“You know, I got this van about two years ago, brand new. Now it has 100,000 miles on it.”
As surprising as that sounds, it’s not that strange coming from Staff Sergeant Timothy Payne, a self-styled ambassador for disabled combat veterans. When I called him, he was in a garage in California, getting his van tested before getting back to traveling around the country on his lecture tour. Seeing him smile in photos from around the country, giving his signature thumbs-up to foreign dignitaries, friends, politicians, and presidents, it’s almost easy to see Tim as simply another inspirational speaker. One look at his missing legs and wounded arms, however, dismisses that thought.
Cathy Lichanec, a Stafford resident who met Tim last year, has spearheaded a movement to bring him to Stafford to give a talk about his experiences in the military, as well as his remarkable road to recovery. Tim does many talks such as this in his work as a disabled veteran ambassador and speaks to both former servicemen and lifetime civilians about his journey.
“I’ve never met anyone like Tim,” Cathy said. “There’s just this peace you get from being around him. I try to talk to all the servicemen I see—just say thank you if I can. And when I saw Tim up close I could tell he had lost his legs almost up to the groin. He couldn’t have even got fitted for prosthetics, there was nothing that could go on him. And the first thing he said to me—he just smiled and said ‘I got blown up.’”
This is characteristic of SSgt Tim Payne: friendly and to-the-point. After speaking with so many people about his story, he isn’t shy about letting strangers in.
“After about four months in South Afghanistan, we became combat ineffective, which means that we couldn’t go out to patrol anymore…we were just sitting in our base with the enemy attacking us. During one attack I was sitting on the wall, aggravated that we were losing people—I just really wanted to hurt someone. I saw an insurgent, and instead of calling my men to engage the enemy, I thought this one’s mine. I shot him, killed him. I felt a presence come at me as soon as it happened.”
The next day, Tim was sent to clear out the area around the fallen enemy soldier.
“As soon as I was out there, I felt that presence again. I had this gut-wrenching feeling suddenly, and when I looked at the ground—boom.”
Tim had stepped on an Improvised Explosive Device, or IED, and the resulting explosion left him critically injured. He was placed under medical coma for two weeks, during which he flatlined seven different times. By the end of it, the doctors couldn’t save his legs, and he had lost the use of much of his left hand.
“It was hard accepting all the things that had happened to me,” Tim says. As difficult and painful as the injuries were, Tim’s road to recovery was far from over. One of the many things that he tells veterans about is that, as he struggled to recover, he also struggled with an addiction to prescription medicine, as well as suicidal thoughts.
Cathy Lichanec, an avid supporter of veterans, was well aware of this side of recovery. Several of her family members are veterans, and as she heard Tim’s story, she couldn’t help but think of them and all the other veterans she had met, or even heard about.
“For a 36-year-old guy who’s been through what he has been through is amazing to me,” she said. “Most guys who have PTSD and other problems don’t come out of it like he did.”
One of Tim’s primary motivators early on was adaptive sports, especially swimming. He has continued to push himself to the limits by competing in Marathons Across America with the Achilles Freedom Team, competing in the Warrior Game Trials in discus, and of course, he continues to swim. In a 3.5 mile swim race in St. Thomas, Tim placed first.
When talking about his recovery, Tim said, “The doctors told me if I really wanted to heal, that it was a process of healing mind, body, and spirit. The first year I worked on my bodily injuries. The second year I worked through my mental issues, and I thought that I was healed…”
Two years after his injuries, Tim suffered another loss—that of his brother-in-law.
“When he died, I started having survivor’s guilt. You know, why did he die instead of me? Instantly, I started thinking—hang on a second, I fought through suicide a few months ago. I fought through medication addiction a year ago. I had all those out-of-body experiences, and I don’t know what they mean.”
Speaking to Tim now, it’s clear that his faith is important to him, and its discovery was a driving force for his recovery. After all, his hardships didn’t end after the war, or after his injuries. He had an illustrious career serving in many different positions in the military, even being part of the team that rescued Captain Phillips from pirates in Somalia, but life, as it does, goes on. After this latest tragedy, Tim started to look deeper into faith.
“When my brother-in-law died, that’s when the spiritual side of my healing started to take place. The mind, body, spirit thing finally came full circle. I was really depressed and angry that I survived, but God renewed my heart. Gave me something to fight for.”
This is one of the factors that he talks to veterans and civilians about in his travels, and it is one of the reasons he will be coming to Stafford Springs on May 12, and speaking at the Methodist Church (8 Church Street). The road to understanding and dealing with injuries, both physical and mental, is a long one, and SSgt Tim Payne knows that better than anyone. Throughout all of it, however, he has kept his charm, positivity, and healthy sense of awe for life. One might think that after meeting Presidents Trump, Obama, Bush, and Carter, as well as Prince Harry, that nothing would seem surprising to him now. On the contrary, Tim says that while traveling and writing two books (Chosen & The Squad-Leader’s Bargain), making friends along the way has been the best part of it all.
“It’s just been the most amazing, spiritual adventure,” he said, laughing, excited to get in his van and hit the road once more.