Recently retired Sgt. Ezra Maes first made headlines for his 2018 heroism after he amputated his own leg in a crumpled M1 Abrams tank in order to help the other members of his crew.
Maes, who at the time of the accident was participating in an Atlantic Resolve exercise in Slovakia, was awakened when his tank began careening downhill after multiple brake failures.
The vehicle smashed into an embankment, and the turret crushed and pinned his leg. Maes tried to pull himself free so he could apply a tourniquet on Sgt. Aechere Crump, who had a massive gash on her thigh.
Maes freed himself, but not his leg, which ripped from his torso and remained under the turret.
He quickly applied a hasty tourniquet to the stump with his belt, ensured Crump and the driver were stabilized, and used his cell phone — which had miraculously survived the accident and somehow had adequate service in the Slovakian wilderness — to contact a friend to send help.
He made international headlines for his actions after an Army public affairs officer interviewed him in October 2019, more than a year after the incident.
He’s told the story countless times.
But these days, Maes — our 2021 Soldier of the Year — wants to talk about his new future, and his plans to help other amputee veterans rebuild healthy, happy lives after their injuries.
Army Times conducted a phone interview with Maes from his new home in Denver. The former tanker finally received his medical retirement June 27, more than two years after the accident.
He spent most of that time assigned to a Soldier Recovery Unit at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. The SRU consists of injured and ill troops focusing on their physical recoveries until the Army can determine whether to retain, retire or separate them.
“I probably set the record for the longest time spent at one of the warrior transition battalions,” he said, using the SRU’s former designation.
Life there changed dramatically after the start of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020, Maes explained.
“It was really hard. I think most of us were just told to sit in [our] rooms,” he said. “I have a lot of friends that have auto-immune diseases, or they’re coming out of surgery themselves.”
He was promoted to sergeant while at the SRU, and his lengthy tenure there enabled him to serve as a mentor to other soldiers at the unit.
“I did my best to try to inspire people around me,” Maes proudly said. “I tried to set the example and show them ‘Hey, this injury shouldn’t be the end-all, be-all for you. You can still go out there and do some good.’”
He said the transition to civilian life has “been strange, to say the least.”
But Maes is up to the challenge — and he’s already working to continue helping fellow amputee veterans through his lifelong passion for the game of soccer.
“There’s no difference between normal soccer and amputee soccer, basically,” explained Maes. The flow and pace of the adaptive version of the game are identical to the traditional game, except all the field players utilize forearm crutches and goalkeepers are required to only have one able arm.
“It is honestly one of the hardest sports I’ve ever played,” he noted. “Love it to death, but it is so brutal.”
Adaptive soccer made a big difference in his recovery process, Maes said.
He credited the sport with helping him address his post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms that have followed him since the accident.
“I was honesty starting to struggle, mentally, after the wreck,” he said. “I needed something to get back [to being] physical — that was always something in the Army I could rely on, but as soon as I lost that, I started to struggle.”
While still in San Antonio, Maes volunteered to coach a team in a fledgling amputee soccer league. While the pandemic thwarted those plans and interrupted the league, Maes plans to pick up where he left off at his new home in Denver.
“My whole goal is to actually start an amputee soccer team [in Denver],” he said.
It’s an ambitious goal, but Maes knows the impact that it could have on his fellow veterans and other amputees.
“We’re targeting to young, athletic guys in my situation,” Maes said. “There’s a lot of guys in my situation that are hidden. And it’s just a matter of finding them and getting them motivated enough to come out to this kind of stuff.”
Maes dreams of someday trying out and joining the U.S. men’s national team for adaptive soccer.
Beyond soccer, Maes is planning to enroll in college soon, though he’s not sure when he’ll dive into the next phase of his professional life.
Asked what he wants Army Times readers to know about his story, Maes took a couple minutes to answer.
“One thing that really upset me through the first round of interviews is nobody ever really focused on the other members of my crew,” he said. “They’re really great people, and I was honored to work with them.”
Crump went on to become one of the service’s first women to command a tank, Maes said, and his driver, Victor Alamo, left the military due to his injuries in the crash.
“They saved my life. If it wasn’t for these guys, I wouldn’t be around today, and my whole family feels that way,” said Maes. “Not enough people ever really get to hear that side of it.”
Davis Winkie is a senior reporter covering the Army, specializing in accountability reporting, personnel issues and military justice. He joined Military Times in 2020. Davis studied history at Vanderbilt University and UNC-Chapel Hill, writing a master's thesis about how the Cold War-era Defense Department influenced Hollywood's WWII movies.