How a Navy SEAL Veteran’s Trauma Drives His Survival Instinct

August 7, 2020Joshua Skovlund
mike day

Mike Day and Herja. Photo courtesy of Mike Day/Instagram.

On April 6, 2007, Mike Day was the lead man on a raid against an al Qaeda cell that had been attacking US troops in Iraq’s Anbar province. As Day breached the door, a barrage of gunfire hit his rifle, knocking it out of his hands. He immediately transitioned to his pistol and killed one insurgent as he fell to the ground next to the dead terrorist.

Day’s No. 2 man, an Iraqi scout, had been shot in the chest, sending him back out into the hallway. The third man in, also an Iraqi scout, had been shot in the chest and died in the doorway. The trauma Day endured as a child had prepared his survival instincts for just this type of scenario.

As a second insurgent pulled the pin on a grenade and ran toward the troops in the hallway outside the room, Day shot him. The insurgent dropped dead. The grenade the insurgent was carrying exploded not far from Day, rendering him unconscious and peppering him with shrapnel. None of Day’s fellow US Navy SEALs had seen him enter the room, and he was unable to answer their radio requests. 

mike day
Mike Day and his female Malinois, Herja. Photo by Joshua Skovlund/Coffee or Die.

Joseph “Clark” Schwedler, another SEAL on the mission, had been shot and killed two rooms over from where Day was knocked out. The SEALs and Iraqi scouts were moving off target while the two terrorists in the room where Day lay unconscious were firing on them. Day regained consciousness, saw what was happening, and engaged the terrorists with his pistol. 

After a rapid magazine change, he continued shooting. The terrorists returned fire from approximately 10 feet away with AK-47 rifles. One of the rounds hit the bottom of Day’s magazine well, blowing the grips off the pistol and causing a malfunction. He cleared the malfunction and reengaged the insurgents, killing them both. 

Day rounded up three Iraqi scouts who had been unable to get out of the target building. He directed one to cover the front door, a second to guard the women and children they had located in the room Clark was killed in, and utilized the third to guard two detainees in the back of the house. Day went to radio his team that had left the target but realized his radio was damaged during the gun fight. He grabbed Schwedler’s radio and got in touch with his team. 

His radio call came just in time to prevent a fire mission his team had called up to an AC-130 gunship that was on station. Day’s team returned and cleared the target building. He didn’t realize that he had been shot 27 times until his teammates came into the room.

mike day
Herja never seemed to let Mike leave her sight at any given time during the Total Archery Challenge in Utah. Photo by Joshua Skovlund/Coffee or Die.

“I didn’t even know how bad I was hurting until they came in and I saw the looks on their faces,” Day said. “We all know that look.”

Day had taken 16 gunshot wounds to his body — both legs, arms, abdomen, buttocks, and scrotum. He was shot 11 times in his body armor, which to him was more painful than the gunshots that entered flesh. He had also taken a lot of shrapnel from the grenade the terrorist set off in the room. His team called in a MEDEVAC helicopter right away. 

Day walked to the helicopter without any assistance. “I wasn’t being macho, but I was afraid if they picked me up, it would just hurt more,” he said.

He was then flown out to Baghdad where medical teams stabilized him overnight. The next morning, Day was flown to Landstuhl, Germany, for further treatment. He went into cardiac arrest three times during his flight out of Baghdad.

Day was in Landstuhl for a day before his flight back to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center (WRNMMC). He was there for 16 days, even though his initial estimate was three to four months. 

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Gary Sinese visiting Mike at Bethesda Hospital, April 2007. Photo courtesy of Mike Day/Instagram.

“I think I was such a pain in the butt, they were ready for me to go,” Day said, laughing.

Day said that the key motivation for him to survive, to persevere, was the need to see his children. He said that during the gun fight, time slowed down and he prayed to God that he would be able to see his girls again. His fear turned into pure anger, he said, which enabled him to overcome the gunshot wounds and fight for his survival. 

Surviving the deadly encounter with the al Qaeda cell is a testament to Day’s grit and will power. 

“Over my life, I’ve had a lot of trauma, and I have acquired the mindset that I don’t care what happens,” he said. “When it happens, I’ll just figure it out.”

Day grew up in a violent household and said he feels that more than prepared him for the SEAL teams. He said that the way the Teams train until failure is what enables them to function under high stress, both physically and mentally. 

mike day
Mike posted on Instagram, “The last days before starting BUDs. Each class has a head shaving party the weekend before you class up. You can’t quit till you class up. Which means, you get your head shaved and go ring the bell on Monday. Every class has a few guys that quit that first day, first thing in the morning, before the first push-Up ever happens.” Photo courtesy of Mike Day/Instagram.

“A lot of people won’t understand or believe that even Navy SEALs have insecurities that we have to go through,” he said. “I did stuff every day that scared me, but I still did it.” 

After a 21-year career in the Navy, Day retired in 2010. He spent the next seven years working as a wounded warrior advocate for the US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) as a non-medical case manager. Day worked with more than 400 patients and their families, providing insight into recovery and connecting them with resources to further assist their needs. 

Day has a special connection with people who have endured traumatic events and prefers their company. He’s also currently in the preliminary stages of establishing a nonprofit organization to help at-risk youth.

“When you go through something together, or similar, it’s a bond, even if you didn’t do it together,” Day said. “The resiliency that’s built into people after they go through trauma is incredible.” 

Joshua Skovlund
Joshua Skovlund

Joshua Skovlund is a former staff writer for Coffee or Die. He has covered the 75th anniversary of D-Day in France, multinational military exercises in Germany, and civil unrest during the 2020 riots in Minneapolis. Born and raised in small-town South Dakota, he grew up playing football and soccer before serving as a forward observer in the US Army. After leaving the service, he worked as a personal trainer while earning his paramedic license. After five years as in paramedicine, he transitioned to a career in multimedia journalism. Joshua is married with two children. His creative outlets include Skovlund Photography and Concentrated Emotion.

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