‘A massive orange fireball’: Canadian sniper Jody Mitic describes moment he lost both his legs below the knee

On January 11, 2007, one week after my 30th birthday, our battle group was sent out to do a “soft knock” to flush out Taliban, which meant arriving out of the blue at an Afghan village. As snipers we were asked to support it. Just like when cops arrive unannounced at a criminal’s door, we hoped our appearance would startle the enemy into peaceful surrender.

We were a four-man sniper unit on this mission — me, Barry, Kash and Gord. I packed only the essentials — two bottles of water, a granola bar, some spare batteries, my radio and as much ammo as I could carry. The radio was how we communicated with our operations base. There was only one, and it was my job to carry it. It was the heaviest item we had.

We stepped outside the wire at Strong Point Centre and skirted the cemetery that always creeped me out because of the negative energy I felt when we were near it. A lot of violent death happened in this area and many lain to rest were Taliban fighters we’d put there. We changed direction and headed through the thick mud of a large farmer’s field. A few minutes later, we arrived at an opening in a wall leading into the village we wanted to observe. This entry seemed like an easy way in. But as any good sniper knows, obvious entry points are often traps. Snipers are trained to find an unconventional approach, to search out the road less travelled, because the road less travelled is always the safest.

Two small steps led up to the low entry. Barry took them first, then ducked his head and cleared the doorway. He nodded once on the other side — no issues. He stood guard there, scanning the dark with his night-vision, making sure there was no imminent threat. Gord, Kash and I waited. We were perfectly still and quiet.

Mitic / Gilmore familyMitic / Gilmore familyJody Mitic is well known around Ottawa as a local city councillor, but before that he was a decorated army sniper who got his feet blown off in Afghanistan, rehabbed, ran a marathon and became a fan favourite on The Amazing Race. His wife, Alannah Gilmore, also served in Afghanistan as a medic and, in fact, was one of the first on scene when Mitic was injured.

Barry gave the signal and ushered first Gord and then Kash through the opening. They were clear. I was the last one left to go through. Kash went down on one knee and pointed his rifle at six o’clock while Gord and Barry manned twelve o’clock and nine o’clock respectively. They had my back. I was ready to go. I took the two steps up and cleared the entry without any problem. I tapped Kash on the shoulder to let him know I was through. He started to walk, and I waited, covering our six while the others moved ahead. Another rule of soldiering, tactical spacing — never bunch up.

CNW Group / Simon and Schuster CanadaCNW Group / Simon and Schuster CanadaUnflinching: The Making of a Canadian Sniper (Simon & Schuster) is in stores on Sept. 8.

Once Kash was about 10 metres ahead, I turned and took my first step forward. My right foot touched the ground, and a massive orange fireball soared across my face. I didn’t hear a sound. For a few seconds, I felt weightless, as if I was suspended in space.

The next thing I knew, I was on the ground. My ears, nose and mouth tasted like mud. And that’s when the pain hit, a pain so intense that it completely overwhelmed my body and my silence. As I punched the ground as hard as I could, I screamed, “Oh god! Oh god! Oh god!”

Such a small thing, an anti-personnel land mine — about the size and shape of a thick hockey puck — but full of deadly explosives. My fellow snipers rushed to my side. “Sorry, guys. I just f–ked the mission.” At that moment, this was all I cared about.

My eyes were full of mud. I tried to look down at my legs but I couldn’t. Barry crouched over me, blocking my view. Whatever was going on with my legs, he didn’t want me to see it.

The next hour was the longest of my life. Your mind goes to the weirdest places in a situation like that. I was so thirsty but refused to drink much. I remembered an episode of M*A*S*H in which Hawkeye says it’s a bad idea for the severely wounded to chug water. For some reason, in that moment, I chose to take medical advice from a TV show that had been off the air for decades.

Mitic /Gilmore familyMitic /Gilmore familyMitic during his recovery.

With each passing minute, I was growing weaker and weaker. Barry and Gord were both kneeling next to me doing first aid as Kash kept watch for signs of the enemy.

“Do you think I’m going to make it?” I asked.

“Of course you’re going to make it. Never give up, Jody. You know that.”

Never. Give. Up. The phrase repeated over and over in my head. It still does to this day.

Excerpted from Unflinching: The Making of a Canadian Sniper (Simon & Schuster). In stores Sept. 8.

Mitic /Gilmore familyMitic /Gilmore familyMitic's bionic feet.
Mitic/Gilmore familyMitic/Gilmore familyJody Mitic, wife Alannah Gilmore, and daughters Aylah and Kierah. ‘Jody and I have both had to figure out our way back into the normal ,’ Gilmore says. ‘But we have done it together.

About Jody Mitic and Perry Lefko, Special to National Post