Twenty-seven gunshots and an exploding grenade couldn’t stop him. Eight years after being gravely wounded in action, former Navy SEAL Mike Day stares down the challenge of IRONMAN 70.3 racing.

This article contains material that may be disturbing to some readers, including children.

By Aimee Berg
Photos by Nils Nilsen

A half IRONMAN is a harsh way to make a triathlon debut. Especially for a 5-foot-10, 200-pound neophyte who dabbled in high school sports and, at 43, planned to “taper” at Disney World with his spouse and two daughters the week before the race.

Or is it?

For Mike Day, a lake swim, a residential ride and a paved run for charity in the IRONMAN 70.3 Florida in April, will never be his toughest test. 

Day enlisted in the Navy at age 17, became a SEAL in 1990 — well before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 — and served 21 years including seven deployments. The seventh deployment should have killed him.

Eight years ago, about 7,000 miles away from his triathlon debut in Haines City, Florida, Senior Chief Day survived 27 rounds of enemy gunfire at close range — and a grenade blast. He was almost left for dead, yet managed to walk to a rescue helicopter.

“How is that even possible?” said Jared, a Navy petty officer first class who was on the same mission in Iraq and requested that his last name not be used for security reasons. “Even to me — a guy that was a SEAL for 10, 11 years and saw multiple combat situations, it doesn’t even make sense. But I was there, so …”

According to documents and interviews with three SEALs who were on site that night, Day’s SEAL team was scheduled to go home in a week and a half. But it had one final mission: to take out an Al Qaeda cell that had shot down two U.S. Marine helicopters.

Just before midnight on April 5, 2007, Day’s unit landed a few kilometers from a single-story building in Anbar Province, Iraq, about 12 miles northeast of Fallujah. By the time the 22-member assault team reached the target on foot, it was 1:33 a.m.

Already, the U.S. had intercepted enemy communications about U.S. forces landing, “so they were ready,” Day said. “As soon as I breached that room, four of them opened up on me.”

Day’s M4 rifle was immediately shot out of his hand. Day grabbed his pistol and shot one man.

“A second guy pulled a pin on a grenade and was trying to run out of the room. I shot him,” Day said. The grenade exploded and knocked Day unconscious.

Two members of the Iraqi Army with the U.S. forces also tried to enter, but two men with AK-47s were still shooting at the door jamb. The No. 2 man behind Day was shot in the chest and survived. The No. 3 guy behind Day was shot and killed in the doorway.

Nobody else could make entry.

Over the radio, assault team members were asked to give their status. Day was unresponsive.

The team evacuated the building and prepared for aircraft overhead to level the structure.

At 1:41 a.m. on the perimeter of the building, however, the platoon commander, Lt. Garth Weintraub, realized that only 16 of the 22 personnel were accounted for.

Among those missing was 27-year-old Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Joseph “Clark” Schwedler, one of the best-liked SEALs in the platoon. The Michigan native had taken one shot to the neck and bled to death near the 12-by-12-foot room where Day was hit.

When Day awoke, he remembered, “I’m laying on my side, still got my pistol in my hand. The two [enemy] guys in the room are shooting at the guys [outside] leaving. So I re-engaged those two guys.”

Day was able to take them both out.

“At this point, I had no idea that I had been shot as many times as I had. I go to make comms with the rest of the platoon and find that my radio’s been destroyed.”

Day tried to unscrew Schwedler’s radio but his hand kept slipping. “I went to take off my left glove and realized it was the only thing holding my thumb on. It was barely hanging on at the knuckle.”

At 1:49 a.m., Day made radio contact saying the target was “secure.” Team members raced back to the building.

“They were going to carry me out,” Day said. “I didn’t want anybody to touch me. I thought they would hurt me. I was in shock; I wasn’t thinking straight. I walked a couple hundred yards” to the helicopter squadron.

Day flew out via medevac at 2:14 a.m.

At the hospital in Baghdad, Day “got mobbed by like 10 people, rolling me over, calling out where all the gunshot wounds were. That’s probably the first time I’d realized I’d been hit so many times.”

Twenty-seven times, he was told. His ceramic body armor took 11 rounds — including three to the chest at close range.

His body took the other 16.

“I got shot in both arms, both legs. One round,” Day said, “went in my lower right thigh and came out the upper right thigh” leaving him with nerve damage that makes it hard to distinguish sensations below the knee. (This summer, what Day thought was a bead of sweat running down his leg was actually the stings of five wasps.)


“I had two rounds in my butt. One went through my intestinal tract, bladder and rectum. I still got one round in my hip. And my right scapula was shattered.”

“Only two bones were hit,” Day said. “Everything else was soft tissue.  I can’t explain how I had a round go up the length of my thigh and didn’t hit my femur. From what I know of AK ballistics that should have ruptured my femoral artery and it didn’t.”

For his role in the raid, Day would receive a Silver Star (the third highest U.S. military award for valor), a Bronze Star with a “Combat V” (for heroism in combat) and a Purple Heart. 

Back in the U.S., Day was told he would be hospitalized for at least three or four months, but once Day discovered he had to make it through a checklist of tasks, that became his focus. He was hospitalized for 16 days.

After his wife, Brenda, drove him home, he said, “I pretty much lived in my recliner for about three months. I couldn’t lay flat.”

Yet four and a half months into his two-year recovery, Day said, he was back to work, teaching a military communications course.

By March 2010, Day retired from the Navy and started working as a government contractor to help other wounded veterans.

Then, last fall, a colleague in Virginia handed Day a 70.3 jersey. “I was like, ‘What is this thing?’” he said. When his colleague explained, Day took it as a dare and signed up for Ironman 70.3 Florida.

Day had completed Tough Mudder races in the past, and figured that SEAL duty — running around in 80 pounds of gear daily, sometimes under fire — had instilled the fortitude to swim 1.2 miles, bike 56 miles and run 13.1 miles. 

He promptly started overtraining — swimming too far, running too far — until Marci Gray, a physical therapist, triathlete, USA Triathlon certified coach and daughter of a retired Army colonel, offered to coach him online pro bono. He began following her weekly training plans at home in Virginia.

Meanwhile, in Texas, Jared heard about Day’s half Ironman and promptly offered to be Day’s raceday “swim buddy” — SEAL jargon for the guy who always has your back and never leaves your side in Basic Underwater Demolition training.  

Jared had already done one triathlon, an Ironman in Louisville, Kentucky, in 2012. “Next to Hell Week, that was the worst thing I’d ever done, for sure,” he said. “I swore I was never going to do it again. Till I saw Mike doing it. I was like, ‘Dagnabbit, I can’t let him do it by himself.’”

So Jared signed up for the 70.3 in Haines City, too.

In addition, Day aimed to raise $75,000 for the Brain Treatment Foundation to fund veterans seeking care at the Carrick Brain Center in Irving, Texas. By press time in mid-March, Day had met 93 percent of his goal (according to Crowdrise).
But after Haines City, then what?

“I had somebody tell me that I’d probably get addicted to [triathlon],” Day said. “I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

“Because it’s painful,” said the SEAL who survived a grenade blast and 27 rounds fired at close range by an AK-47, M4 rifle and Sig Sauer pistol.

“It’s [all] that running; the running really beats me up.”