The last time Robbie Doughty saw his legs, he was riding in a Humvee on a lonely road in Iraq. There had been problems in that area before, and his unit was on the lookout for problems now. Sometimes you get lucky and can spot something suspicious. An old tire. An animal carcass. Anything that could hide a bomb.
“But we didn’t see anything,” Doughty says now. “It just kind of happened.”
These are the words he uses for what “happened:” A loud boom a giant vacuum air sucked out of you big bang flash of light lots of smoke.
It only takes a second.
And your life is changed forever.
In wars gone by, they used to say, “You never see the bullet.” Today, they say, “You never see the bomb.” Sometimes it is hidden in the ground. Sometimes it comes out of the air. In any case, when it detonates, it is always too late.
And so, on July 8, 2004, just a few months after he had been deployed, just a few months after he had been an Army recruiter himself, just a few years since a high school librarian whispered to him that someone had flown a plane into the World Trade Center, and just 13 years since he had played linebacker for a high school team himself, Robbie Doughty became a victim of the Iraq war. A mortar round exploded just behind where he was sitting.
He lost both of his legs.
And standing up seemed out of the question.
But this is a story about the many ways people stand up for each other. And so a second person enters the picture. His name is Lloyd Allard. At 46, he is 14 years older than Robbie, but the moment they met, there was a kinship. Both saw themselves as lifetime military men. Both were in the Special Forces. Both knew about organization and how to move fast. Eight days after they first shook hands, they were sitting next to each other on a plane to Iraq.
“We landed in Mosul, got in a couple of truck convoys and drove down to our base,” Allard says. “We were friends for two months before the accident.”
The day the bomb exploded, Allard was back at the base. He had been on that same road many times. He had sat in the same seat as Doughty – the “troop commander” spot – passenger side, eyes peeled, gun in hand.
On this particular day, it was not his turn.
“I always wonder about the randomness of it all,” he says now. “Why did they pick that convoy to attack and not our convoy?”
But wondering is a leisurely pursuit. Before he knew it, Allard was racing to the hospital. He stood over his friend, doing what soldiers do, trying to make light of a bad situation, joking with Doughty about “getting your GI Joe scar,” joking about getting a free hunting license for the rest of his life.
“And all the while,” Allard says, “you could see the blanket over his legs. There was nothing there. And I’m trying not to cry.”
Words of encouragement
It was at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington after Iraq, after a stop in Germany, after several operations to clean his wounds and after the anesthesia finally cleared his head, that Robbie Doughty truly realized his legs were gone, the right amputated above the knee, the left amputated below it.
And he immediately felt guilty.
“You feel like you’re letting your unit down by getting injured,” he says.
If that sounds strange from a man who had lost his legs, well, you have to consider who Robbie Doughty is. He grew up in Paducah, Ky., and from the time he was in grade school, he knew he wanted to be a soldier. He played football, middle linebacker, another pursuit in which the injured feel that they are disappointing teammates. He joined the Army straight out of high school. He spent three years at Ft. Drum (N.Y.), nearly three years at Ft. Campbell (Ky.), then several years as a recruiter, telling other young kids how good the Army could be for them.
On Sept. 11, 2001, he was in a high school library, watching teens take a military aptitude test. A librarian pulled him aside and informed him of the tragic news in New York City.
By the next day, his job had changed. People were gung ho to do something. But Doughty felt he should be doing more.
When his chance finally came to join the action, he did not hesitate. “I’d been a career soldier for over 10 years by that point,” he says. “I felt like I was missing out.”
He went to Iraq in May of 2004.
He was home, wounded, two months later.
Maybe, in another story, the soldier goes into a tailspin, depression, isolation, numbing drugs. But people stood up for Doughty. While he was in Walter Reed, a Korean War veteran came to see him. He was a double amputee. Had stepped on a landmine. But he told Doughty that things did not have to end, that he himself had enjoyed a great family, a great job.
“He was 74 or 75 years old and had lived a good, long life. People like him made me realize you may be injured, but you need to keep your head up and come up with a plan.”
So Doughty did. He rehabbed at a record rate. His mother, Diane, took off from work and stayed with him at the hospital. His fiancée, Krissy, and their son, Derek, came as well. Nearly every day, Doughty e-mailed or spoke to Allard in Iraq, sending good wishes to his buddies in the unit. And in every rehab session, he challenged the other wounded soldiers to walk stronger, to try harder – and they challenged him back.
A crippling event such as what happened to Doughty often leads to up to two years in a hospital before the patient can leave.
After five months, using prosthetic legs, Staff Sgt. Robbie Doughty went home to Paducah, to a hero’s welcome in his local church.
