Courtesy of Michael Malarsie
Michael Malarsie had been in Afghanistan for less than a month when he suffered the injuries that would leave him permanently blind.
Malarsie, son of a longtime Durango family, was a member of an Air Force tactical air control party, which helps coordinate air strikes from the ground.
In January 2010, he was with three soldiers crossing a bridge to investigate a village when he was struck by an explosion.
“There was a big ambush just waiting for us,” he said in a phone interview from San Antonio, where he is currently stationed.
He was blown into the water. He was disoriented and an eerie sense of calm settled over him – “I know I’m going to drown now,” he recalled thinking.
Someone grabbed him and pulled him to the water’s edge.
“I kept asking, ‘Where is my gun?’” Malarsie said. “He said, ‘Don’t worry about it.’”
“I remember feeling the second IED and don’t remember anything after that,” he said.
He first real memory after that is being in the hospital and having a doctor tell him he was blind. His response was unlikely: he thanked the doctor for having done his best.
Malarsie had suffered a skull fracture, burst eardrum and broken jaw. The medic and three other soldiers were killed in the ambush. Malarsie said he immediately came to see his recovery as an obligation to honor their sacrifice.
“I’m not going to let just being blind beat me,” he said.
Malarsie’s father, Jim Malarsie – who was raised in Durango, but, in the 1980s, moved to New Mexico, where Michael grew up – recalled when his son announced his plans to join.
“We were shocked, but not surprised,” he said, acknowledging that, as Mormons, he and his wife had hoped he might chose a stint doing missionary work instead. “One thing that we had learned painfully as parents ... they get to be their own people. ... That was the choice he made. Once it was done, we were supportive.”
News of his son’s injury came through a message left by his commander on their home phone. The message said Michael had been hurt, but offered the assurance that his injuries were not life-threatening.
“Time just kind of stopped for us,” he said.
Even to him, his son’s recovery has been unbelievable.
“He just continues to rock on,” he said. “It’s just amazing.”
A fundraiser held in Durango the month after Michael was injured attracted more than 800 people and raised around $80,000 to help cover his expenses.
But his story doesn’t end there.
After his initial treatment at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, he was taken to a facility in California for rehabilitation.
While there, the widows of two of his fellow soldiers killed in the ambush – the medic and the first man hit – asked to come see him. When he met the latter, it was cosmic.
“From the minute we were introduced and hugged, we felt a connection to each other,” he said.
Jesse Lengstorf came back alone to visit, and they grew increasingly close. She moved in with his sister in New Mexico, and in May 2010, he flew to Albuquerque to meet her. In the airport, with a crowd of friends and family there to welcome him, he pulled out a ring and proposed. She said “yes.”
The two were married June 25, 2010, and the next year had a little girl named Sophie, who joined her older half-sister, Kadence.
Malarsie is still in the service and working with a mentorship program that pairs people who have recovered from trauma with people who are just beginning the process.
“It’s really exciting work,” he said.
In March, Malarsie was awarded a Bronze Star with Valor during a ceremony at Wilford Hall Ambulatory Surgical Center, Lackland Air Force Base, Texas.
These days, he and his family spend a lot of time traveling for his work and speaking engagements. But, he said, he’s eager to get back to Durango, where he’s come to snowboard and visit family his whole life.
His grandmother, Allien Morrissey, who came to Durango with her husband in the 1940s, is filled with pride for Michael.
“He has such a wonderful attitude,” she said. “He’s just been unbelievable.”
But then again, she always knew he was a “good kid.”
“Of course,” she added, “grandmas always say that.”