Army Staff Sgt. Justin Shellhammer lost part of his left leg in a mine explosion last week in Afghanistan, but the Tiffin native considers himself fortunate.
"I'm just doing my job like everybody else in the military," Sergeant Shellhammer, 26, said in a telephone interview yesterday from his room in Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, where he's recuperating.
"I think I'm really lucky. It could have been a lot worse. It just wasn't my time to go."
Sergeant Shellhammer and a patrol of U.S. soldiers were investigating a mortar attack near the main American base at Bagram early on April 5 when they came to a goat trail.
He said he reminded his men that the area was known to be heavily mined, then started down the path.
"I took 10 more steps and the goal trail gave way," Sergeant Shellhammer said. "I looked down and I saw my right leg and it was there, and my left leg, my two bones of my left leg were sticking out, and the pants were just shredded at my kneecap."
With the help of his men, he hopped a half-mile to where the patrol left their trucks. During the grueling journey, he said he kept thinking about his wife, Tracy, and their 5-month-old daughter, Alexis, who live near his unit's home base in Alaska.
"I thought, 'What if I don't get back? I'm never going to see my little girl again, or my wife,' " he said. "That's what kept me going, to see my little girl again and walk her down the aisle someday."
A member of the 164th Military Police Company based at Fort Richardson, Alaska, Sergeant Shellhammer said he had been in Afghanistan for less than a week when he was wounded.
The soldier has had three surgeries on his left leg, which was amputated about six inches below the knee. He said he expects to undergo a fourth surgery today, and to remain at Walter Reed for several months of rehabilitation.
A 1998 graduate of Tiffin Columbian High School, he joined the Army in 2000 and previously was stationed in Bosnia, Africa, and Iraq, where he was part of the first unit of military police to enter the country during the 2003 invasion that toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein.
Sergeant Shellhammer said he enlisted because he wanted to support himself and did not see a lot of career opportunities in northwest Ohio.
"There was nothing in Ohio I wanted to do," he said. "I didn't want to work in a factory or be a farmer. I guess I just wanted to be free, not relying on my family for everything, to make a path for myself and not have everything handed to me."
He said he has no regrets about his military service.
"I look at it like this: stuff happens, and everything happens for a reason," he said.
"I'm not going to dwell on the past or be down on myself because I don't have two legs. There's a lot of things I can do without two legs."
Sergeant Shellhammer's parents, Rick and Deb Shellhammer, who live in Tiffin, plan to visit their son this weekend.
Mrs. Shellhammer said talking with her son by phone has eased some of her initial fears about what happened to him.
"Last week was really tough, especially until Friday night when we got to talk to him some more. It was like a 1,000 pounds lifted off me," she said. "He's got a great attitude, though I'm sure there's going to be tough times.
"I am very proud of him. To me, he's a hero."
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