2022 HONOREE

US MARINE SSG (RETIRED) BRANDON LAIRD

 

The following is Brandon’s story as he tells it in his own words.

My name is Staff Sergeant Brandon Laird and my story is not like your typical stories, but here it goes.

I grew up in a small town in eastern Arkansas, total population 300, with one red light, in a single-family home. My mother did the best to raise us and provide for us, however, from a young age, I knew I wanted to get out of this town to see the world and achieve a better life for me and my future family. I saw the military as that opportunity, and I set my dreams of becoming a fighter jet pilot for the United States Marine Corps.

 

I always knew that I wanted to join the United States Marine Corps and to serve my country the best way I knew how, however my dream to be a pilot would not be, but I would get the chance to be the next best thing, an Aircraft Mechanic.

In August of 2001, I left for boot camp to MCRD San Diego, CA. Little did I know that during my boot camp training, 9/11 would also happen. I was shocked, as I knew exactly what that meant for me and my newly acquired MOS. Nevertheless, I put my emotions on my sleeves and rolled them up, as I finished the remainder of bootcamp. The day would finally come, and in March of 2003, I would deploy with the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. During that time, our unit would be subjected to regular mortar attacks among many other things that would later play a role in my mental health. In October of 2005, I would be deployed again, this time to Afghanistan with the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit assisting with Operation Enduring Freedom. With each trip overseas, a part of me would remain there. In 2006, I would then be transferred to VMAT 203 Harrier Squadron. I would learn to enjoy this new role teaching young marines the proper skills to work quickly and under pressure.

 

Out of the nowhere, I would receive orders that would forever change my life, recruiting duty. In 2009, I would report to recruiting duty in a small, rural town in Texas. Going from hands-on, getting my hands dirty, deploying overseas, and working to assist my marines in battle. To going to high schools, pitching sales to students and parents, and never-ending paperwork, was a huge change compared to the last decade I served in the military. My mind would not let me sleep, things I enjoyed doing I no longer saw pleasure in, and the stress of it all would unknowingly land me in the hospital that first Christmas. Little did I know I was suffering from depression. Fighting demons in my head coupled with severe depression, I would put fate into my own hands. I will not go into details on this as it is triggering to me and to some others, but I will share with you the recovery.

 

In 2011, I was priority flighted to Walter Reed Hospital in Bethesda, MD with help from Congressman Louie Gohmert. For the next year, I would be inpatient undergoing several surgeries to reconstruct my face. I had bones, fibulas, flaps, toes, rib cartilages, skin grafts, and metal plates that doctors would surgically take to form and restructure my face. I am completely blind in my right eye. I have trouble with my leg, where the fibula was extracted. Along with other physical ailments, I also suffered a TBI, which has caused memory and focus issues. In 2013, I was medically retired from the Marine Corps. A few years later, I reconnected with Dr. EJ Caterson, Plastic Surgeon with Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, MA. He would help take over, where the military left off. Dr. Caterson is a huge supporter of the military, and he became a trusted friend and advisor over some scary procedures and decisions I would have to face. To date, I have undergone over 40 plus surgeries.

 

I feel incredibly lucky to have my wife, Jodi, of 16 years, who has never left my side. Along with my two beautiful children, who help me to remember how precious this life is and how I will never take it for granted. I treasure the little moments with my kids, like playing baseball with my son, or playing teacups with my daughter. I realize now that mental health matters, and it should not be overlooked or down played. There are so many of my brothers and sisters coming back from overseas that have some form of PTSD, but it is still so hard to recognize, accept and reach out for help. I am still working on my recovery, both mentally and physically, but I will not give up the fight. Thank you to all the support programs out there who help with my mental health journey in some way, shape or form. A big thanks to Fisher House, who has allowed my wife and I stay while undergoing surgeries in 3 different locations. What a blessing you have been to my family.

But, my story doesn’t end there. Although my journey with USMC did not end the way I planned, I feel blessed to have the opportunity to serve my country, and that is a feeling that no one can take from me. Once a Marine, Always a Marine.

I will continue to share my story so that maybe I can reach one person and save a life.

 

Semper Fidelis

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2021 HONOREE

US ARMY SFC (RETIRED) MICAH WELINTUKONIS

 

Micah Welintukonis joined the US Army in 1994, and served with the 174th Infantry Brigade out of Fort Dix, New Jersey. He has deployments to Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2012 while was serving in Kandahar, Afghanistan at the Provincial Headquarters as the NCOIC and Senior Medic of a 12 man SFAT team, a motorcycle bomb breached the compound walls. The Taliban funneled in with automatic weapons, grenades and several suicide bombers. Micah sustained a gunshot wound to his left wrist and was subsequently severely injured by a direct hit from a suicide bomber attack while attempting to rescue others. As a result, over two dozen pieces of shrapnel shattered Micah’s left arm. Shrapnel also penetrated his protective vest and went into the abdomen resulting in a bowel resection, blast gut, and blast lung with pulmonary embolism. In addition he took on small amounts of shrapnel to the face, shoulder and hip, and suffered a mild traumatic brain injury from the suicide attack. PJs treated the wounds and medevaced Micah to safety for immediate surgery. He was in a medically induced coma and had to be resuscitated twice.

 

Micah is still recovering after nine years of physical therapy, occupational therapy and at least several surgeries and procedures. He has heterotopic ossification (bone growth from small imbedded fragments of bone in his left arm which pushes on his nerve), in addition to nerve damage in left hand/wrist. His back issues can’t be properly diagnosed because his injuries prevent the use of an MRI. Micah continues to have left knee issues resulting in the need for it to be periodically drained, and steroid injections. Micah continues to live with dietary restrictions and general physical pain due to the injuries sustained back in 2012.

Micah was built to serve. Post injuries he started a local charity for first responders, served as Vice Chairman of the Coventry Town Council, and Director of Legislative Affairs for a state veterans organization.

 

Micah was awarded the Purple Heart, Army Commendation Medal with Valor, and has been recognized in congress. He was invited to attended President Obama’s State of The Union Address, and has received White House recognition.

 

Micah has also volunteered his time and personal money bringing basic necessities to several east coast communities devastated by hurricanes. He continues to advocate for veterans and first responders, and is active in helping others during local natural disasters. Micah is also a key note speaker in which he accepts no honorarium.

 

During the COVID-19 pandemic Micah saw the toilet paper crisis and purchased $900 worth of supplies and gave it to the community. He subsequently purchased 1,000 masks and gave them to local first responders. Later he volunteered his time with masks for heroes CT and delivered an additional 25,000 masks across over 30 CT municipalities. His last act was purchasing 40 Christmas trees for first responders, nurses and veterans for Christmas 2020.

 

Micah has two children ages six and eight.

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