"I'm still here, and they're not. It's a survivor's guilt sort of thing, but I want to know that when my friends who I lost look down on me they're proud I'm living life, so I'm not going to waste my life or my potential on being average."
There's not an average bone in U.S. Army Captain Kelly Elmlinger's body, and her heart is filled with pride and determination as she works at achieving her personal best while inspiring others to do the same.
Capt. Elmlinger has served the nation in three deployments as a medic; one to Afghanistan in 2002, shortly after the 9-11 terror attacks and two in Iraq. She describes her second deployment in an aviation unit in Iraq as being the toughest.
"If a helicopter was shot down we'd go to the site and most of the time we were recovering bodies," Elmlinger explains. "The nurses deployed essentially had three different roles. One was to work as part of the downed aircraft recovery team, the other to operate aid stations and treat the wounded as the closest medical facility, and the third to occasionally accompany scouting teams on missions. It was pretty catastrophic and some days it was back-to-back assignments; at times, we ran out of body bags. You put it on auto-pilot so to speak. You had to shut off the emotions and get to work."
Capt. Elmlinger is quick to point out, "that could have been me at any time" and she honors their memory by living her life to the fullest.
She managed to come home to her daughter alive only to have her life threatened in 2013 by one of the rarest forms of cancer; Synovial Sarcoma.
It was a real blow because the illness eventually robbed Capt. Elmlinger of her ability to run. Since high school, running and basketball were her things.
"Sports, particularly running, has always been big for me from an early age. Running was that alone time that you could think and clear your mind. I was lost for quite some time going through treatments, surgeries, inpatient and finally through rehab you know, and the running thing is just not working out," recalls Elmlinger.
During her rehabilitation in the Warrior Transition Unit, she was encouraged to try wheelchair racing which she admits did not initially excite her. Capt. Elmlinger explained that somewhere in the back of her mind she hoped she'd be able to run again.
"At first, it looked pretty cool but then they put me in the chair, and I realized it's difficult to maneuver, I'm using my arms and not my legs. It was just different."
But Capt. Elmlinger stuck with it because she wanted to compete in the Warrior Games Ultimate Champion competition. The native of Attica, Ohio did that and also went on to race in the LA and Boston Marathons in the wheelchair division.
She's looking forward to the games this year too and encourages others to get involved in adaptive sports.
"It's kind of surreal you know? One day I'm taking care of patients and the next day I'm in the same facility doing rehab with them. I'm just so grateful for all of the support along the way. Being a medical person I knew when they told me what I had that this was going to be a long road ahead; a real game changer," explained Elmlinger. "It may be me out there racing, but there have been so many supporters along the way who have helped make it possible."
Capt. Elmlinger's participating in her third Warrior Games June 15-21, 2016 in West Point, NY in track & field and swimming events, and Wreaths Across America will be among the fans cheering her on.