COVENTRY — Last year on July 9, Army combat medic Micah Welintukonis was running up a stairwell in a U.S. compound in Afghanistan when a Taliban suicide bomber blew up only a few feet away.
Welintukonis, 36, a Coventry resident, isn’t sure what happened after that.
He vaguely remembers being carried on a stretcher under enemy fire to a helicopter that flew him to safety, but he was almost immediately put into a medically induced coma by doctors. He was on life support; could barely breathe; had shrapnel wounds to his left arm, abdomen and face; suffered two pulmonary embolisms; and had a traumatic brain injury.
One year later, he still has shrapnel sticking out of his arm, severe knee and back pain, and scars all over his body. But he’s not thinking about his injuries — he’s trying to give back to the veterans’ groups that helped him recover.
“I’m still in a lot of pain, but I still try to get out, I still try to do stuff,” he said. “You have to push through stuff. You can find other ways to serve.”
On Tuesday, the one-year anniversary of the attack, Welintukonis embarked on a four-day, 56-mile hike from Willimantic to West Hartford to raise money for the Wounded Warrior Project, the American Legion, and Veterans of Foreign Wars.
He has raised $5,600 so far after putting up fliers, emailing people and using social media extensively, but is still hoping for more donations. Donations aren’t based on how many miles Welintukonis walks —any amount is accepted through his website or by mail.
Before Tuesday, Welintukonis hadn’t walked more than 7 miles a day. He had taken three weeks off from his training walks due to pain, but is determined to complete the 56-mile walk no matter what. Friends from the military joined him at various points along the walk, and U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, who presented Welintukonis with a Purple Heart last summer, was scheduled to walk with Welintukonis on Friday.
The Wounded Warrior Project helped his family cope after Welintukonis was flown to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland in critical condition.
“As soon as I knew he was in the U.S., I packed a bag,” said Camilla Byam, Welintukonis’ wife. “You don’t realize how long you’re going to stay because you don’t think about it, you just get there. They come with jackets and backpacks and towels and blankets and they just make you feel comfortable.”
Welintukonis’ recovery was slow, but he returned home to his wife and three children on the last day of October. He said the people he met at American Legions and VFWs helped him deal with both the physical and emotional trauma.
“You wake up in the hospital and you’re only a figment of what you once were,” he said. “I don’t think anyone will have 100 percent the same experiences, but there’s a common denominator we share and I can learn from them about how to deal with this stuff. It’s nice to be able to relate.”
Donations may be made at giveforward.com/fundraiser/k652/walkforwoundedwarriorsvets, or can be mailed to the American Legion Post 14 at 114 West St. in Vernon, CT 06066.
Text by Nicole Perez, Hartford Courant; video by Jim Altman, FoxCT