On a chilly day in 2008, a U.S. Army Military Intelligence officer named Charlie Bailey found himself kneeling beside a statue of Mike Wazowski, the popular protagonist from “Monsters, Inc.,” for a photo.
Two years earlier, Bailey had lost his left eye in combat in Iraq. His children decided to declare June 11, the anniversary of Bailey’s injury, to be “Mike Wazowski Day,” an ode to both the one-eyed Disney Pixar character and the dad they love.
“Every year we create a Mike Wazowski cake and celebrate that he is still here with us,” Bailey’s wife, Jen Bailey, 38, told TODAY Parents. “It’s an annual celebration of life for Charlie.”
Charlie Bailey, 42, said with a laugh that in some ways, Mike Wazowski Day has become more of a celebration in his household than his birthday.
“The kids get so much joy out of it,” he told TODAY Parents. “It’s a theme that kind of just continues throughout the year. Our 7-year-old is always drawing pictures, and every picture she draws has one eye. For her, that’s her ‘normal.’”
Jen Bailey still remembers every detail about June 11, 2006. She was sitting at home in Alaska with her three children at the time — Jordan, Ava and Brady — when she got the call every military spouse dreads.
“Before he deployed, the commander had told the spouses that his plan would be to have the soldier call from a satellite phone if the soldier’s injuries allowed him to talk. If they were unable to speak, the call would come from the commander,” Jen said. “I knew it was not a good sign when it was Lieutenant Colonel Al Kelly (on the phone). I remember saying, ‘Just tell me — how bad?’”
During a mission, Bailey, then an infantry officer, had been standing in the hatch of an armored Stryker vehicle with his upper body exposed when an improvised explosive device detonated. In the blast, Bailey was blown out of the Stryker and a piece of shrapnel penetrated his skull, leaving him with a traumatic brain injury, the loss of his left eye and a 12-inch scar across his forehead.
He got evacuated to the combat support hospital in Mosul before being transported to Balad, Iraq, where he underwent brain surgery. Surgeons removed the shrapnel from his skull along with the remains of his left eye. From Iraq, he was transported to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center near Washington, D.C.
Jen flew to Washington, D.C., for Charlie’s immediate recovery — 10 days of inpatient care at Walter Reed — before relocating the family permanently to the area while Charlie finished outpatient medical care there. As he spent about six months recovering at Walter Reed, Bailey remained determined to return to active duty military service. Unwilling to accept medical retirement, he was offered the opportunity to switch jobs and continue serving as a Military Intelligence officer.
For the next decade, the Bailey family moved eight times to duty stations across the United States and Europe. They also added two additional children, Beckett and Maeve, to their brood.
While he healed physically, Bailey’s inner battle waged on. He knew he was struggling with post-traumatic stress — not just from the violence he had experienced, but also because he had watched women and children get injured and killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I would confess that I allowed pride and ego to get in the way of me asking for help,” Bailey said. “I was guilty of everything we encourage service members NOT to do. I felt like I could handle it myself, but that wasn't the case.”
In 2016, 10 years after he lost his eye, Bailey experienced a grand mal seizure. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic epilepsy and permanent brain damage to his left frontal lobe. He’s had two more grand mal seizures since then.
“Quite frankly, I’m confident that the seizure I had in 2016 was a physical manifestation of everything that was building in me for years and reaching a boiling point,” Bailey said. “My body just shut down.”
In the summer of 2016, Bailey was medically retired from the U.S. Army — a scary life transition for a man who had no intention of retiring from the military. He began getting help for his PTSD, and he eventually found a new job with the USO (United Service Organizations), where he served as a “transition coach” helping veterans returning home to civilian life.
In early December, Bailey will start a new job with ResCare, a company that helps underprivileged people find jobs and become self-sufficient.
“After my time in Iraq and Afghanistan, seeing how challenging life can be for people who are born into that level of poverty, I’ll go so far as to say that this is a bit of a calling for me,” Bailey said.
Today, the Bailey family — eight members strong with their newest addition, Madden — lives in DuPont, Washington, about 50 miles south of Seattle. While they have closed the active duty chapter of their lives, the family never misses an opportunity to celebrate life — and enjoy heaping helpings of bright green Mike Wazowski cake.
“War and injuries have lasting effects for the entire family,” Jen Bailey said. “Every day, we are reminded of just how blessed we are to have Charlie here with us and healthy. God continues to show us that His plans are so much richer than our own.”