Posted 11/18/07 4:54:00PM
Great article and a very inspiring story.
As Tim Kennedy took to the center of the cage to give his post-fight remarks after winning a decision over Robbie Lawler at Saturday night's Strikeforce event, you could almost hear many MMA fans rolling their eyes.
Here he goes again.
It was more stuff about the military. More stuff about the soldiers who are in "real" fights overseas, even calling out a wounded solider who he'd brought into the cage with him. At best, some critics said, it was cloying. At worst, opportunistic self-promotion on the backs of fellow soldiers. Just thank your sponsors and move on. Why does it have to be about the military every time?
Kennedy's heard it before.
"I feel like people are kind of resentful of me because it," he told MMA Fighting this week. "I don't mean to throw it in people's faces. I was actually reading on Sherdog[.com] and there was like 400 comments under the thread line that said something like, 'Does anybody else want to kill themselves when they hear Tim Kennedy talk about the military?' That was the whole thread, and there were something like 400 comments of people saying, 'Yeah, I hate it so much every time he brings it up.'"
It's not every MMA fan, of course, and some mind it less than others. But for a certain segment of the population, Saturday night's display was another example of Kennedy playing up his own background as an Army Ranger and Green Beret sniper as a sort of pro wrestling gimmick, using wounded soldiers as his PR prop.
It's funny, though. To the man supposedly being used as a prop that night -- SFC Mike Schlitz -- it felt very different.
"It's an honor that he would point me out, but at the same time it was very humbling," said Schlitz. "It was really his moment to shine. To put it off on me really just shows you the kind of character Tim has."
If you watched Kennedy's fight against Lawler, you probably noticed Schlitz standing in the cage with Kennedy afterward. He was the one with the wide grin and the prosthetic arms. He was the one who Kennedy pointed to when he reminded the crowd that, while he may have left some of his blood in the cage, there were people overseas who were sacrificing far more for the sake of their country.
"It was one of those things where, okay, I just beat Robbie Lawler, who's been a top-ten guy at 185 [pounds] for probably the last four or five years," Kennedy said. "I controlled the fight exactly according to the game plan, but then standing in the cage with Mike was humbling and made what I did completely irrelevant. Like it couldn't even matter, just because Mike was in the cage with me."
Schlitz's story is nothing special. Just another wounded soldier tale, the kind we've all seen and read over and over again for years now. Your typical boy-meets-war story. You know how it goes.
Boy is a directionless youth. Boy joins the army at 19. Boy gets blown up by a roadside bomb in Iraq. Boy burns alive. Boy loses hands. Boy is medically discharged after 14 years of service. Boy returns home. Boy must begin a new life, now with prosthetic arms and burns over most of his body.
Nothing that's worth a few minutes of TV time during something as an important as an MMA fight, obviously. Nothing worth getting worked up over.
If we did have a second to spare, however, Schlitz might tell us about what happened on February 27, 2007 that changed the rest of his life. That is, if we cared to hear it.
"It was a pretty standard day," said Schlitz. "We were in the southern Baghdad area doing a basic road-clearing mission. The mission is, find the IEDs. There's only two ways that happens: either it finds you or you find it first. Unfortunately, it found us that day."
The it that found them on this particular occasion was a bundle of two artillery shells attached to a propane tank. When it went off, it destroyed Schlitz's vehicle, killing the three other soldiers who had been inside with him and throwing Schlitz clear of the blast.
"Unfortunately, I never lost consciousness," he said. "When I hit the ground I kind of looked up at my vehicle, and I could see it was on fire, but I didn't see my guys anywhere. My initial reaction was to run for my guys, but as I got up and was nearing the vehicle that's when I could tell that I was on fire. I felt the flames hitting my face, and I noticed that the flames were right on my torso. I took my gear off, hit the ground to roll, basically burning alive. You get to the point where your muscles heat up so much that they basically lock up on you.
"I was just face-down in the dirt, burning alive. In my head, I thought I was done at that point. But then I could hear my guys yelling that they were coming, and I felt that fire extinguisher hit me. I still say it's one of the weirdest feelings. It's a moment that's hard to explain, because you have two sensations. You have the sensation of that coolant coming over your body, like you're being burned, but then you also know you're being saved. It was very emotional. All my guys on the ground that day did an extraordinary job. I'm here because of those guys."
