Without direction, our eyes may be opened to a most unlikely path.
When New Lenox resident Brian Wilhelm opened his eyes during a summer day in August, gunfire drowned out the Tantric music in his headphones. His head was spinning, lights were flashing. And there was a slight pain in his leg.
In 2000, Wilhelm enlisted in the National Guard. He was an 18-year-old in Manchester, Iowa, and said he was immature and not ready for college. Months before Sept. 11, 2001, he decided he wanted to join the U.S. Army and got the opportunity. He was deployed to Iraq in March 2003, and was there only six months before a rocket-propelled grenade destroyed his left leg.
“It was just one of those days,” said Wilhelm, who still has a piece of the grenade at his home. “I had a feeling it was a bad day. We were running security, and I was listening to my headphones, then boom!”
It was only a couple years earlier that Wilhelm joined millions of Americans glued to the television to watch the devastation of 9/11.
“I’m young and stupid like, ‘All right, we’re going to war!’ It’s the ignorant perception of someone who hasn’t been in combat,” said Wilhelm, who’s now diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. “You never have any notion something like (9/11) would happen.”
Even though he enlisted before 9/11, Wilhelm said it wasn’t a “game-changer” for him. The Army trains soldiers to use a weapon for a reason, he said, and there was no backing down in the face of war.
Instead, what he remembers most right after 9/11 is the outpouring of patriotism. He was working as a recruiter’s assistant for the National Guard, and he didn’t sense much fear from the students he recruited when he visited high schools. Hoards of people of all ages and ability turned out ready to enlist, regardless of whether they were eligible.
“Just seeing a lot of the patriotism was really interesting,” he said. “We had guys who were 40 with huge beards, big bikers looking like Billy Gibbons wanting to enlist right away.”
Although he was only in Iraq for six months, Wilhelm learned a lot that would shape who he is today. He often ran security for convoys, but fondly recalls other days where his unit helped set up schools and voting and a police force in a mixed tribal area. One night he’d be on a raid, the next he’d hand out crayons for children. Many of the locals invited the soldiers in for tea and bread.
“They showed us real hospitality,” he said. “It broke a lot of perceptions we had of people from different cultures.”
Wilhelm was always up for new challenges, and breaking down perceptions was something he had to face when he returned home. He had his leg amputated in October 2003, and remembers he was walking with a prosthetic by Veterans Day. Without a leg and suffering from PTSD, he wasn’t deterred from service and re-enlisted in the Army, a process he described as a nightmare because of all the red tape and concerns over his leg. He had to retake every test to qualify for eligibility again.
“It’s a perception of, ‘Oh, I’m a handicap guy.’ People say you can’t do a lot of things,” Wilhelm said.
He didn’t get a chance to return to Iraq, and officially retired from the Army in 2006. But he continued to challenge himself. Sorenson Medical, a products company that helped with his leg procedures, approached him about becoming a U.S. Paralympic athlete. They sponsored him and paid for his training, apparel and travel, and Wilhelm got to the national competition in Marietta, Ga., in 2007, where he threw the discus.
After meeting his wife, Alex, in Colorado, the two moved to New Lenox. They have two children—Alison, 8, and Colin, 7—and Wilhelm uses some GI Bill benefits to attend Lewis University, where he’s studying computer science.
“It’s the only thing I encountered that really challenged me,” he said. . He’s working on a system to automate market analysis using formulas that can minimize risk, spot trends and identify over-bought or over-sold stocks.
His next challenge will be finding a job in the financial sector in Chicago, but all his life experience he said he’s ready for anything. That tragic day 10 years ago that shaped all our lives, and in many cases it gave us a sense of direction to strive for something more.
“The military formed me into who I am today,” he said. “It’s conviction.”