Seven years ago, Stephanie and Michael Trost’s lives changed forever, upending their jobs, their home and their roles as husband and wife.
While deployed in Afghanistan in 2012, Mike’s unit worked closely with Afghan police to train recruits.
A day after protests and outrage sparked by troops burning copies of the Quran used to pass messages between prisoners at Bagram Air Base spread through the country, an Afghan trainee opened fire on Mike’s unit and the accompanying Albanian military members as they patrolled nearby villages.
Five shots riddled Mike’s body, nearly destroying his left hand, and hitting both his legs and buttocks. Another corporal with the unit was seriously injured, and a captain was killed.
If not for a ready supply of Quick-Clot, an agent that helps blood coagulate faster, Mike says he likely would have bled out and died as well.
He was flown to Kandahar, where he underwent triage surgery to determine the extent of his injuries.
Stephanie remembers talking to Mike after his surgery there.
She’d been at a spa in Maryville where the couple lived, using a gift certificate she’d received. When she left the treatment, she noticed her phone had recorded 19 missed calls from an overseas restricted number. Her heart sank.
“I sat in the car and waited until the phone rang again,” she said. “I heard one of the troops say, ‘Sir, she answered the phone.’ He handed it over to Mike, and he told me he was in triage surgery in Kandahar and had been shot multiple times.”
Doctors weren’t sure how much of his right leg would need to be amputated, and though his right arm might need to be cut off at the elbow. He still had an attached pinkie and ring finger, but the pointer and thumb were gone. Someone at the scene had found his middle finger, just the flesh without the bone, wrapped some of the still-attached hand skin around it and sent it to the hospital with him.
Mike was sent to a military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, to be stabilized before flying to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
For the next year, through 35 surgeries, Mike was rebuilt. Doctors saved his leg, but the sciatic nerve was damaged, leaving him in tremendous pain for the next three years.
He was on high doses of opioids, but still the pain persisted, frustrating him and sending him into depression.
By 2016, Mike’s leg developed osteopenia, or low bone density, because of the extensive damage, and doctors elected to amputate it.
The amputation relieved his pain, and one of Walter Reed’s skilled surgeons attached his toe to his right hand, giving him a thumb for grasping. Mike and Stephanie named the new digit Toemas.
“When I got done with the amputation, one of nurses came in and asked what I was going to name stump?” he said. “I didn’t know it was mandatory, but she said most guys do. So, we posted on Facebook, that I needed a name for my new thumb. There were a lot of good answers, but we came up with Toemas, and it just stuck with me.
“I show it to people all the time. It’s a marvel, a magnificent thing the doctors did.”
Through the surgeries and the subsequent years, Stephanie said she was forced to learn a new role and take on new responsibilities in the couple’s relationship.
No longer was she simply a wife, she was now a caregiver.
“I am a Christian, and I believe there’s a natural order in our lives and marriages,” she said. “There’s a very specific placement of a husband’s role and a wife’s role, but all of that was disrupted when he was injured.
“Roles change, lives change, and you have to navigate through that. Sometimes that doesn’t work. When there’s been such a serious change in your relationship structure, you have to understand how to embrace it and change with it.”
Mike credits Stephanie with getting him through the years of medical care and recovery.
She’s his number one supporter and his everything, he said. After his injury and the traumatic and dramatic shift in their lives, he said he believes their relationship is even stronger.
The two recently bought land in Madisonville, Tennessee, and started a farm. At Poke-A-Dot Farms, Mike’s found a new purpose, tending to the hops he’s growing, and working with the vegetables, goats, donkeys and chickens they’re planning.
He’s been taking classes through a veterans’ assistance program with Texas A&M, learning the ins and outs of agriculture.
In addition to the farm responsibilities, Stephanie manages an outreach group in East Tennessee for caregivers, part of the national Yellow Ribbon Fund.
She organizes outings for others in the area caring for a veteran wounded in service, setting up spa days, hikes and dinners, and helps connect them with resources for counseling or financial help.
When first approached by the Yellow Ribbon Fund, Stephanie said they thought there were likely 10 or 15 people in the area who needed the help, but the group has now grown to 103 members.
“What I’ve heard caregivers say over and over and over again is that nobody understands their stories, their struggles, their life,” she said. “Our situations are very different from the average civilian. To be able to have sister to them is amazingly beneficial.”
Mike said he knows “a lot of us can drive our wives nuts.” They need breaks from the stress of their caregiver roles, and he’s proud of Stephanie for helping the others.
Also an advocate for people like her husband, Stephanie said she’s hoping for a change in the words used to talk about and to them, a turn away from the “wounded warrior” terminology.
“They’re being told over and over and over that they’re disabled, called wounded warrior, and those names can have a lot of negativity to them,” she said. “We need to move forward with more positive verbage. These guys aren’t broken.
“You are not the same, you are changed. Something dramatic has happened, but it doesn’t have to be negative, even if you have disabilities. It doesn’t mean you don’t have value,you don’t have worth.”
For more information about the Yellow Ribbon Fund, visit www.yellowribbonfund.org. For more information about resources available to veterans' caregivers available locally, call Amanda Arwood, Support Services for Veterans Families Outreach Coordinator, Volunteers of America, at 423-461-0044.