Saving Limbs and Lives: Interview with Ryan Hendrickson


By CBNW Magazine

Former U.S. Army Special Forces Engineer Ryan Hendrickson recounts how an incident with an IED in Afghanistan in 2010 led to him helping war-torn Ukraine remove landmines in 2024.

Can you tell me more about your background before the incident with the IED?

My path to the U.S. Army was anything but normal. After doing four years in the Navy then four years in the Air Force, I finally settled down in the Army, where I spent 14 years as a Special Forces (Green Beret) engineer. I had six deployments to Afghanistan with the Army, and two more as a military contractor with my last deployment being our withdrawal from Afghanistan. But my story of what led up to what I do today started in 2010, my first deployment to Afghanistan. It was during this deployment that I stepped on an IED, and it changed my life forever.

What happened on the day you stepped on an IED? 

We were conducting a clearance operation in a valley along the Helmand River. We kicked off the operation late on September 11, 2010, and by early morning on September 12 we were moving up to the first set of compounds in one of our targeted villages. It was a real nasty area where we had been in daily fights with the Taliban for months. At this point in the war, we were conducting Village Stability Operations where we trained and helped Afghan villagers to protect themselves from the Taliban, including counter-IED. During this mission we had Afghan militiamen that we had trained assisting us in taking their valley back.

Early morning September 12 we got about 25m from the first set of compounds to clear, and I was like “okay, just how we rehearsed, we practiced all this. Let’s clear these first compounds.” Our interpreter relayed that message to the Afghans, but they didn’t want to go in. They said it was too dangerous, too many bad guys. They wanted me to go first because I was better trained than them.

If this had been Texas, I would have agreed. But this was Afghanistan. Then we noticed that our interpreter had ran down to the compound and was waving our guys down, like an Afghan Rambo. I moved down to where he was and told him to go back. If we lose him, we couldn’t communicate with our Afghan militiamen. There were IEDs everywhere.

I pulled him away from the door and I was going to cover his movement back, but then I noticed something move in the compound in the corner of my eye, through my night vision. There was nothing else in that village, only Taliban, so I thought I was going to have to kill whatever was moving or they would kill me. Your head does weird things when your adrenaline is spiking through the roof, it could have been just a ribbon on a tree. I took one step through the breach point into this big courtyard to get a better angle with my gun, firstly because I didn’t want whoever was moving to get a position to shoot me or my guys, but secondly because I let adrenaline override my common sense. I took one step into the uncleared area, and boom.

What were the immediate and long-term consequences of that mistake?

A little comic relief was that I found the IED, maybe not the preferred way but that’s one IED reduced! But immediately after the IED went off, I was laying there, I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t comprehend what had just happened. Stepping on a landmine or IED is hardly something you can prepare yourself for. Was it a recoilless rifle round? An RPG?

The air was a huge mixture of dust and ammonia, and I thought I was going to suffocate. But I couldn’t get up. I tried to calm myself down, took my bag off, and slowed my breathing. Once the dust settled, I looked down to see my right boot at a 90-degree angle to my leg. It looked like a T. 

I was still in shock. Where is the pain? Why is my boot like that? Did I take it off? I picked up my right leg from behind my knee and my boot flopped over. Then I saw these two pearly white objects sticking out of my pant leg. They were so white they glowed in the dark. They were so white you can’t even call it “white”. The color should just be called bone. There, sticking out of my pant leg, were my tibia and fibula. Once my brain clicked that I had stepped on an IED, that was when the pain hit. I can’t even describe it. It hurt so bad.

This was why the militiamen didn’t want to go down there. All around me they pulled out another 20-odd IEDs. I actually stepped on one of the biggest ones, about 25lbs (11.3kg), but it was broken up into three cells. If the whole IED had exploded there would have been basically nothing that they could recover from me. But when the first cell went off it disrupted the other two cells, so I ate probably about five to seven pounds (2.2kg) of homemade explosive, enough to blow your leg off.

I was carried about 1000m to a safe location where a helicopter landed to pick me up. It took me a week to get out of Afghanistan with blood transfusions and lots of infections. After about five days in Germany, I arrived at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, USA. 

Limb salvage rehabilitation post-IED incident, © Ryan Hendrickson

Thankfully the tissue damage wasn’t so severe that amputation was the only option. I was instead being looked at for something called “limb salvage”. These doctors were excited because my injuries were good for limb salvage, and the research they could do by trialing this technique on me would be extremely valuable.

