When the first plane struck the World Trade Center, Michael Light figured it was an accident. But he knew something was wrong as he watched the news and a second aircraft hit the twin towers, followed by others crashing into the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania.
As the United States invaded Iraq in the following years, Light saw pictures of soldiers wounded and killed in combat. Some of them were just 18 years old — almost the same age as he was when he first joined the U.S. Army in 1972.
More than two decades had passed since Light left the service. He was approaching age 50, but he couldn't shake his memory of the terrorist attack that killed nearly 3,000 people on American soil. Light felt he had to do something.
"I took 9/11 very personally," he said. "I kind of made a deal with God. If you'll just help me get back in, I can take a kid's place. If somebody's going to die, then maybe I can at 50. I've had a good life."
At age 17, Light had forged his parents' signature and enlisted. Despite being a rebel with a passion for motorcycles, he believed it was incumbent upon him to carry on his family's tradition of service. His father and uncle were Marines who fought in World War II, and his grandfather was a World War I veteran.
Light became a "Huey" helicopter mechanic and crew chief and was poised to go to Vietnam, but the war ended before he was sent to combat.
He remained in the Army for a total of seven years. When his service time ended, he returned home to Chattanooga, worked for Combustion Engineering and then moved around the country for various other jobs.
"I always felt like I had been cheated out of going to combat when I went in the first time. I was a crew chief on Hueys. If anybody was going to be going, I would've," Light said. "That wasn't the reason for going back in, but it was a reason."
He discovered that his best path back into service was through the National Guard. He processed in with a unit from Cleveland, Tennessee, and attended scout school — where he became the top honor graduate and any reservation people had about his age and fitness went away.
By May 2004, Light was in Iraq leading reconnaissance missions from a base northwest of Baghdad.
One night around Christmas his team was on patrol, and someone in the group thought they heard small arms fire. Then, Light's humvee rolled down an embankment. Light — who sat in the back — pulled the gunner — whose body was exposed through the roof — down to safety and rescued him from being crushed by the weight of the vehicle. Light received an Army Commendation Medal for his effort.
After more than a year in Iraq, Light returned home for a bit and then received orders to go to Afghanistan in May 2007.
Name: Michael Light
Branch: U.S. Army
Years of service: 1972-1979, 2004-2006, 2007-2008
Three months through his second tour, Light was on a mission in the mountains at a remote northwest corner of Afghanistan when an anti-tank mine exploded nearby. The explosion caused him to suffer a traumatic brain injury, resulting in a stroke and forcing him to medically retire from service.
If Light had it his way, he would've stayed.
"I just liked it. I think most active-duty combat soldiers would pretty much tell you the same thing," he said. "There's nothing else that you can compare that experience to — that experience of being in direct combat."
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