Once the medevac arrived, Schlitz was put into a medically-induced coma. He doesn't have another memory for four months. His hands and arms were burned so badly that the doctors thought the best option was to amputate both arms above the mid-forearm area and fit him for prosthetics.
"Coming out of it, at that point they had to tell me, hey, you lost your hands and been burned severely. I'm all bandaged up. My vision's bad. I'm wearing goggles. I'm sure you've heard about amputees having that phantom limb thing, where they can still feel the limb even after it's gone. That's how it was. As they told me I thought, I have my hands. I can feel them. It took me a while to realize how bad I was. It was probably a year after the incident until I finally saw myself in the mirror. That's when you have the moment of realizing, okay, I'm injured."
The physical side wasn't even the hardest part. That, Schlitz could deal with. The prosthetics proved to be pretty adaptable. Today, he can use them to do just about anything that a person with hands can do, he said. The mental challenges were another story.
"Everybody goes through their different phases. You want to blame the world, blame the enemy, or maybe you're just angry. Maybe you don't even want to blame somebody, but you're just angry that it happened. That's when you fall in this depression, where you don't want to do your workouts or your physical therapy. You may not even want to eat. At some point there has to be something in your life that makes you want to shoot for those things again."
For Schlitz, that something was his unit's impending return from Iraq. His guys, as he calls them, were coming home. He was still in a wheelchair, bandaged from head to toe, and he didn't want them to see him like that.
"That motivated me to get out of the wheelchair and start walking. Once I was walking, I didn't want to stop there. Then I wanted to start running. Once I could run, I wanted to be able to go back to Iraq and visit the guys. Last year I went three times to visit the troops."
Trips like that, and like the one he made to Chicago to see his buddy fight Lawler, those aren't just social outings. It was nice of Zuffa to get him cageside seats, and even nicer of UFC V.P. of Community Relations Reed Harris to escort him into the cage after the fight, he said, but it was more than just a sporting event for him.
"Going to the fights, getting out and doing those things, it motivates me to have something to get out and do on my own, and that's important."
Schlitz first met Kennedy at a Ranger reunion about a year ago. Since then they've stayed in contact, in part because they run in many of the same circles. While Kennedy still works with fellow soldiers, helping to train snipers and teach things like room-clearing techniques even when he's fighting full-time, Schlitz sits on the board of directors of Gallant Few, a non-profit organization that helps veterans transition back into civilian life.
"The three major things facing veterans right now are homelessness, unemployment, and veteran suicide," Schlitz said. "This is our way of helping to mitigate those numbers, just by finding someone for those guys to talk to, get them integrated back into their communities by helping them find a job or write a resume. You get a guy like me who joined the Army at 19 and spent a good bit of time in the military, he gets out and he may have never done a job interview in his entire life. We make sure that he gets caught up on those things."
But let's be honest, these aren't the things people want to hear about when there's prizefighting to be done. Hence the backlash when Kennedy brings it up. Hence the forum threads and snarky Twitter rants. Not only are these types of stories a downer, they're not even sufficiently novel anymore.
After nearly ten years of wars, we've heard about so many wounded vets who have been forced to rebuild their lives that it's too mundane to seem special anymore. Even the tales of their injuries are no longer sufficiently horrifying for us, which is itself horrifying in a different way.
The wars go on, the soldiers get blown up, but back home we prefer to keep our pro sporting events free from such interruptions. Tell us about your sponsors, fine. But don't go off on this military thing again. We were having such a good time.
For Kennedy, the fact that people are sick of it is precisely what motivates him to tell them, again and again.
"I think people already have forgotten," he said. "It's not like I have a responsibility to do it, but I'm very passionate about it and I know people have forgotten how many guys we have overseas, how many guys are messed up, and how much these guys are sacrificing."
For Schlitz, who doesn't have Kennedy's celebrity pulpit, the focus is on helping the people who are still coming back from the wars, whether the rest of the country remembers them or not.
"It's something you can't always talk about," he said. "That's where that disconnect comes with civilians and the military, because there's no way to actually verbalize it and have someone comprehend what you've seen and what you've done."
It's even harder to talk about when no one back home wants to hear it.
"I'm like the superhero coming in with the anti-bullsh*t." - Nick Diaz