NEW PALESTINE — Jeffery Mittman never really stopped serving his country.
His 22 years with the U.S. Army came to an end with an explosion in Iraq that forever altered his appearance; but those who work closely with him say Mittman’s desire to help and to make life better for his fellow countrymen could never be changed.
Mittman, a New Palestine resident, was inducted into the Indiana Military Veterans Hall of Fame last week as part of the group’s second class of inductees — 18 men and women with ties to Indiana whom organizers said have earned recognition for their service in the military and the communities it protects.
Mittman’s military career came to an abrupt end July 7, 2005, during his fourth combat tour to the Middle East. A roadside bomb detonated near the Humvee he was driving, destroying much of the bone and tissue in his face.
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Mittman lost his left eye, nose, lips and many teeth; the vision is his right eye was altered, leaving him legally blind; and there was irreparable damage to his right hand and arm. He was unconscious for nearly a month; had more than 40 surgeries to repair the damage and rebuild his face; and spent five years in and out of the hospital.
But doors to other opportunities slowly creaked open. Mittman began serving his country in other ways, working as an advocate in the hope his story will change how Americans think of veterans and people with disabilities.
He calls it his “alternate avenue of service.” He can’t fight anymore, he said, but there are other things he can do to make a difference.
“I love leading people and influencing others for the better, providing motivation, direction and purpose to others,” Mittman said.
“I’m still so much a soldier in everything I do. It’s not just a job; it’s a way of life.”
Not long into his recovery, Mittman began speaking at events across the country, telling the story of his injuries and his fight to get back to a near-normal life. He joined the boards of organizations such as Peace of Mind Brain Injury Services, a national organization serving those who have suffered traumatic brain injuries and are living with post-traumatic stress disorder, and Bosma Enterprises, an Indiana nonprofit that serves the blind.
Mittman was hired to work in communications for the Indianapolis office of the Defense Finance and Accounting Service, the arm of the U.S. Department of Defense that handles the paychecks of active and former military personnel. His co-workers there decided to nominate Mittman for induction into the Indiana Military Veterans Hall of Fame after witnessing firsthand his desire to serve.
Mittman’s positive attitude is often what inspires those who hear his story, said Tom LaRock, director of communications for the accounting service.
In the nomination letter, accounting service executive director Teresa McKay wrote of the sacrifices Mittman made for his country while he was enlisted, how he carried military traits with him during his transition into civilian life and how his actions exemplify what it means to be a hero.
“He could have quietly retired, sat at home and felt sorry for himself,” McKay said. “But heroes like Mr. Mittman do not give up so easily.”
Honoring the sacrifices of veterans like Mittman was Russ Dowden’s priority when he founded the Indiana Military Veterans Hall of Fame in 2013.
Dowden, a retired Army colonel and New Palestine resident, said the organization strives to thank former service personnel while educating other residents about what it takes to be a soldier, sailor, airman or Marine. Only eight states have such a group, making it a fairly unique recognition to receive, he said.
Those eligible for induction into the hall of fame can be living or deceased veterans who were born in Indiana, entered into military service in Indiana or lived in Indiana for at least eight years, said Annette Roy, a member of the organization’s board of directors.
In 2014, 16 people were enrolled into the hall of fame, and 18 inductees were chosen from 50 applications submitted in 2015, Roy said. The selected this year include the first female inductee, the first minority inductee and the first inductee to be classified as missing in action, Roy said.
The accolade joins numerous decorations Mittman has has received for his service, including three Bronze Stars and the Purple Heart.
Mittman said he never thought he’d be counted among those considered for the state’s hall of fame. He was surprised to hear of his nomination and acceptance, but he hopes the honor helps him form connections that will allow him to continue his work for veterans.
In his travels across the country, Mittman said, he tries to communicate the importance of hiring and opening dialogue, particularly for veterans with disabilities. People are sometimes cautious to interact with wounded warriors, and that’s a barrier he hopes to break down.
“It’s OK to talk to a veteran. It’s OK to ask me questions. When you see me out, it’s OK to say hi,” he said. “You never know what difference you make to those thousands of people.”