After a personal challenge from Prince Harry, Mike Trauner started training like an Olympian
After Mike Trauner lost his legs in December 2008, doctors told him he’d never walk again and would be in a wheelchair the rest of his life. But eight months later, he walked the five-kilometre Canada Army Run in Ottawa on prosthetics. And this week in Toronto, he’ll be competing in rowing and cycling at the Invictus Games.
That day in 2008, Trauner came close to losing more than his legs.
He’d been on an early morning march with his men on a small goat path in Afghanistan. The road was narrow enough that they had to leave their vehicles behind and carry all their equipment.
“So, seven o’clock, we get the halt. We move off this goat path, and I order my men to take up defensive positions, which is standard operating procedure,” he says. “My company commander gave the order to move just before 7:30. Nothing seemed unusual. Everybody stood up, the whole company, about 200-plus men, and we all moved off, back onto this path, and started making our way.”
He was carrying four mortar bombs on his back. Their tail fins stuck out — he thinks this might have made him a target. He stepped onto the path, and heard a big pop. The next thing he knew, he was flying through the air. Two remote-detonated bombs had exploded, carving out a crater about the size of a truck.
Trauner still had his headset on. He heard people referring to a double-leg amputee, but didn’t understand they were talking about him. “I was waiting for the helicopter, and I didn’t realize that I was that badly hurt,” he says. “I was about to get back up and take command again, and get back into the fight. But I couldn’t really move. Your body’s in shock. You’re vibrating.”
“And when I looked at my arms, my gloves were melted to my fingers. My whole uniform was smoking, because it was a flash-flame basically… and blood was pouring out of my arms, both of them, because my radials had been slashed. So the guys started putting tourniquets on me. My legs and my arms. And it was about that time that I realized that I was the one that was the double-leg amputee.”
He lost vital signs out there in the field, and then again later while being treated at a hospital. “Everything went white. I had the little near-death experience type of thing.”
Trauner was sent to a military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany. He remembers his first phone call with his wife. “I heard her voice, and I started to tear up — obviously, I was pretty emotional. And I said, ‘I’m sorry.’”
Leah, his wife, says that when she arrived soon after, he apologized again. "I think he felt guilty because he felt like he had changed everything for us. He felt like he abandoned his men. He was responsible to make sure all these guys came home to their families, and he did that. They all did.”
Trauner lost his left leg above the knee, and right one just below it. He suffered a concussion that affects his short-term memory and sustained major injuries to his arms and hands.
When Trauner had the accident that sent him home from Afghanistan, he had been in the country only four months. But it was the second time he had come under direct attack. The first time, he’d been in a light-armoured vehicle, providing cover for friendly forces tearing down buildings, when they got word over the radio that enemy forces were approaching. Trauner’s truck was hit with a rocket-propelled grenade.
“I had no choice but to climb up on top on top of the LAV, and it had a pintle GPMG G6 machine gun, which is a nice big machine gun, and I opened up on them. I shot everybody.”
None of his men were hurt. Trauner was awarded the Medal of Military Valour for his actions that day. “Master Corporal Trauner’s selfless and tenacious actions undoubtedly saved many Canadian and Afghan lives,” reads the Governor General’s 2010 citation for the honour.
“There was a second RPG that got fired when I was standing up shooting everybody, actually,” Trauner says. “It went right past my head. They were trying to shoot me in the face with a rocket, trying to kill me. Luckily they missed.”
His lucky misses started even earlier in his career — during a winter training exercise in the Ottawa Valley area, he broke his back after a bad parachute landing. He was one of seven men that suffered injuries on that jump. The accident ended his career as a combat paratrooper, but he still talks about his good fortune that day.
“Luckily for me, I just had some small fractures. I never actually had any damage to the nerves themselves. I was relatively unharmed compared to other people, which is why I can actually walk with prosthetics, and I still have core strength.”
But recovery has been ongoing: to date, he’s had 18 surgeries, the most recent of which was two years ago, when doctors used the radial artery from his right arm to repair the stump below his right knee. After that procedure, he was housebound for months. But when Michael Burns, president of the Invictus Games, called him and asked him to attend the launch of the Toronto Games in May 2016, Trauner agreed.
At the event, he met Prince Harry of Wales, the founder of the Games. The prince asked Trauner whether he’d be participating in that year’s competition in Orlando — Trauner said he couldn’t, because he was still recovering from surgery, but indicated that he hoped to participate in the future. So Prince Harry challenged him to compete in Toronto in 2017. It’s because of that challenge, Trauner says, that he’s on the team this year.
And Trauner’s here to win. “I want to do really, really well and compete and challenge myself as best possible. I do every single challenge that I possibly can,” Trauner says. He tries to cycle and row every day except Sunday. “I try to mirror a little bit what Olympians do for their training schedule. And those guys will exercise three, four hours a day sometimes. So I try to keep pace with a little bit of that just to achieve my own goals.” His training has clearly paid off: he’s already won two gold medals in indoor rowing.
Trauner retired from the Canadian Forces in May, right around the time the Canadian Invictus team held its first training camp. Once the games are over, he says, he plans to enjoy a bit of downtime — and then get right back into training. After all, the 2018 Invictus Games, which will be held in Sydney, are now just a year away.