Mike Reynolds

Retired Master Sgt. Mike Reynolds acknowledged his passion for helping others early in life.

He began as an emergency medical technician fresh out of high school and soon after enlisted in the Army and became a medic. His resume includes being operating from the rear of ambulances and helicopters, being a firefighter, saving many lives, and serving as a medic for a weapons of mass destruction team. 

Reynolds, a Chatsworth native who lives in Gordon County, was involved in an accident in October 2009. He was six months into a combat deployment, responding to a call in Balad, Iraq. After trying to push through his injuries to continue doing the job he loved, he was evaluated and misdiagnosed. He returned to Georgia, where, upon his arrival, he suffered from physical and emotional pain and became very confused. Soon after, he was re-evaluated at Fort Benning and properly diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury (TBI). 

Reynolds spent time in the hospital before being moved into the Wounded Warrior Battalion. During his recovery, the Chief and firefighters of the Fort Benning Fire Department took him in and gave the man who is wired to help those in need a place to be with people with whom he was familiar; he found a place to fit in again.

After nearly 18 years of military service, Reynolds was medically retired in July 2011. He then struggled to obtain appointments with the VA hospital; his first appointment was not until the following February. Reynolds feels the VA is not a bad system but is grossly overwhelmed. He attributes this to the fact that so many soldiers now come home with injuries as opposed to coming home deceased.

“Medics have been able to reduce the mortality rate in the field. The new knowledge, equipment and increased care that the solider receives from the point of injury enable them to now live after injuries that they would not have survived in previous years,” said Reynolds.

His wife, Kimberly, found this to be unacceptable as his health continued to decline while waiting for his appointment to near. Many people referred her to the SHARE Military Initiative at Shepherd Center in Atlanta.

“It was heart-wrenching,” Mrs. Reynolds said of the wait between her husband’s hospital stay and his follow up VA appointment. She adds that Reynolds had gone through many months of medical care and therapy at Fort Benning to be able to walk, talk and be independent again. During the time without medical attention, Reynolds began to again have terrible headaches and noticed that his sleep, speech and vision had again become disturbed. His wife began asking for help and was informed of Shepherd.

According to shepherd.org, Shepherd Center is ranked among the nation’s top rehabilitation hospitals for spinal cord and brain injuries. SHARE is a rehabilitation program that focuses on assessment and treatment for service members who have sustained a mild to moderate traumatic brain injury and post traumatic stress disorder from the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts.

Reynolds arrived at Shepherd for his two-week evaluation with 11 prescribed medications. They helped him evaluate his biggest problems and presented him with specialized treatment and therapy options.  His personal care team supported and encouraged him as he endured eight hours of therapy, six days a week for nearly five months. He now continues therapy at home and is down to only one medication, taking only over the counter medications to manage his pain. 

Though Reynolds has overcome many of his physical injuries, he continues to struggle with the loss of his memory and his inability to organize his thoughts. The former emergency responder explains how hard it is to go from a life of adrenaline and excitement, rushing to emergency scenes, jumping from airplanes, cutting injured civilians from vehicles to save their lives and participating in HAZMAT investigations, to a life in which he can no longer experience the same rush.

“It bothers me to watch all of this (emergency responses) and remember that I used to get to do that. After getting hurt almost five years ago, I still thought I would be able to do things that would give me that feeling; I now realize I cant,” Reynolds explains. “You have to look for what makes you happy when rushing down a street at 2 o’clock in the morning with lights flashing and your siren blaring is what used to make you happy.”

Finding a way to make a difference

Reynolds is no longer able to impact the community in the same way that he used to, but continues to impact many lives in a different way. Though it is a constant reminder of what he can no longer participate in, he now gives a presentation, which has been referred to as a leadership class, in which he talks about toxic work relationships and being aware of and concerned with the fact that the decisions you make affect others. He asks his audience to be more aware of the way they treat everyone from their employees to their spouses and children.

“I tell what it’s like to have to go from 900 miles per hour to the slow lane. Also, I point out some of my poor leadership traits and discuss some of the leadership issues others often experience,” Reynolds explains.

