Many people speak about losing a part of themselves, about wrangling with the woes of navigating life’s mountains and valleys. Then, for some people, those frequently used metaphors become a very literal reality.
Kisha Makerney is one of those. She’s not a hero, according to her own assessment, yet she certainly has set an example of perseverance that cannot be disputed. She has passed numerous tests of strength and resolve. Through tragedy and triumph, she has gained an admirable perspective on life that should be shared.
Imagine attempting to get up — something you’ve done countless times since toddlerhood without much thought — and catching a glimpse of a formerly functional piece of your frame virtually severed from your body.
Yes, it’s gruesome. It’s a scene most of us can’t or don’t want to visualize. But it’s how the story starts for this remarkable young woman who sat in an office with a reporter and was able to laugh about how people stood over her and spoke like they were sure she would take her last breath at any moment.
The 2003 Fort Towson High School graduate had to get her parents’ consent to enlist in the U.S. Army National Guard her junior year. She spent the summer before her senior year at boot camp. The summer after graduation, she went to complete training. She returned in September and, two or three weeks later, received the call her unit was going to Iraq.
Makerney was at war a year. Her active duty ended approximately three months after returning stateside. The next month, at barely 20 years old, the girl who grew up on motorcycles and dirt bikes was riding a bike to rent a movie in Hugo. At 60 mph, she thinks her front tire blew, causing her to lose control. She went off the road between a stop sign and a metal post with yellow reflectors, which her leg hit, knocking her from the bike. She rolled down into the ditch, her bike into the woods.
Makerney said she didn’t even realize she was hurt, and she actually was angry that she had just wrecked a new bike.
“I got up to look for it and I saw my leg over there,” she said, pointing down and away from her body. “It was kind of attached by a piece of cartilage. It was something I don’t even know how to explain.
“I was at the bottom of this ditch where nobody could see me and nobody had been driving by when I got hurt, so I had to crawl up to the top of the ditch. “The people who were driving by, they stopped for me. And I don’t know if they thought I was going to live because they were asking if the Lord was my savior. It felt like they were giving me my last rites and making sure I was saved. It’s a good thought, but I was like, ‘I’m not going to die. Call 911!’
Someone did call, and when the ambulance arrived, Makerney was transported to the Hugo hospital. From there, she had to be flown to Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas. According to Makerney, her leg couldn’t be saved since she had drug it through the dirty ditch to make it to the road. “Now, I see all these limb-salvaged people and they look like they’re in so much pain. They can’t run and they’re walking with canes. It was probably a blessing in disguise. But, then, I was just mortified that I was going to lose it.
“When you get hurt, you kind of think, ‘Now what? Is my life over? Is it going to have meaning?’ and stuff like that. … I was so lost.”
Since Makerney wasn’t on active duty at the time of her accident, there was not a lot of military help with actual rehabilitation.
“There are amputees everywhere now from the [Iraq] war, but there wasn’t really any then [at the onset of the war]. I didn’t see another amputee for three years.
“The VA made my leg, and I stayed there a couple of weeks and was seen for about an hour a day. We had one physical therapist and there were like 10 people there. Most of them were older diabetics, so I did see amputees like that but none who were my age who were active. [The physical therapist] sent me out in the hall to walk around the hall and hang on to the wall and things like that. She would put bands on my leg and I would strengthen it. Then she would help everybody else. She was only one person. She could only do so much.”
After that, Makerney was virtually on her own to learn how to walk, run and be active.
“I’m a big hunter, so I was always out in the woods on uneven terrain, falling down and getting back up again. And I stayed in the military, so I just trained with them. Through the years, I learned.
“And in 2007, I volunteered to go back [to Iraq]. I’ve been told that I’m the first woman who ever went back into a combat zone with a missing limb.”
She’s proud of that and rightly so.
Makerney said her initial turn in Iraq was a “crazy time.”
“We were right by Fallujah, and that’s where the Marines invaded. We were getting mortared every day. We were doing convoys, we didn’t have armor, and it was like the Wild West. “Yeah, it was the scariest, most fun I’ve ever had,” she said with a laugh.
