As I See It

Brothers in arms on the road to recovery

Updated: 2013-11-06T01:18:53Z

By Zoltan Krompecher

Special to The Star

Last winter, I left work with the Army to watch my 8-year-old son, Jack, at basketball practice. But instead of focusing on watching my son, I found myself checking emails and calling work. Before I realized it, Jack came running over to me. Practice was over.

Slipping my phone into my pocket, I looked to see a soldier on the now empty court and was transfixed in watching Spc. David Carpenter show his young daughter, Zoe, how to shoot a jump shot. He was balancing on one leg — the other was lost in Afghanistan.

Soon after, I read in the paper about another soldier and his family from Ohio who had been staying in Fisher House while recovering from wounds incurred in Helmund Province. On a whim, I contacted Fisher House and left a message for Staff Sgt. Dan Burgess to call me. He did, and our family has been better for it.

For many of our soldiers and their families, these are life-changing events. Soldiers train for war, but few manuals prepare families for when the baggage of war arrives on the front stoop.

On Nov. 23, 2011, while his wife, Jeanette, was out with their daughters, Gracie and Kaylie, Dan stepped on an improvised-explosive device. At 4:26 p.m. that afternoon, while driving, Jeanette said she felt a pang in her heart and thought: “Something’s wrong. Something’s happened to Danny.”

Less than an hour later, at 5:20 p.m., she heard the phone ringing as she entered the house. The caller ID read “U.S. Army.”

Picking up the phone, she said, “Tell me my husband is still alive.”

The voice on the other end informed her: “Ma’am, your husband has been in an accident.” Jeanette dropped to her knees and hugged her daughters. Within the hour, friends gathered to lend support during the uncertainty of the moment.

Lying in the Afghan dust, Dan realized the extent of his wounds: right leg missing, left leg shredded, traumatic brain injury, two compound fractures, injury to left arm and a tibia fracture.

Although injured, Dan recalled his thoughts that day: “I thought: I will walk again. Like any Cleveland sports fan, I don’t give up hope.”

In the world of recovery, dark days exist, so opportunities to catch the sun are welcome. So it goes with Dan and me. Over the past year, our families have become friends. Jeanette and my wife, Tina, volunteer with the Girl Scout troop of which all four of our daughters are members; they recently raised money to bake meals for Fisher House families.

We celebrated the Army birthday together; we watched as Dan regained enough motility to run the Army Ten-Miler and, during football season, we try to raise our spirits by rooting for Cleveland sports teams. Mostly, we enjoy each other’s company. Chronicling Dan’s recovery serves as landmarks during our time in San Antonio.

“There are two things I could do when I got hit: die or live,” Dan shared with me.

His family is emblematic of thousands of others who pay the cost of war in blood and sacrifice. A soldier’s blood runs through Dan’s veins, and he has chosen to drive on towards the objective of healing. At night — left with memories of that day — he goes home, like so many vets, to a wife and children whose healing powers cannot be overestimated. They are the safety net.

Staff Sgt. Travis Mills, a triple-amputee, put it best: “Now I can watch my little girl grow up and see my wife and family again. I didn’t die, so that’s good. You’ve got to look at the positive things.”

The stories of these three soldiers taught me a lesson once forgotten: I can sit on the sidelines, tethered to a phone and the “busyness” of my life, remaining ignorant that my children grow without my realizing it — nights of bedtime stories and tea parties are long past — or I can become involved with the adventure of being part of their lives and choose that which is most important. Sometimes, it’s all about the jump shot.

Zoltan Krompecher, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, is a Green Beret who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He lives in Texas, where he serves as a battalion commander. While stationed at Fort Leavenworth, he was a Midwest Voices contributor. These views are his own.

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