Life can change in a split-second. In Chad Fleming's case, his life changed after a wrong turn.
Fleming was stationed in Afghanistan in 2001, following the terrorist attack of 9/11. Much of his stay was relatively uneventful and safe, so by the end of his deployment, he developed a sense of invincibility, which is "a bad place to be," Fleming said in his talk at the Minot Air Force Base.
Fleming advised his listeners not to think "you're so good that nothing can happen. You have to pay attention to what you're doing, and you have to make sure you have the right teammates" by your side.
It was October 2005, and Fleming was only 18 hours away from returning to the US when he received a call. It turns out he won't be on a plane home in a few hours. Instead, he would be performing a daytime mission to intercept an enemy leader in Iraq.
Longing for home, Fleming and his team ventured into the sweltering 127-degree desert. As they nearly emptied their fuel tank while deep into Iraq, they decided to turn around and return to base, turning off the road underneath an overpass. They walked right into an ambush.
An Iraqi taxi swerved in front of the convoy's lead vehicle, blocking the soldiers' path. According to Fleming, the first vehicle's driver should have rammed into that taxi and continued driving. Instead, the driver hit the brake, leaving Fleming's vehicle exposed.
Chaos ensued as they were greeted with a storm of hand grenades and gunshots. Two grenades detonated inside Fleming's vehicle. He also sustained a gunshot wound on his leg soon after escaping from the vehicle. At that point, he realized that the rest of his leg was mangled from the grenade blast.
However, Fleming knew that quitting wasn't an option. His teammates, who wanted to go home as badly as he did, depended on him. So, Fleming tied a tourniquet on his leg and continued fighting. In a few minutes, he eventually lost consciousness from shock and blood loss as the fight ended.
Fleming knew that quitting wasn’t an option. His teammates, who wanted to go home as badly as he did, depended on him.
The medics were finally able to get to the team, and Fleming's condition was stabilized before being transported to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland.
Fleming's leg was saved. But after a few years of surgery and physical therapy, his leg was still not the same. Fleming reached a point when he realized he was miserable. He couldn't run, and he was in constant pain. Amputation was the only option left to improve his quality of life.
After a successful surgery, Fleming struggled to adjust to the amputee life. It also didn't help that his first prosthetic leg broke within six hours. Fleming was eventually given a more durable prosthetic limb, after which he decided he wanted to return to service.
Fleming struggled to adjust to the amputee life. But he eventually decided to return to service.
However, the journey back to service wasn't easy. After some pushback from the leadership, Fleming realized he needed to prove his capability. So, he trained hard with his prosthetic leg to complete a 5K run at Lackland Air Force Base and the 2009 New York City Marathon. He also underwent a grueling selection alongside non-amputees. But Fleming emerged victorious in the end, even outperforming everyone by 76%. After proving himself, Fleming had been redeployed five times. He also sustained gunshot wounds two more times.
After amputation, Fleming had been redeployed five times. He also sustained gunshot wounds two more times.
When asked why he wanted to return to service after amputation, Fleming said it's all because he believes in his country, the mission, and his teammates.
Some of the most critical lessons Fleming grappled with throughout his military career apply not just to service members but to everyone facing hardships. Fleming reminded his listeners that there would be things in life that would be out of everyone's control. However, he admonishes that people need to figure out how to keep moving along in life "because everything happens for a reason," he said.