James Fitzgerald, 28, is a former Army staff sergeant.
This photo was taken when I was on combat patrol in Afghanistan’s Pech River Valley around July 2010. On Veterans Day of that year, we embarked on an operation called Bulldog Bite. Two days later, we were ambushed. A gunshot wound to my left thigh knocked me off a mountain into a ravine. I fractured my right knee, broke my right femur. But when one of my soldiers got killed the next day—that’s what hurt the most, because I was responsible for those men.
I got sent to an Army medical center in Georgia for three weeks, and I remember having mismanaged pain meds and inattentive doctors. I felt demeaned. I didn’t make a formal complaint, but I told the local ombudsman that something had to change.
About a year later, I was up and moving again and feeling a lot better. I even came out to my soldiers after I was medically retired. Today, I’m still in some pain. But I’ve got things to help me get by: my boyfriend, my lost soldier’s parents and focusing on college. I’d love to have a career in law and run for office one day.
—as told to Olivia B. Waxman