LIVERMORE FALLS — In June, Army Sgt. Helaina Lake was lying on the ground in Afghanistan after a suicide bomb blast, trying to figure out how she was going to get up.
She could see bones sticking out of her right leg and a finger that was barely attached. She felt bleeding near her shoulder blade and saw smoke coming from her face.
On Tuesday, the 24-year-old military policewoman sat beside a Christmas tree in the house she grew up in. Her 3-year-old son, Aden, played nearby as she recalled the attack and her severe injuries.
“One of the first things I thought was, 'Am I going to die on the streets of Afghanistan?' That would suck. I thought, ‘I can’t go out like this. Not that easy. I’m not going out without a fight. I am not a quitter.'”
Lake, a 2007 graduate of Livermore Falls High School where she was a scholar-athlete, has had 19 surgeries since the attack and is scheduled for another on her elbow in January.
Her squad was on a dismounted patrol collecting biometric data and DNA on June 20 at an intersection in Khost City. She heard someone yelling and the next thing she knew, she was on the ground.
“The first thing is you think this isn’t real," she said. "You’re in, like, denial. There is a ringing in your ears, just like in the movies. When you realize it is real, you go, ‘Oh, shit.’ You say a prayer real quick and you figure out how to get out of the situation.”
She realized she would lose her right index finger. Then she looked down at her leg and knew it was not good. It was shattered.
“I couldn’t move my right arm,” she said. “I couldn’t move my legs. I knew I was badly injured. I knew I needed a tourniquet. I had burning on my face. I could see smoke,” she said.
A fellow soldier checked on her and helped her get a tourniquet on her leg before moving on to help others.
There was no pain medication. The head medic was down.
“We had communication problems with our radios and couldn’t get a hold of Medivac,” she said.
A commander intercepted one transmission and knew the squad needed help. Then a convoy from an engineering unit came through and stopped to help them.
“I think they were our saving grace. God put them there,” Lake said.
Members of her unit finally reached them. Between the two crews, they were taken to the forward-operating base in Salerno to be stabilized. They went on to an Air Force base in Bagram, then to a hospital in Germany before heading to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland.
Lake was in a medically induced coma for six days. She was on a lot of medication. She didn’t know what happened until she was at the hospital, she said.
She was told a vehicle carrying two people went through a checkpoint, turned around and came back, which was odd. The squad leader went to talk to them to see what was going on.
It is not uncommon for people in Afghanistan to talk to Americans. There is a university nearby and a lot of young people.
The passenger of the vehicle got out, she said, and the squad leader was heard yelling, “No, no” and then the passenger pushed the detonator.
Three soldiers died in the attack; several more were injured. Lake asked a medic staff sergeant if she was going to die. When the answer was no, she said, “Good; I have a son to raise.”
Knowing she needed to get better to take care of her son was a big motivator. She was going into surgery every other day at Walter Reed.
“I was thinking, 'Fix me up so I can go home, so I can take care of my son,'” she said.
Her mother, Jeannine Lake, is a registered nurse. She went to be with her daughter. She would ask questions of the trauma team, which was very helpful.
“She was my medical interpreter, and I was her military translator,” Helaina Lake said.
Franklin Memorial Hospital in Farmington, where Jeannine works, worked with her to make sure she was at her daughter’s side. People from all over Maine pitched in to make sure the family had what it needed.
“It’s impossible to thank everybody individually, though I’d like to," Helaina said. "But I would like to thank everyone who contributed monetarily, physically and spiritually. I think that helped me so much. I felt connected. I felt close to the community and my family and friends for the cards, their thoughts and their prayers."
She never thought of giving up.
“I guess everyone calls me stubborn,” she said. “In my head, I had no choice but to go through these surgeries.”
Her son was brought to the hospital by family members to be with his mother and grandmother.
“I was very excited to see him but anxious about him seeing me,” she said. “He tried to help.”
He asked about her boo-boos and told her he would be very careful.
“He was so careful,” she said, wiping a tear.
Lake has served six years in the Army National Guard and Reserves.
When she first considered going into the military, she thought she would continue her firefighter education but then thought she should learn something new: law enforcement.
She wanted to be in the military police and she wanted to be as close to combat as she could, she said.
“I knew I would be in the National Guard or Reserves,” she said. “I loved it. I wanted to do more.
She enjoyed the work and carrying the 70-odd pounds of gear. She also liked proving that females can keep up with the guys, she said.
Now she is doing physical therapy to she if she will be able to remain an active member in the National Guard.
“You wait. You do therapy, therapy, therapy, and you wait for results to see if you are going to heal up. Then you decide whether to stay in or get out,” she said. “I already know I want to stay in. It’s whether or not if I will be military capable and will I be able to stay an MP.
"They can’t force me to deploy again, but I’ve already pictured myself retiring from the military. I’ve invested six years. I’ve done well in my military career, and I don’t want to give it up.”