SAN ANTONIO — It was three years ago when we were out at Brackenridge High School and I first noticed him: Chris Haley, a high school assistant athletic trainer and amputee.
I inquired to the head coach football two or three days later about who he was, and what his story might be. The answer was beyond anything I could have imagined.
The story had been on my "working list" for some time, but the COVID days and the sports life in general kept getting in the way. Until, finally, early this fall.
We scheduled time to sit down with Haley, who was open to sharing his experience from the last days of his United States military service to now.
'I couldn't figure out what happened'
Haley was serving the U.S. Army in Afghanistan in 2011. September 28 was the particular day that forever changed his life.
He and his unit were tasked with clearing an IED factory, essentially a house where improvised explosive devices were being made for war.
"When we were doing the mission brief, we got the feeling that this was gonna be – had the potential to be – a pretty bad day," he said. "I was the senior medic for Alpha Company 15. The first house they cleared, the point-man stepped on an IED. I sprinted to the guy and checked everything. He was talking to me and everything. I just tightened up his tourniquet a little bit."
It was then, the next moment, that Haley's life would be forever changed.
"The next thing I know, I was upside down, and I couldn't figure out what happened. Then when I moved my leg to look, I saw what was left of it."
Haley had stepped on an IED while rendering aid to another soldier. He had severe injuries to both legs, hands and arms.
In the seconds after the explosion, he also thought he had been blinded. It turned out that was only dust that had darkened his sunglasses. He wiped them off, but then realized the full extent of his injuries.
"Waiting for the bird, I was still trying to tell them who should go in the bird first. In my mind I was still in charge, and that was the first time that someone told me, 'Hey doc, time to shut up, you're a patient now.' They told me they got this, and that they would take care of everything."
That was the moment that the reality set in for Haley, and that this was not just a bad dream.
From deployment to recovery
He was flown to Germany and then to the United States for his recovery and injury rehab, and even more reality set in during that time period.
"I think lots of it was me trying to act like I was OK when I was not. I wasn't in a good place," he said.
That time in his life led him to contemplate a decision that many veterans have tragically had to face over the years.
"In November of 2012, I had a complete plan to kill myself," he said. "I just kind of accepted that this was the natural course of things. I just wanted to see my family one last time. I saw my best friend, and it was just a combination of seeing everyone, my siblings, it set my mind to understand that I was gonna break lots of peoples hearts by doing this. And for what purpose?"
Haley made the conscience decision to push through the tough times and to see what he could make of things. Later, he medically retired from the Army at 23 years old
It wasn't long after that, that he would find his purpose.
He began general studies at St. Philip's College, and through conversations with his physical therapists, one of whom was also an athletic trainer, he began looking at universities to further his education. He was eventually accepted into the University Of Utah.
"I just needed to find a purpose, and that purpose happened to be athletic training," he said.
It was easy to see, in visiting with Haley, the inspiration that he can be to the other veterans trying to reacclimate to civilian life. That isn't easy to do, but I think that's where his life can show others what is possible, and that there's hope for moving forward.
"The military is one chapter of your life, and that doesn't mean that it has to end there. I'm not just defined by my job as an Army medic anymore. I'm an athletic trainer now," he said. "It keeps my mind busy. It keeps me out of the dark places. I'm constantly working with kids. They do keep you young. I just feel like I'm doing something with my life, and I was too young not to do anything."
Maybe the most important part of Haley's story is the message he can share with other veterans around the country, and even the world.
"Find a passion," he said. "Something that you can wrap yourself into just as much as you did the military, and if you do that, that can change everything. Don't give up. Find someone that will listen to you because I can tell you that it does get better with time. Every day may not be awesome, and you'll have some days where you are gonna feel down, but if you keep going, you'll be surprised what you can actually accomplish. If there is only one lesson I can give, that is it: keep walking. That's what we do in the military all the time, and if you do that, you can't be stopped."
Haley has never been one to think he's had it that bad, pointing out that there are many double- and triple-amputees that have endured a much tougher road than himself.
That's perspective that we can all admire.
"It is kinda hard to complain about life when I'm doing OK."
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a hotline for individuals in crisis or for those looking to help someone else. To speak with a certified listener, call 988. The Crisis Text Line is a texting service for emotional crisis support. To speak with a trained listener, text HOME to 741741. It is free, available 24/7, and confidential.