For many people, losing a leg would be one of the most disheartening experiences of their life. For Army specialist Ezra Maes, the loss of his limb paled in comparison to the satisfaction he felt after saving his fellow soldiers from a potentially deadly training accident.
“We’re just so lucky to come out of that the way we did,” Maes said in a Department of Defense interview at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, where he is currently in rehabilitation. “We’re just grateful now, for every single day that we’ve got.”
Despite having a grandfather who had served in the military, Maes didn’t think that his own career path would go through the Army. “I had family that had served and I had always respected it, but I just figured it was never really for me,” he shared. When he took the competency test at a recruitment station in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he attended high school, the results opened up several promising career opportunities in the military.
He enlisted at the young age of 18 and served as a specialist loader for an M1 Abrams tank. Deployed to Eastern Europe for a NATO mission, he and his crewmates, gunner Sergeant Aechere Crump and driver Private First Class Victor Alamo, were in Slovakia and sleeping in their tank during a training exercise.
The crew got a rude awakening when they felt the tank start moving at high speed. “I called out to the driver, ‘Step on the brakes!’” Maes recounts. Pfc Alamo responded that they weren’t working. A leak in the tank’s hydraulic system meant that there was no way to slow it down. It careened, reaching speeds of up to 90 miles per hour (145 kilometers per hour). At this point, there was nothing that the soldiers could do but brace for impact.
“We held on and hoped one of the trees stopped us,” Maes told Fox News. “And it did, for the most part.” Unfortunately, during the crash, all three crew members were thrown around and sustained major injuries. Maes immediately knew he was badly injured but didn’t know to what extent.
“There wasn’t this sense of panic for a while,” he explained in a video for Brooke Army Medical Center. “The adrenaline hits and you don’t know what’s going on.”
Maes knew there was something wrong with his right leg. “My leg got caught up into the gearing where the spinning turret sits and where the driving part of the tank is,” he said. Looking around, he saw that Sgt. Crump had also sustained a serious leg injury. “I see my gunner with a big thigh cut and I’m freaking out,” he said. “Ok, that’s the femoral artery, we’ve got to get a tourniquet on her.” Driver Alamo was unable to move as he was suffering from a broken back after being thrown through the driver’s hatch.
Despite the pain in his leg, Maes knew it was up to him to get help. “I pushed and pulled and felt a bit of a tear,” he said to Brooke Army Medical Center. “I turned with my other leg and pushed off to get completely free and that’s when I thought I just dislodged it.” In fact, Maes had just amputated his own leg without realizing it.
Leg severed and almost fainting from the pain, Maes made a tourniquet with his belt to stem the bleeding. With his crewmates trapped inside the tank, he thought, “Either I step up or we all die,” as explained to the Department of Defense. He hopped around to get the medical supplies. “I knew I was going into shock,” he added. “All I could think about was no one knows we’re down here.” Meanwhile, Sgt. Crump had also made an improvised tourniquet for her leg and was trying to radio for help, only to realize the radio was down.
Then, out of the blue, a signal of hope rang. It was Maes’s cell phone. “Mine was the only phone that had service and hadn’t been broken in the crash,” he said. Gunner Crump managed to crawl to get it and tossed it to him. With the phone, he managed to send for help, and then he and his crewmates focused on stopping the bleeding while remaining conscious.
“Once they found us, it turned into a bunch of big jokes and laughs,” he said, surprisingly. Despite the terrible pain he was in, describing it as a “10” on the scale, he managed to joke about what had happened before passing out. As he told Fox News, when a fellow soldier grabbed his severed leg, he reportedly shouted, “Hey, bring that back, I want it!”
Maes finally made it to Brooke Medical. His injuries were substantial. In addition to the severed leg, which could not be reattached, he suffered fractures to his ankle, pelvis, and shoulder. The road to recovery was going to be long and difficult, but with the support of his family and the staff at Brooke, he was willing to give it his best.
“When something like this happens, it’s easy to give up because your life won’t be the same, and you’re not wrong,” he told the DOD. During long months of learning how to walk on a prosthetic leg, Maes has constantly stayed grateful for his survival and chance to live again.
Video Credit: DVIDSHUB
“This was my second chance at life. This completely let me reinvent myself as a human being. It’s really an amazing opportunity,” Maes said to Brooke Medical, where he is hoping to be fitted with a prosthetic leg implant that will dramatically improve his mobility. In addition to keeping fit with kayaking, yoga, and working with service dogs, Maes is hoping to pay forward the excellent care he has had.
His next goal is to go to college through the GI bill and pursue a career in prosthetic technology. “One of the new jobs I’m looking for now is to be a prosthetist,” he shared. “I want to work on prosthetics, build things for other people to help them get the mobility I’m getting.”
Maes knows how lucky he has been and wants to use the chance to help others. “Whatever I could do to help somebody else that’s struggling with [amputation], that would be a dream for me,” he adds.