They lined up my foot, lower leg, and upper leg, and put everything in this big nasty torture device, like a bird cage with rods going in everywhere. The doctors told me there was only a 10-15% chance that this would work, but it was still a chance.

Bone grows quickest through friction more than anything else, and I had to regrow about two inches (5cm) of my tibia. The rehabilitation was going to hurt, there would be really dark days, but this was the only way I was going to grow bone. I pounded the crap out of myself for month after painful month in rehabilitation, and the bird cage was off after eight months. 

I stepped on the IED on September 12, 2010, and I was back in Afghanistan in March 2012, only 18 months later. After almost losing my life to that IED I did seven more deployments to Afghanistan, finishing up my last mission in July 2021. My life took a completely different trajectory after February 24, 2022.

What led you to founding Tip of the Spear Landmine Removal shortly after the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine?

© Tip of the Spear Landmine Removal

After getting back from Afghanistan I was in a mentally very vulnerable state. When the war in Ukraine escalated, I remember being glued to my TV and thinking there must have been something I could do.

One of my good friends, Dave Cunningham, whose family founded the missionary organization YWAM, and I were talking about the situation shortly after the full-scale invasion. I told him that I wanted to help, especially after the Afghan withdrawal. We discussed a group from YWAM that was evacuating civilians from areas around Kyiv before Russian forces entered and that he was nervous about their safety. It was during that conversation I realized I could help. 

Dave and I started planning. I quit my job, flew to Kraków, then after a few days driving, I arrived in Kyiv. From mid-March until May we were running supplies and evacuating people. But when the Russians began withdrawing east, civilians began to be hit by landmines as they went back to their homes to see what was left. Ukrainian units started forming to deal with the landmine crisis, and driving through Bucha shortly after it was liberated I saw Ukrainian soldiers at a checkpoint trying to figure out a few CEIA detectors. We stopped the van and got talking. They had just been formed into a sapper unit, but with little to no training. A few didn’t even know what a landmine looked like. That moment set me on the path of founding Tip of the Spear Landmine Removal, training, advising, and assisting Ukrainian units to take their lands back from landmines and explosive hazards.

I went back to Ukraine six more times, bringing in loads of detectors and equipment to clear farms and civilian areas. This March was my seventh such visit to Ukraine after February 2022.

What is the mission of Tip of the Spear Landmine Removal?

We bring in the best equipment and detectors possible, and then I train units up on the equipment to make sure they are using everything properly. This is also my way to vet the units to make sure the equipment isn’t wasted. Then I advise the units and assist them on the minefields.

We have definitely helped a lot of people, and we have enabled a lot of units to confidently go out into the minefields. The problem is the amount and scale of landmines. To tell you the truth, I don’t know if Ukraine will ever be mine-free. 

As of March 2024, we have donated over 300 CEIA detectors, and our team has removed 1765 mines. I have no idea how many mines the Ukrainian units that we trained up have removed, so this figure is much higher. Over the last two years we have raised almost $250,000 USD, with 95% of that going on equipment and operational costs for Ukraine.

CEIA detectors ready to be sent to Ukraine, © Tip of the Spear Landmine Removal

In the past you have spoken openly about your mental health. How can people, employers, and governments support veterans with their own mental health?

So many people suffer from hidden injuries, and I have lost quite a few friends to suicide. Whether it is first responders or veterans, mental health is huge for me. Going to Ukraine and helping people gave me a satisfaction that I hadn’t had in a long time, and what I have realized in my journey and my struggles is the importance of having a higher purpose, one that is bigger than yourself.

There was a time when I could easily have been one of the “22-a-day”. I was right there, I could see suicide as an option, and that is very dangerous. But if you are doing something that is bigger than yourself, helping other people, and there is some risk to it, that satisfaction begins to take the place of the depression. Although a risky business, the fulfillment and clarity came from stepping out of my comfort zone, taking risks, and helping other people.

Human beings are geared to want to help, although it doesn’t look that way on the news. There are very few people who can honestly sit back and say they are happy and fulfilled because they did it all on their own. Having this higher purpose to help other people has been really key in my mental health journey.

Click this link to read more and donate to Tip to the Spear Landmine Removal.

This interview was conducted by CBNW Magazine Editor, Patrick Norén.

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