“I was a machine gunner on our security team — the only girl, because I fought for that thing.”
Makerney explained the gun was taken away from her before deployment at Fort Sill, much to her chagrin.
“Then we went to the range and I beat everybody. I won a steak dinner [and] I showed them why I needed it.”
That little tale of victory beckons an “In your face!” if anything ever did.
And it seems another good gunner was necessary if the chaos in movie portrayals can be accepted as a true depiction.
“It was that first time,” Makerney said. “But everybody thinks that people over there are bad people. Most of them are really good people. People think Muslims are bad people. They’re not. The extremists are, like the Westboro [Baptist Church] guys here. Most of them just want to live happy lives. “I worked directly with Iraqis [the second] time,” she said, contrasting the experience to her first tour when traveling the country all the time. “I trained Iraqis to become correctional officers so they could take over the prisons before we leave.”
After returning from her second tour, Makerney was able to go to the Center for the Intrepid. The Army’s rehabilitation facility in San Antonio was proposed by the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund directors board became operational in February 2007 to focus primarily on state-of-the-art amputee care. Makerney was set to get more extensive therapy and a new prosthetic to replace the basic “pylon” style she first received.
Of course, Makerney met many other amputees at CFI. She said those guys were coming in with the same sort of doubtful questions about their capabilities and futures that she’d had. In addition to the physical gains to be made there, it was therapeutic to finally be surrounded by people with similar hardships.
“And they get it in a way you can’t say out loud,” Makerney said.
“I had my family and people support me, but I wasn’t able to see other people do well. I’m so glad there is a Center for the Intrepid, because those guys get hurt and they can look around and see all these great things. They have these crazy obstacles set up and people are jumping them. They have walls that you can climb in there and all kinds of things, so they can see they’re going to be able to do that. I didn’t see that. I was very alone in that way, and God pulled me out of that pit. I’m just thankful.”
Makerney returned to CFI in February 2013 for the first time in about three years. (This Army sergeant and heavy equipment operator with the 3120th Engineers out of Muskogee is getting a high-heel leg.) By coincidence, Lt. Col. Steve Connolly was there at the same time and recruiting people for a special project. The Desert Storm veteran, who retired from the Air Force Reserves and now flies for American Airlines, was organizing the Kilimanjaro Warriors expedition. He wanted amputee veterans to climb the world’s highest free-standing mountain, rising 19,340 feet above sea level.
CFI physical therapist Mark Heniser agreed to be one of the “wingmen” climbers on the journey. “Mark said, ‘Hey, you wanna climb a mountain with me?’ I was like, ‘Yeah!’” Makerney recalled, reflecting her enthusiasm. “Because it just sounds awesome, you know.”
Well, some people might say daunting. But the expedition was intended to be “a motivational tool to aid in wounded warriors’ rehabilitation processes and provide them with a monumental goal that, once achieved, will give them an incentive to lead a fulfilling life.”
“What our leader wanted to do with the climb was to give us a mission,” Makerney said. “As military, we like missions. We have goals to attain and we train for them, so he was giving us a goal to train for.”
The six amputee veterans and four wingmen climbers had a year to prepare. Makerney, a former high-school basketball and softball player, said she did P90X, plus a lot of hiking, squats, cardio, etc. And she made some of those quite unenjoyable by adding altitude training masks.
On Feb. 10, 2014, the Kilimanjaro Warriors started their trek at 7,742 feet.
“We took the Lemosho Route. It takes seven days to get to the top because you spend several days just going up and down so you can acclimate,” Makerney said. “You train for what they say you’re going to climb every day, so we were training specifically for [that distance]. Well, it turns out they were measuring it from point to point, like straight across, and we were doing this,” Makerney said while making a zig-zag pattern with her finger. “We were walking way more than we thought we were.” “It sucked. I mean it didn’t suck, but it kinda did.” She had to giggle a little with that admission. “It was hard.”
Part of that “sucking” had to do with equipment malfunction.
