When Army Staff Sgt. Justin Shellhammer found himself at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, he vowed that his stay would be one of the shortest on record.
From the day he stepped on a landmine in Afghanistan to the day he left Walter Reed, only five months and 20 days had passed. His daughter, only 1 year old at the time, was growing up fast and he didn’t want to miss any more of her childhood than he already had.
On the day that Justin was injured, he and his squad set out on a mission in response to mortar attacks on their base. Walking down a trail, they saw a mortar round sticking out on one side of the sand. When he stopped, the soldiers behind him kept moving and bumped Justin, forcing him to take another step, which unfortunately, was straight on to a landmine.
“I shot through the air and landed belly down in a ditch on another landmine that thankfully didn’t detonate,” he said, adding that his men took turns carrying him to safety, after which Justin called in his own medevac.
The last thing Justin remembers asking the doctor is whether he’d be able to ride a motorcycle again. Five months and 20 days later, Justin left Walter Reed, the lower half of his left leg amputated, and enrolled in motorcycle mechanic school – and yes, he could still ride his beloved bikes.
His career as a mechanic was short-lived, as the pay wasn’t what Justin had hoped for. Since he had been a military policeman in the service, he turned his interests to law enforcement. He completed the police academy and passed the physical test with flying colors. After a waiver from the governor of South Dakota, Justin became the first amputee officer in the state’s history. A handful of years later, he was hired as a federal police officer for 10 years.
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As it can with post-war veterans, post traumatic stress started to affect Justin in a way that he couldn’t ignore, and so he retired. He’s currently proud to be a stay-at-home dad for his four children, ages 17, 15, 3, and 1.
He and his wife, Kayle, and their two children, Elijah and Emerson, attended the Travis Mills Foundation Veterans Retreat this summer for the first time, all thanks to a fortunate coincidence.
Justin and his family were browsing their local Target in Ohio when a man approached him to ask if he had been injured while in service to our country.
“He thanked me for my service and told me to look into the Travis Mills Foundation,” Justin said. “He and his wife were volunteers there and they said they’d love to see me there someday.”
Justin immediately Googled the Foundation, decided to apply, and was accepted. Unfortunately, COVID delayed his and his family’s visit, but they traveled to Maine this past summer and had an unforgettable experience. Justin still doesn’t know who the volunteers are who approached him, but is forever grateful that they did.
At one point during the family’s experience in Maine, Justin and Elijah were paddling on a kayak – their first time ever on any kind of boat – off the retreat’s waterfront and the 3-year-old turned to his father in a moment of sheer joy and said, “Dad, I love you.”
“That was priceless,” Justin said, adding that Elijah calls his dad his best friend.
“In fact, he puts his Mr. Potato Head on his foot and walks around like dad, like an amputee,” Justin said.
Elijah, and especially Emerson, could be restless at times during the family’s stay at the retreat, so Justin was often up at night with his youngest and happy to be kept company by the retreat’s night person. Staff would even bring food to their room if the kids were settled down at mealtimes as not to disturb them.
“The staff went above and beyond,” Justin said. “I tried to make sure they knew how appreciative we were. I never wanted them to think that we felt entitled to anything.”
Justin and his wife were pleased that each family is assigned a golf cart during their stay at the retreat – riding in a vehicle often makes the children sleepy, so they loaded them in the cart and drove throughout the retreat property exploring, so the kids could fall asleep.
While practicing archery, Justin got to talking to one of the TMF staff about the Warrior PATHH program that’s offered by the Foundation, the nation’s first-ever program designed to cultivate and facilitate post traumatic growth in combat veterans. The Foundation offers the program during several weeks in the fall, and Justin was inspired to sign up.
“I just want to do something that makes me the best person I can be for my wife and for my kids,” he said.
His wife, Kayle, said Justin has been through various programs designed to handle post traumatic stress, but she has hope for the PATHH program.
“I like what it’s about,” she said. “It will really help him work on those issues he has – I’m excited for him.”
Justin hopes to take full advantage of the PATHH program and even visit the Foundation again in the future to experience winter programming and activities with his family.
“It was an incredible experience.”
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The Travis Mills Foundation is a nonprofit organization that supports post-911 veterans who experienced life changing injuries while in service to our country. We offer our nation’s recalibrated veterans and their families a week-long, barrier free, all expenses paid experience at our world-class retreat in the Belgrade Lakes Region of Maine. We offer various programs that help these brave men and women overcome physical and emotional obstacles, strengthen their families, and provide well-deserved rest and relaxation.