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Lake Orion's wounded warrior is home

After six months in Afghanistan and a gunshot wound to the hip, Mike Zach is back in Lake Orion. Photo submitted (click for larger version)
September 29, 2010 - At first, getting shot felt like being punched really hard, said Mike Zach, 22, US Marine and 2006 Lake Orion grad. Then it hurt like hell.

While deployed in southern Afghanistan this year, Zach was shot in his right hip by Taliban. The bullet traveled through his intestines and out his left buttocks.

Afterward came months (and what will eventually be years) of recovery, wearing a colostomy bag, walking with a cane and rebuilding all the muscle and flesh on his backside.

Back in Lake Orion after a stay at Bethesda Naval Medical Center in Maryland, Zach is in good spirits, resting at his parents' home on Miller Road with his wife, Lindsey.

"I was mad because I knew my wife was going to be mad – that's the only thing that ran through my head," Zach said.

The day he got shot, Zach and his unit were in an area called Kunder. They had cleared 19 IEDs (improvised explosive devices used by the Taliban) off what they called Hill 71, made a base and started work on a three-day operation to cross a dry river bed and claim a compound in an effort to prevent more Taliban ambushes.

In the compound, the men monitored the surrounding area and snacked on food supplies left by previous occupants. Zach said so far that day, the men hadn't gotten shot at, which is the mark of a good day.

Then, around 4 p.m., the men heard a single gunshot.

"We all yell up to the roof, 'Is everybody all right?' and nobody answered – we thought somebody was dead," Zach said.

He headed upstairs to the roof, saw that the men stationed there were OK, and started investigating where the gunshot came from. He found where the round impacted and determined which direction it came from.

As soon as he turned to go back downstairs, a bullet sliced into his hip.

Not knowing how bad the injury was, Zach started walking down the stairs, calling to men in his unit for help.

"I got to the bottom of the stairs before my leg stopped working," he said, adding he will be forever thankful and bonded to the three men who helped him – Corporal Justin Cornet, PFC Kyle Keller and H.N. Stoddard.

While they packed his wounds, Zach's unit kept him in good spirits, and even made him reenact a scene from "Forrest Gump" where a charter is shot in the rear end and says the bullet "jumped up and bit" him. Zach said he laid on the dirt floor, smoked a cigarette and drank the Gatorade he'd been saving for three months, waiting to make the move to safety. Thankfully, the bullet ripped through his intestines, but spared arteries and bones.

Eventually, Zach ended up having to walk about 800 meters to transportation and medical help, and he couldn't do it slowly. When the Taliban injures the opposition, they try ambush the unit. "They know we either have to have someone come get us, or go somewhere to get the causality out of there," said Zach.

After surgeries in Afghanistan and the US, Zach says he's just happy his shooter was horrible at aiming.

His parents, Tina and Joe, are equally happy. Tina said she found out about the injury over the phone.

"It was a call no parent ever wants to get," she said, eyes tearing. "My heart about stopped. We're just thankful that his injuries – as serious as they are – are minor, and that he made it back home alive."

She said seeing him wave and smile for the first time in six months when he arrived in the US was an enormous, indescribable relief.

(click for larger version)
The Zach family isn't a "military family," so Tina said she didn't know how emotionally difficult sending her son off would be.

"All you do is worry," she said. "Living through this whole thing has been a real eye-opener."

At first, Zach said his parents tried to talk him out of joining the military and steered him toward college instead. But college just wasn't his thing, she said. "He's never regretted joining. He wrote letters home saying that he's finally found what he was born to do. How can you not support that?"

When Zach was 21, he announced to his family that he wanted to join the Marines. And after he's recovered from his gunshot wound, he plans to rejoin them for a lifelong career.

Zach says seeing his wife's face when he first arrived stateside was "just awesome."

"She stuck with me through everything – training, boot camp, school of infantry. She's my own personal nurse now. She's been taking care of me every step of the way," he added.

The two were married Valentine's Day, a few weeks before Zach left for Afghanistan, March. 5.

In the middle east, he says he was taken aback by all the sand, plains and dry riverbeds.

"It never rained once in the whole six months I was over there. The weather went from 100 to 135 degrees."

But the dust was the worst part, he said.

"No matter what, if you put a dollar bill in a Ziploc bag and pull it out a day later, it's going to be covered in sand. We had to clean our rifles every day."

Zach said while he was overseas, he was fascinated by how Afghanis grow their food. Natives have to pump water from hundreds of feet below ground to cultivate crops like watermelon, grapes, corn and poppies.

Tina says the best thing for parents to do for children away at war is support them, write letters every single week.

"(Write about) big things and little things, tell them what your day was like, because that's all they have to go on," she said. "They're totally cut off from family and what's going on in the world. I went as far as sending him a card from the cat."

She added that those who can should make donations to non-profit organizations, like Wounded Warrior Project (www.woundedwarriorproject.org), Semper Fi (semperfifund.org), The Aleethia Foundation (www.aleethia.org) and Desert Angels (thedesertangel.org/)

"These groups are wonderful and we had first-hand experience with that do wonderful things for the military, marines and wounded soldiers directly," she said.

Reporter, Lake Orion Review
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