A Warrior Restored
Learn the powerful story of a wounded, restored hero.
Michael “Shane” Ayres, a quadriplegic veteran, finds joy in what he calls an “unexplainable” bond between his fellow combat veterans. Photos by James Pratt
In his time as a squad leader for the Apache Troop of the Sixth Battalion, Fourth Cavalry, Ayres earned a Bronze Medal for running into a mortar attack to save two allied Afghan soldiers. Because of those efforts, one soldier survived.
According to the Wounded Warrior Project, more than 400,000 soldiers suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.
One of the first of its kind, the WWP Independence Program provides a commitment into the future for warriors to achieve their independence without a set time frame.
Michael “Shane” Ayres grew up with the Red River practically in his backyard. The Love County native had never stepped foot outside of the five surrounding counties, and at 19 years old, he had the need for adventure flowing through his veins.
One year out of high school, Ayres joined the U.S. Army. Following basic training, he went straight to Germany feeling a distinct sense of patriotism.
“I liked to defend what I grew up with and what I represent,” Ayres, former Red River Valley Rural Electric Association member, says. “Get out there, give my 10 cents, then come home. It was supposed to be a simple story.”
Today Ayres, a quadriplegic veteran, speaks from his wheelchair and lets the memories stream through his still-steady voice. For this Bronze Star medal recipient who served in some of the biggest firefight areas in both Afghanistan and Iraq, his story is anything but simple.
In the Hornet’s Nest
Army scouts are forward reconnaissance. Ayres’ job was to go out in front of the main effort and establish a safe area for the infantry and logistical groups to start building a Field Artillery Brigade. The last area he helped establish was three clicks from the Pakistani border near Kamu, Afghanistan.
The terrain at Combat Outpost Lowell made for significant difficulties. Almost like the bottom of a bowl, the outpost was surrounded by mountains and caves hiding insurgents.
As a squad leader for the Apache Troop of the Sixth Battalion, Fourth Cavalry, his focus was to hold down the enemy’s main supply route through the rugged terrain, an old goat trail that could accommodate pickup trucks. For months, Ayres and his fellow warriors would withstand attacks from as close as 100 meters.
“Anybody who wanted to shoot at us, that’s why we were there,” Ayres says. “We’d get a pop shot in and it was like poking a hornet’s nest.”
Many soldiers would go three to four days without any sleep. At nighttime, they would receive brief reprieves because the blaze of a muzzle flash would quickly reveal an enemy’s location. But the horrors of the day would haunt the dreams in the soldiers of what Ayres refers to as “Little Vietnam.”
Ayres now suffers from a spinal cord injury that limits the use of his hands and has paralyzed him from the waist down. These injuries are not a result of what he endured in the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, but rather of the lingering effects after he returned to American soil.
Shouldering Post-War Burden
When Ayres came home in 2009, he encountered a battle between “himself as an individual and his own mind” in the form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Warriors tend to suffer in silence, and Ayres found solace in alcoholism, which led to a car accident and sustained lifelong injuries.
“People kept saying, ‘You’re different, you’re different,’” Ayres says. “I felt like they were saying, ‘He’s sick, there’s something wrong, I should stay away from him.’”
Ayres is not alone. According to a major study by the RAND Corporation, at least 20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have PTSD and/or depression. The same study revealed half of those with PTSD choose not to seek treatment.
Ayres says pride is a huge factor for veterans in admitting there is a problem. He didn’t seek help initially and his life changed drastically as a result of that decision. After waking up from a 37-day coma as a quadriplegic, a fellow combat veteran intervened.
“One of my battle buddies yoked me up and said, ‘I’m coming to get you,’” Ayres says. “He dropped everything and moved me to Kentucky with his family.”
In February of this year, Pedro Rocha, another squad veteran, offered to move to Oklahoma to care for Ayres full time. He says it wasn’t even a thought to put life on pause to help another warrior.
“You get to reignite that bond you’re missing from the civilian life,” Rocha says. “With veterans, you have to take a deep breath and have a lot of patience, but the payoff for that relationship is very high.”
Ayres has a network of about 30 warriors like Rocha he is in touch with every day. Among this group, they have a deep, unconditional bond that helps them understand what the other is thinking.
“It’s something unexplainable,” Ayres said. “In battle, we felt each other’s souls.”
To continue his recovery, Ayres searched for further help reconnecting and reestablishing community. That’s when he discovered the Wounded Warrior Project (WWP) and a specific program that reached past some of the traditional care models to foster independence. Committing to Independence
Alex Balbir, director of Independence and Long Term Support Program, views his work with WWP as a continuation of his mission as a medical service officer. After he finished his active duty, he found fulfillment in working with veterans like Ayres who suffer from PTSD or a traumatic brain injury.
“I see this as an outlet to serve my brothers and sisters,” Balbir says. “We’ve seen a significant increase in the ‘silent’ injuries of war, which is why we’ve started the Independence Program.”
The Independence Program is unique in that it takes a holistic approach to a warrior’s integration back home. The program is a warrior-generated care plan that will address the goals they set for themselves. One of the first of its kind, the WWP provides a commitment into the future for warriors to achieve their independence without a set time frame.
WWP provided Ayres with a life skills coach, a former member of the Canadian Army Airborne Artillery. Ayres says he is an “amazing and spiritual” man who regularly meets with him to talk about his experiences and his future. “Mr. Ayres is really advanced in his community-based reintegration,” Balbir says. “His goals have been to work on his skills outside of his home and be a part of his church and community.”
By 2017, WWP estimates 1,150 severely injured warriors and their families will be served through the Independence Program. In addition to those who seek the program out, WWP has a team working to identify warriors who may be at the greatest risk of institutionalization.
“Everything we do is because of the graciousness of our donors,” Balbir says. “There are many people across the nation making this commitment into the future a reality.”
Looking Up and Ahead
Ayres has dreams he’s working on each day. According to Rocha, he has not let his injuries slow him down. In addition to focusing on his family, he’s been working on driving, going to the gym and returning to his favorite pastime: turkey hunting.
“When I met him in the military, all he talked about was hunting and being a man,” Rocha says. “When I first got to Afghanistan, I had barely fired a weapon. He was there for me then, and I’m there for him now.”
The pair have rigged up a system to safely anchor the rifle and tie a string around the trigger and Ayres’ wrist, so all he has to do is pull his wrist back to take a shot.
“Monkey over there has to carry me,” Ayres uses Rocha’s nickname with a laugh. “It’s slow going, but we make it.” “I’m just glad turkeys can’t smell,” Rocha joins in with a chuckle. “I’m not that strong of a guy, it was a hot day and I was sweating pretty strong.”
Fun moments are treasured as life continues to throw Ayres a few curveballs. Right now he doesn’t have a proper shower suited for his condition and the width of his chair causes him to continually jam his fingers in doorways. However, his focus is not on himself, but rather, on helping other veterans connect and conquer life after active duty. “The fact that there are veterans helping veterans like the Veterans Administration and the Wounded Warrior Project, we’re going to be okay.”
As Ayres works to answer a new text from a fellow veteran, the words selfless, humble and strong come to mind. “Simple” is not one of them.
To learn more about the WWP, visit www.woundedwarriorproject.org.