“I have a pump that sucks all the air out of my prosthesis and makes it more a part of me,” Makerney said. “If I don’t have it, I get blisters and I can’t walk.”
She said the pump started giving her more trouble every day. The cold killed it halfway up on summit day, when they actually got up at 11 at night to make the ascent and reach the top by sunrise.
Makerney explained, since she doesn’t have a lot of leg beyond her knee, it’s difficult to control her body weight. And without the pump, she had to start swinging her leg up rather than stepping. She couldn’t just take off her prosthesis in the dark, during a blizzard with freezing temperatures.
“You’ve gotta deal with it,” Makerney said. And “it” for her included altitude sickness and something like pneumonia that had her lungs filled with fluid. While the elevation basically starved her body of oxygen, having to breathe shallowly to keep from coughing incessantly made symptoms worse. Standing and staying conscious was a battle.
“Sometimes I’d trip, but sometimes I didn’t know why the heck I fell down. The last time, I thought I was going to pass out.
“But you went that far, you trained all year, you’re on the last day, you get up and you keep going,” Makerney said. “Finally, we made it.
“For everyone else, I think it was really celebratory. For me, the first thing I did was sit down and catch my breath.” She laughed.
There wasn’t much rest for the weary. The same day, they turned around and descended to 10,000 feet. Makerney noted that leg amputees, without the benefit of gliding ankle joints, had to sidestep while coming down that terrain covered in slippery snow. Double below-the-knee amputee Steve Martin dislocated his shoulder twice and had to pop it back in.
The warriors reached 4,000 feet on the eighth day and were picked up.
“The last day was the ultimate challenge,” Makerney said. “But as hard as it was, you give everything you have and somehow find more to give, it makes you really proud.
“When you make it to the top, you know you’ve been tested to your limits and you overcame them. It makes you a better person. And it makes you more confident in your challenges ahead, that you can overcome anything. “It’s something that helped me show myself, ‘You can do anything through God.’
“It’s very metaphorical in a lot of ways. This was our symbolism of what we had to conquer. Even like on summit day, it was the roughest right before the top, and that’s very true for almost everything.
“And it’s the same thing for anybody. Not everybody is missing a leg, but everybody has mountains they’re climbing and you can overcome those.”
Therein is a message Makerney hopes to convey.
“I really want people to know, if they get hurt, it’s gonna be OK. You can still do whatever you want to do. We have a lot of suicides in the military; I think 22 a day. I’m not saying I’m a big hero or anything like that, because I’m not even close to it. I just want to show people that there is hope. And I think if more of us did that, then there would be less of that.”
That is a noble aim for a soldier, and one recruited by the Army marksmanship unit who made the national shooting team. She gives a lot of credit for her progress to her brothers in arms. Makerney was in the hospital two weeks after her wreck, then went on crutches to an awards ceremony for her unit’s deployment.
“They were one of the main reasons I do as well as I do, because they never lost faith in me. Before I even woke up from surgery, they were all there and they were on the phone fighting for me to stay in the military. That day at the awards ceremony, they were all carrying me around. When I got my leg, they were all helping me walk.
“And when I wanted to deploy, they never questioned it either. They empowered me. My family was the same way. I feel completely fine, because they never treated me differently.”
Makerney aspired to join the Army at a young age. She’s done that and much more. Her path has required extra steps, some stumbling. Her footprints might not look exactly as she had dreamed, but she said it’s “better than my imagination.”
“God has taken something that was supposed to be the worst thing that ever happened to me and He made it the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”
Makerney has set her sights high again, majoring in aviation at Southeastern Oklahoma State University.
“I’ve always liked the idea of flying. I’m an adrenaline junkie. I’ve never been normal in a way that you pick an accounting major or something like that. I couldn’t do it. I need to be out and about. And I want to fly for an emergency response unit or something.”
No doubt she could do that — and anything else to which she set her mind. Now, excuse me while I go apply an inspired outlook to my own little life’s itinerary.
Contact Regina Phillips at (580) 924-4388 ext. 20 or on Twitter @NewspaperRegina.