Purple Heart recipient gives back to veterans

Q&A with a Boeing Global Engagement teammate who overcame severe combat injuries and now helps veterans thrive.

April 25, 2023 in Our-People

Armando Mejia is always ready with a smile. His kind heart and approachable demeanor make him an outstanding community investor with Boeing Global Engagement. Mejia handles Boeing grants to Pacific Northwest non-profit organizations that support veterans and their families with everything from skill development and training, to recovery and rehabilitation. And you likely couldn’t find a better person to handle the “Our Heroes” portfolio because Mejia is a hero himself. The army veteran was seriously injured in Iraq when his vehicle was caught in a firefight and hit by an explosive. To say Mejia had some bad days following his injuries is a profound understatement. However, with heaps of determination and help, those bad days stretched further and further apart. Now, almost 19 years later, Mejia says he carries the daily impacts of his injuries but no longer keeps himself from living his full potential. 

Mejia was recently recognized by Compass Housing Alliance with their first “Outstanding Community Partner Award” for his work in support of veterans. He took part in a Q&A and explains how we overcame significant injuries and became a champion for veterans.

Where did you serve in the U.S. military and when? I joined the military in 1996. I served more than 11 years in the U.S. Army. I served in Hawaii and at Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM). In 2004, I was deployed to Mosul, Iraq.

What did you enjoy about serving your country? One reason was the sense of duty, which is about serving something greater than yourself, bettering yourself, and helping others you meet along the way. I also made friendships for life. Having these lifelong friends is a gift that continues to make my life better.

Can you describe the day you were injured? It was Oct. 28, 2004. I was the lead non-commissioned officer in charge of a big convoy. On the way to our destination, we drove through a town called Tal-Afar. People were out in the streets; vendors, kids, it seemed like a normal day. However, on the way back, the streets were empty. As my convoy continued forward, I heard through the radio that there was a person running toward our convoy and aiming something at us. With a blink of an eye, I heard a loud explosion, then felt a huge heatwave. I could not breathe or see and felt I was burning. My vehicle had hit an improvised explosive device, also known as an IED. In a split second, my vehicle was upside down. The vehicle landed on me crushing my right forearm and pinning my legs. I smelled fuel and smoke. I could hear rounds hitting the vehicle and my soldiers yelling commands. It was the worst 15-20 minutes of my life. I remember closing my eyes and praying, knowing that this was it. It’s something I will never forget, the feeling that your life is going to end at this very moment.

The vehicle Mejia was riding in when it hit an IED. Courtesy of Armando Mejia

The next thing I know, the vehicle flipped with the wheels on the ground again, and soldiers are pulling me out. They laid me on the ground and two soldiers draped over me, using their bodies to shield me from gunfire. Within seconds I could feel the air of a Black Hawk helicopter above us, and I knew they were trying to get me out of there. As the helicopter landed soldiers grabbed me and literally threw me in as we were getting shot at. I remember laying in the helicopter, not being able to see because the heat of the explosion melted my contacts in my eyes. If it wasn’t for the bravery of my soldiers covering me with their bodies, and the crew in the Black Hawk who landed as rounds were flying, I would not be here. I owe my life to those brave men and women.

What’s the next thing you remember? As I was going into surgery, the doctor informed me his team would do everything to save my legs. I closed my eyes and woke up in bed with bandages on my legs, arm and back. I was in so much pain.  And there was my driver sitting at my bedside. This day will always be engraved in my heart. I am very lucky to have a second chance in life.

Mejia in 2004 shortly after he was injured. Courtesy of Armando Mejia Mejia in 2004 shortly after he was injured. Courtesy of Armando Mejia

What was your healing process like? It was painful both mentally and physically. After leaving Iraq and landing back in the States, I had more than 20 surgeries. But the worst part was the invisible wounds, the mental trauma. Mentally, I learned that I needed to talk about what I was going through. It took me almost a year or so to talk to someone that I trusted, but it helped me so much. I could not have recovered if it wasn’t for my wife and the support I had at Madigan Army Medical Center.

For the first four years, I used a wheelchair and could not walk on my own. I wasn’t sure what was next for me. That’s when a mentor said to me, “Your ears work right? Go get your education!” So, I went back to school and got my associate’s degree and eventually a master’s in social work.

How are you doing today? I’m doing OK. I still deal with physical pain every day. My PTSD and traumatic brain injury (TBI) are present for sure, but not as bad as they used to be. Learning to adapt was huge for me. I know now when to take a knee if I need to catch some air. I have learned to self-triage each day to check in with myself. At times, I do forget a few things here and there because of my TBI, so I carry a notebook with me. My manager has helped me with this. We have our one-on-one meetings each week to go over things, talk about how I am doing, and it’s always great to have support from her. Since day one at Boeing, she has asked me if I’ve needed any accommodations, which really makes me feel great and welcomed.

What prompted you to come to Boeing? I knew that Boeing had a big presence in our military and veteran community and their workforce is made up of about 15% veterans enterprise-wide. I was excited about collaborating with so many amazing people, as Boeing is a company with endless opportunities.

You recently received recognition from Compass Housing Alliance for your work in support of veterans. What does that mean to you? This award would not have been possible without the inspiration I have received from my mentors, colleagues and friends for whom I have the deepest respect and from whom I have gained the strength to challenge myself each day. I hope this recognition of my work and passion can serve as an inspiration to others. I challenge everyone to volunteer, get involved and make a difference in their community.

Mejia receives the first Compass Housing Outstanding Community Partner Award. Boeing photo Mejia receives the first Compass Housing Outstanding Community Partner Award. Boeing photo

Anything else you’d like to add? Yes, follow your passion and dreams and surround yourself with positive people. Most importantly, there’s no excuse not to be living your full potential. Thank you for letting me share my story.

By Jane McCarthy and Armando Mejia