In an event full of service members with harrowing stories of survival, Air Force captain Mitchell Kieffer stands out for his impressive recovery.
The Langley Air Force Base mathematics analyst recovered from a traumatic brain injury in 2010 that left him in a fog well enough to earn his master's degree.
He will compete in the Ultimate Warrior competition at the Warrior Games, which begin May 11. The five events, a 50-meter swim, 100 dash, 30K cycling, shot put and air rifle, have a man and woman from each of the five service teams competing.
In 2010, Kieffer volunteered to serve temporarily in the Army as an operations officer coordinating civilian contractors when others were being sent back for another tour.
“I thought I should give at least one of those guys a break,” he said.
Kieffer was injured when his convoy was attacked while checking on school construction in Baghdad. An improvised explosive device ripped through one side of his vehicle and out the other. The blast knocked him out and injured him.
“When I woke up there was chaos inside the vehicle,” he said. “We were all able to get out and get to the next checkpoint.”
He recovered but struggled because of the brain injury. Entering the Air Force Institute of Technology forced his cognitive abilities to improve through his dogged determination.
“I couldn’t keep up,” he said. “Problems that should have taken an hour took seven. But keeping at it helped me. The problems soon took five hours, then three and then one as they should.”
Kieffer may always suffer from the injury. Headaches continue and he sleeps on the floor or a hard surface to help his injured back.
“It’s like how your head feels if you are hanging upside down,” he said. “I needed sleep medication but got off that as soon as I could.”
His determination makes it no surprise that Kieffer will compete in the five events. The former Division III college football player competed on the Air Force triathlon team before serving in Iraq.
“The coaches were all teammates and all knew me,” Kieffer said, adding that he worked out 15-20 hours a week. “It is an honor to do this and something I always liked to do.”