The Detroit connection
This is where a third man steps up in the story. Mike Ilitch, who owns the Tigers, Red Wings and Little Caesars Pizza, picked up a newspaper and read about a Kentucky soldier who, despite losing both of his legs, was grateful for his life and proud to have served his country. This was at a time when the war in Iraq already had turned costly and difficult, and the number of wounded Americans was climbing tragically high.
“I felt a little guilty,” Ilitch says now. “All these guys going over there, getting blown up. You always want to do more. I didn’t feel good about myself. What could I do? What should I do?”
If that sounds odd from a pizza mogul with millions of dollars, consider that back in the 1950s, Mike Ilitch was a struggling young baseball prospect from Detroit. His father worked for Chrysler. His mother didn’t speak English. He told the Tigers that he needed a certain amount of money to play ball and if he didn’t get it, he was going to join the Marines.
He didn’t get it.
He joined the Marines.
When the Korean War escalated, Ilitch – like Doughty many years later – felt he needed to be in the action. He got on a military ship, heading across the Pacific. But the ship stopped in Hawaii, and Ilitch was pulled from the ranks “by a three-star general who was a big jock. He took me off the ship so I could play for a (military) baseball team in Pearl Harbor. I finished my service there.”
Ilitch now knows how lucky he was. He remembers the military hospital at Pearl Harbor, and the wounded troops who arrived there from Korea. He remembers seeing them in body casts and wheelchairs. He remembers being horrified by their stories.
“It made a real impression,” he says. “Could I have ended up that way if I had been sent to Korea? Absolutely.”
That thought kicked in some 50 years later, when he read about Doughty and his upbeat attitude. Ilitch got Doughty on the phone. He told him who he was, that he appreciated what Doughty had done for the country, and that he wanted to do something for him if Doughty was interested.
That “something” was to give Doughty a Little Caesars Pizza franchise in his hometown. The whole thing. Free and clear. Building. Equipment. Even a special chair for Doughty behind the counter. All Doughty had to do was run it.
Oh, Ilitch added, and he might want to find a business partner to help in the operation. “Someone you can trust,” Ilitch said.
Doughty called Allard.
And next month, the two soldiers who sat side by side on a plane to Iraq will be side by side again, opening a pizza store together.
They are grateful beyond words.
“We’re sending invitations to all the guys in our unit”- 3rd Battalion, 5th Special Forces Group – Allard says. “I know as many of them that can come will.”
“We’re going to be hands-on,” Doughty says. “We’re not the kind of guys who go in and check up on how much money we’re making. We’ll be in there working.”
Since the day that mortar exploded, Robbie Doughty has spent “just 10 minutes” feeling sorry for himself. The rest of the time has been used encouraging other wounded veterans, getting married to his longtime girlfriend and preparing to be a father for the second time (the baby is due in April).
As for his time in the military? “I was tremendously proud of what we did over there,” Doughty says, “and what I did for my country.”
“The Army for me,” Allard adds, “was a calling, not a job.”
And if a future worker in their pizza store told the two owners that he wanted to enlist, how would they respond?
“I’d drive him to the recruiter’s office myself,” Allard answers.
“Depends on how good an employee he is,” Doughty quips.
And they laugh. They laugh. That is a most incredible thing, isn’t it? To be laughing after tragedy, to embrace the way life can heal all wounds?
You think about all the people who stood up for this one soldier. The fellow soldiers who bandaged him and got him to the hospital. His buddy, Allard, who stood over him. His parents. His wife and son. The Korean War veteran who buoyed his spirits. His hometown church. Mike Ilitch and all the Little Caesars folks. The people who have written or e-mailed encouragement.
Tonight is Christmas Eve, and Robbie Doughty is home for the holidays. Other troops are not as lucky. But wherever they are, they might be comforted by his story’s conclusion: that when you stand up for your country, your countrymen will stand up for you.
Veterans can get a slice of the pie
On Veterans Day last month, Detroit-based Little Caesar Enterprises Inc. announced a program to make it easier for U.S. veterans to open pizza businesses.
The Little Caesars Veterans Program offers a reduction of the franchise fee, credit on the first equipment order and financing. Disabled veterans have the entire $20,000 franchise fee waived for their first store.
Honorably discharged veterans receive up to $10,000 in benefits toward starting a Little Caesars franchise. Service-disabled veterans are eligible for up to $68,000.
A typical store costs $175,000 to $300,000 to build and equip, according to the company.
Information on Little Caesars franchise opportunities can be found at littlecaesars.com.
E-mails for Robbie Doughty and Lloyd Allard can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. Mitch Albom’s Dreams Deferred has been a holiday tradition in the Sports pages of the Free Press since 1994. Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or email@example.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). To read his recent columns, go to www.freep.com/mitch.