The class begins with Reynolds telling some of his personal background, familiarizing the audience with his history, and starts a photo slideshow that continues behind him as he speaks. He describes his passion for emergency services and how excited and determined he was to help save lives during his deployment to Iraq. He gives the audience a brief but impacting description of an Army medic’s duty and of injuries encountered. He then also describes the situation in which he sustained his injuries.

Reynolds’ presentation relates his life to a can of Coca-Cola and revolves around a 75 pound, self-made can crusher. He describes being a full can of cola when he was first deployed; he was able to withstand pressure, full of self esteem and ready to do his job and lead his soldiers.

He continues by describing things that emptied his can, demanding that the audience participate by voicing what drains them. Stress, family problems, poor morale and inadequate or poor leadership are a few of the problems shouted out by the intrigued crowd, while the can of soda is opened and slowly emptied.

Reynolds then demonstrates how even an empty can is designed to structurally withstand pressure, but, with one blow from an unexpected direction, is sure to collapse. He relates this to his deployment, explaining why his can slowly became empty and an accident that resulted in injuries collapsed him into a shape that could no longer fulfill its purpose or fit into the area designed for his previous shape.

Reynolds has constructed a box with the word “Trash” carved onto it to hold the crushed can. He uses this to describe the series of events that occurred after his injuries, in which he felt he was tossed away like garbage due to being found medically unfit for duty by the military. 

“My brain doesn’t work like it used to and I’ve learned 100 ways to compensate, but you can only compensate so much. My brain is now like a handful of marbles,” Reynolds explains, “I want to hold as many marbles as I can, but I start dropping them a couple at a time. When I try to pick those marbles up, I drop more and end up spilling them all.” 

With much credit to the Shepherd Center and the support of his family, Reynolds then explains how he still searches for a place where his new shape can be of use. 

“Its hard to come home and find your place. You have changed shape; your new shape doesn’t fit where the old one did. It’s hard for other people to understand,” says Reynolds.

Reynolds has presented for the 911 centers and employees, where he focused on leadership and customer service; cancer treatment centers, where he concentrated his message on feelings and emotions; and a Dalton State College social work class, where he hopes he inspired the social workers to truly listen to those they will soon serve. He has also presented to firefighters, Emergency Medical Services, law enforcement, corporate businesses, church organizations and hospitals.  

Giving back

Planning and organizing are some of the more difficult things for Reynolds, but he has worked with the local emergency planning committee (LEPC) to organize Gordon County’s Public Safety Health Fair for the last two years. The Public Safety Health Fair is held annually on the first Saturday of October at The Home Depot and is a day in which community members meet those who respond to their emergencies.

Since 2013, the public safety health fair has grown each year; in 2014, the fair was a huge success. It featured public safety organizations and officials and included a live simulated crash extrication and air life evacuation by Life Force. An estimated 2,500 children were in attendance.

Reynolds also helped the Coulter Hampton Foundation organize a time in which a young leukemia patient from Resaca, who dreamed of being in law enforcement, was able to participate in mock activities, a Gordon County version of “Make A Wish.”

Reynolds was recently recognized at the Georgia Emergency Communications Conference in Athens. Debbie Vance, Gordon County E-911 director, and her communications officers collaborated with Sonoraville High School JROTC students to do a ceremonial flag folding and presentment to the retired master sergeant. The folded flag was then encased in a shadow box and included a letter affirming that the flag had been flown at our nations capital with a letter from Sen. Johnny Isakson.

What touched Reynolds the most about his acknowledgement at the conference was that all of those in attendance rallied together and collected $10,000 to donate to the Shepherd Center in his honor to help someone else receive treatment and therapy.

Reynolds volunteered with Chatsworth, Atlanta and Calhoun fire departments, helping the stations however he could. This benefited him as his occupational therapy.

He also recently became a mentor to a young lady who was involved in an auto accident and suffers from a TBI. She was so inspired by Reynolds’ story that she decided to begin speaking as well. 

Many know Reynolds’ program by the name “Recycle Your Can,” “The Can Man” or “The Can Crusher.” His unique perspective and influential story shows strength and persistence to again find purpose while challenging the audience to inwardly reflect. 

To contact Mike Reynolds about attending one of his programs or having him speak to your group at no cost, email him at phillip.m.reynolds@gmail.com.

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