. “I could tell he was
instilled with discipline. He was the epitome of what an
outstanding infantryman was, so for him to come from combat,
being a foot Soldier on the line and doing heavy ruck
sacking, his mentality was shoot – move – communicate. He
didn't know how to adjust.
“He still brought his
morals, his discipline, and the seven Army values over to
the Warrior Transition Unit, knowing that it was something
he wasn't used to. He was used to rucking, and we were like,
‘listen, you're here to recover from your wounds, whatever
you're facing, you're here to help yourself. Sometimes
you've got to lay down your weapon and say I need a break.'
I told him that's what he needed to do.”
his medical appointments and personal recovery, McElroy kept
himself busy by continuing to serve.
“He's able to go
out into the community and work now,” said Lapointe, a
native of Davie, Florida. “He's able to adjust; his work
site has nothing but great things to talk about. He's had
great support from his wife. Everything's been successful
for him here. It's really good to see that. He did what he
had to do here.”
“I'm really big into body building
and dieting and nutrition,” McElroy said. “I work[ed] over
at the Health and Wellness Center on the Air Force side. I
work[ed] with an exercise physiologist and a dietitian over
there. We do gate analysis and workout plans for people who
need to lose some weight or get a better score on their PT
test. We help them with their eating habits, or quit using
McElroy, who came to the WTU as a
specialist, also achieved one of his career goals; he was
“I'd only known him for about two weeks,
and I knew he was ready to go before the board and stand in
front of the command sergeant major,” Lapointe said. “When I
had to stand in front of the command sergeant major and he
asked me how I know [McElroy] is ready, I said he's ready to
lead Soldiers, regardless if he never does it again.
Sometimes you have to take chances on a Soldier, that's what
it's about. You don't know what a Soldier is capable of
until you give them a chance.
“I told him to keep
fighting, keep working on it. So he went up to the board. He
was outstanding. He was one of the top five Soldiers who got
highly recommended. Lo and behold, he did what he had to do,
and he made sergeant all by himself here at the Warrior
Transition Unit. He didn't let anybody tell him he couldn't
do it. It could have backfired on me, but that's what we
have to do sometimes. It's not about you, it's about them.”
You get out of the program what you put into it, she
“Coming to this organization, you have to want
to be better,” Lapointe said. “The keys are here; everybody
wants to help out the wounded warriors. PTSD is big here,
you have to dig deep and gain that trust. Once you gain
their trust, it's like a beautiful flower comes out.”
McElroy is transitioning into a medical retirement.
“I plan on going to school full time, and working on
becoming a professional body builder,” he said. “I'm
training hard for that. My dad actually won one of the
biggest shows in Ohio [in the 1980s] called ‘Mr. Ohio.' He
just turned 50; he's still huge. A guy who helped train my
dad is training me right now online.”
Despite all the
pains and costs of his tour in Afghanistan, McElroy said he
“I miss the brotherhood,” he said. “It was
a big thing. I loved being over there when I was there.
You've got a group of 20 or so guys who would give their
life for you in an instant, and I would have done the same
for any of them. When I left, I had the mindset that I was
ready to die for my country; I didn't care if I came home or
not. That's how I lived every day over there, that's what
kept me alive. That's what kept me on my toes.”
By U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Robert Barnett
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