It was the Purple Heart license plate on Michael Holmes’ vehicle in the Convocation Center parking lot that led to his involvement with “The Veterans Project,” a new documentary film screened on the Ohio University campus this past April.
One of the film’s producers, Dr. Todd Fredricks, also a physician with OHIO’s Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine, saw Holmes’ license plate and made it a point to introduce himself to the veteran and current physical therapy doctoral student as Holmes was crossing the parking lot.
“Of course, a Purple Heart license plate means you’ve been injured in combat,” Holmes explained. “So Dr. Fredricks already knew I probably had a story to tell.”
Produced by Media in Medicine, a collaborative effort between the Heritage College and the Scripps School of Communication, “The Veterans Project” was conceived by Fredricks and fellow OHIO faculty member Brian Plow to give current and future physicians a window into the experiences of returning veterans—many of them injured in combat and suffering from PTSD or traumatic brain injury.
“We want to help civilians learn how to take care of veterans better,” said Fredricks, Heritage College assistant professor of family medicine and himself a veteran. “And our approach is captured in the film’s tagline: ‘One Soldier, One Voice, One Story at a Time.’”
Holmes became one of 15 wounded veterans to relate their military and medical experiences, as well as the challenges of returning to civilian life after being in combat. He was injured in December 2006, two months into his tour of duty in Iraq, when a rocket-propelled grenade hit the Humvee he was driving.
“All I remember is a flash and then the explosion,” said Holmes in a recent interview. “It’s like getting shot and blown up at the same time.”
There were four other soldiers in the vehicle. “They all thought I was dead because they could hear me gurgling—and they thought my head had been blown off because the explosion had blown off my helmet.”
Instead, the blast had torn away the lower half of Holmes’ face, leaving his lower lip hanging and his teeth damaged. His lower jaw, however, was still intact. “I have a really strong jaw, I’ve been told,” Holmes added ruefully.
After the medic bandaged him up, Holmes retrieved his helmet and weapon, and helped his fellow soldiers fend off 50 enemy combatants shooting from the rooftops until help arrived—more than three hours later.
“When I snapped the chinstrap on my helmet, the pain was worse than the initial injury,” Holmes said.
“It’s just like the movies.” he recalled, “where the dirt kicks up with the bullets, and you can see exactly where they’re landing….and that was close, you think.”
Holmes was medevacked to Bagdad, where, according to Holmes, “they sewed my face back on,” before sending him on to Germany, where he underwent additional surgery to remove dead tissue.
Though the surgeries took about a month to heal, Holmes was told he would have to wait a year or more to undergo plastic surgery to reconstruct his mouth, cheeks and chin.
“Of course, the nerves are damaged and you lose feeling,” Holmes said, whose plastic surgery took place in 2008. “It really makes a difference not being able to feel a kiss—you don’t know how good it feels until you can’t!”
Holmes described his best and worst experiences during the whole ordeal as one and the same—and it happened on Christmas Eve 2006 as he was flying home.
“We were coming back to the U.S., and our plane broke down in Illinois,” Holmes said. “Some of the other guys suggested going to the PX (“post exchange,” the base retail store), so we decided to do that. We go in, and I realize how I must look to these people, and I’m scared to death. There are all these families and kids, so I grab a napkin and hold it over my face. I’ve never been so embarrassed in my life as I was standing against the wall in that PX, which was familiar to me.”
As he stood there, a woman—most likely a soldier, too—who was at the PX with her family came up to him. “She might have seen part of my face—I’m not sure—but she came up to me and hugged me. ‘Welcome home,’ she said. It was one of the worst and most amazing things that happened to me.”
Holmes speaks candidly about his injuries and recovery (discharged with a high disability rating, 40 percent due to traumatic brain injury) in “The Veterans Project,” and he was on hand to answer questions after the April 11 screening. The documentary is slated for a summer release and will compete in various film festivals.
Meanwhile, Holmes continues to do pretty amazing things. He returned to combat in April 2007, just four months after being injured—“something I was very proud of,” he said, and then served in Afghanistan in 2009-2010. He then completed his bachelor’s degree at the University of Alaska in Anchorage and is now set to complete his doctoral degree in physical therapy at Ohio University in May 2018.
But perhaps the most amazing thing to Holmes himself is speaking out about his combat experience: “I was a guy who never talked to anybody. I was shy, didn’t have any confidence, didn’t know what to say or how to be,” he said. “But then I realized, ‘What’s the point of living in a shell?’ And when I did start talking, people started to listen.”
To find out more about “The Veterans Project,” and to watch a film trailer, click here.
Todd Fredricks, Brian Plow and Michael Holmes record Holmes' experience for The Veterans Project.