Max Rohn: Finding a New Purpose for a Life of Service
An abridged version of this story appears in the Fall 2023, Vol. 14., No. 2 issue of The VetDogs Sentinel. The long-form version of the story about the inspirational Max Rohn appears below. Sign up for our newsletter here
Max Rohn comes from a family tradition of service, and he has followed a similar path. In high school, he was a lifeguard, and later a first responder when he was certified as an emergency medical technician.
During his EMT training, Rohn was told by one of his instructors: “‘If you really want to know how to do medicine, you should go to the front lines.’” It solidified a decision the 19-year-old had already made.
“My dad’s father served in the Navy during World War II,” he says, “and I wanted to continue a similar line of work. I knew I could help others by joining the Navy while serving my country.”
Rohn was determined to become a Fleet Marine Force (FMF) hospital corpsman. He went to boot camp and hospital corpsman school at the Naval Station Great Lakes and from there, was assigned to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, to the Field Medical Training Battalion before being assigned to the 2nd Medical Battalion once he had graduated.
Rohn deployed to Iraq in January 2009 as a hospital corpsman attached to a Marine unit. On May 5, 2009, “my life changed forever,” he says. His Humvee was hit by an anti-tank grenade. “I lost consciousness in the blast. After waking up, I opened my eyes to the sight of my right leg bleeding while my Marines were frantically yelling at me to see if I was alive.” Rohn was awarded the Purpose Heart for his injuries in
He sustained extensive damage to his leg, but his desire to serve remained strong. “For the next two years, both my doctors and I did everything we could to save my leg,” he says. (Rohn eventually spent four years in the hospital, first at Bethesda National Naval Medical Center, which merged into Walter Reed Army Medical Center and became Walter Reed National Military Medical Center).
“My life plan had been blown to pieces, and I was looking for a new purpose.” Sports proved to be one way. He competed in the Department of Defense’s adaptive-sports competition, the Warrior Games. However, he was dealing with constant pain from his damaged leg, so to help him function, he was prescribed opioids.
During a wheelchair basketball game, “I got turned over,” he says. “It was an emotional blow to my morale” and led to “a breaking point in my recovery.”
When he returned to Walter Reed, Rohn began to formulate a drastic plan: he wanted to have his leg amputated to reduce his pain and increase his function. “It was not well received by a panel of doctors,” he says. “I had to fight for what I knew was right.”
On August 15, 2011, his right leg below the knee was amputated. To help him with the new physical challenges arising from his amputation, he underwent rehabilitation therapy at the Military Advanced Training Center (MATC) at Walter Reed. However, his leg got infected, and to help alleviate the pain, he was prescribed painkillers again; unfortunately, he became addicted.
Rohn realized he had to tackle all his problems at the same time: the physical pain of his amputation, his addiction to painkillers, and his post-traumatic stress. “You can’t separate problems out,” he says, “they’re all combined together.” To work on his PTSD and substance abuse, he attended an in-patient treatment center in Virginia.
“I’m extremely grateful for my medical treatment team, and fellow brothers- and sisters-in-arms,” he says. “The successful treatment I received is because of their inspiration and encouragement.”
The year after his amputation, Rohn returned to the Warrior Games to compete in several sports and had even started running on his new prosthetic leg.
MISSING THE JOY
In March 2013, Rohn was medically retired from the Navy with full honors and recruited by his Warrior Games coach to attend Penn State.
“Penn State helped me succeed by giving me outstanding education and athletics opportunities,” he says.
In addition to the Warrior Games in track and field, swimming, wheelchair basketball, and seated volleyball, Rohn also competed in the U.S. Paralympic World Championships and the Invictus Games, where he represented Team USA and won four gold medals for shot put and discus. Rohn admits he was still ignoring some of his underlying issues.
“I wanted to prove myself, that I could still ‘do it,’ but I was just existing,” he says. “I was very mission oriented – school and sports – and didn’t really have a joy in my life.”
During his rehabilitation at Walter Reed, he had seen how service dogs from America’s VetDogs interacted with and helped other wounded veterans, but “I put off the application for a couple of years,” he says. “It was a personal decision, and it was the wrong one. I just thought I was traveling too much. It turns out, it was just a big lie that I was telling myself.”
Finally, he says, “I had to admit I needed help with my disability.” Filling out the application and getting his medical providers to sign off on it had good and bad aspects, he adds. “It forces you into confronting your issues.”
Rohn trained with service dog Luce (“Loo-che”), a male yellow Labrador Retriever, in February 2022. Luce performs multiple tasks for Rohn such as waking him up and reminding him to take his medication, and retrieving the liner for Rohn’s prosthetic leg.
“Any time I need to run errands, he helps with my PTSD. He creates space between me and random people in crowds and calms my anxiety,” Rohn says.
At night, “Luce keeps a close watch over how I sleep in case he needs to perform nightmare interruption: if Rohn is in the throes of a nightmare, Luce will nudge him awake to break the cycle.
“A service dog is exactly what I needed to treat my PTSD and problems with my daily living activities encountered with my prosthetic leg,” he says.
THE NEXT CHAPTER
Rohn graduated from Penn State with a degree in international politics. “When I was at Walter Reed, I knew nothing about politics,” he says, but during his convalescence, he met people from Congress and the administration, and often attended events on Capitol Hill. This exposure to the world of politics, plus his interest in history, and his experiences during his deployment to Iraq helped foster his interest in global politics.
What he found most interesting, he says, was how much he learned about the Iraq war (Operation Iraqi Freedom) from his professors. “When you’re over there, you don’t really know anything,” he says. “You just know where you’re going and what you’re supposed to do in your little corner.”
Rohn and his family recently relocated to the West Coast from Colorado, a move that came about in a roundabout way. He had helped his best friend, Red Ramos, get accepted for help by Homes for Troops. The two men happened to be on the same plane flying home, and as they talked, Ramos suggested Rohn move to California so the two could raise their families together.
It seemed the thing to do for the two “sole mates.” (“Sole mate” is a term used by leg amputees when they find someone who wears the same size shoe but for the other leg. Ramos is a left-leg amputee and Rohn is a right-leg amputee, so they’re able swap shoes. “We actually met shoe shopping,” Rohn laughs.)
Since his relocation, Rohn has focused on his athletic endeavors. He is currently training for the Parapan American Games to be held in Santiago, Chile, and his next goal is the Paralympic Games in Paris 2024 where he’ll be competing in the discus (he currently ranks fifth in the world). He also works with different sports organizations that encourage athletes with disabilities.
Athletics, Rohn says, is “the path that I found that gives you purpose and gets your life back together, so I'm just trying to spread it to other guys. I didn’t pick it; it picked me, and I’m just not fighting it.”
Rohn’s desire to help people with disabilities also led him to join the boards of America’s VetDogs and the Guide Dog Foundation.
“I have a lot of friends that are struggling, and I meet a lot of random people along the way, and they always ask me for help or advice,” he says, especially when he’s out and about with Luce.
While sports are a good tool for recovery, Rohn believes a service dog can help even more. “It’s the best thing I’ve found. And if I could help [America’s VetDogs] in any way, this is my way of giving back. I have learned that with determination and perseverance, you can achieve anything you set your mind to.”