Spirit

Army vet with brain injury finds healing in his bottle-cap art

Injured Army veteran finds solace in art

Zeke Crozier of Overland Park suffered a traumatic brain injury when his Army helicopter crashed while he was serving in Afghanistan. His recovery has included making art with bottle caps and he has started a business, Handy Cappin, making pieces
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Zeke Crozier of Overland Park suffered a traumatic brain injury when his Army helicopter crashed while he was serving in Afghanistan. His recovery has included making art with bottle caps and he has started a business, Handy Cappin, making pieces

“Where is it? It’s a Chinook? Can you hear it?”

Ezekiel Michijah Crozier, a retired U.S. Army staff sergeant and wounded Afghan vet, was standing in the driveway of his Overland Park home one recent afternoon, peering at the sky.

The sound of propellers was barely audible at first. Then, second by second, it grew louder.

“My heart’s racing,” he said under his breath, tapping his chest.

Sure enough, a bulky brown helicopter with two propellers came into view. Boeing CH-47 Chinooks are used in war zones to move troops, place artillery and resupply battlefields.

The U.S. Army Reserve operates out of the New Century AirCenter, 15 miles away in Gardner. So it’s not unusual to see military aircraft like a Chinook flying over that area of Johnson County.

But it was a surreal finale to a visit with Crozier, 32, during which he spent a good part of three hours discussing the traumatic brain injury he suffered when a Chinook he was flying in crashed in Afghanistan six years ago.

On Memorial Day, Crozier will serve as the honoree of the Amy Thompson Run for Brain Injury in Loose Park. Proceeds will benefit the Brain Injury Association of Kansas and Greater Kansas City.

Lifetime’s “Military Makeover” had also finished an extreme makeover of the split-level home he shares with his wife, Lacy, and sons Chase, 9, and Gunnar, 6, just a few days before. NBKC Bank, a sponsor of the show, nominated Crozier for the makeover. He gave a tour of the home, pointing out all the changes and designer touches. They’ll appear in three episodes at 7:30 a.m. on June 9, June 23 and July 7.

The Croziers love their newly redesigned home, though Zeke worries about sitting on the new white sofa in the living room.

Just looking at Crozier, you’d never know he was so seriously hurt. He’s handsome and muscular, thoughtful and articulate, creative and witty. He has built a business, Handy-Cappin, creating artwork from bottle caps.

But Crozier still struggles with memory loss, depression, anxiety and irritability from the brain injury — symptoms compounded by post-traumatic stress disorder.

“He is indicative of what a lot of people go through,” says Robin Abramowitz, executive director of the Brain Injury Association. “They have an accident, receive therapy and then it’s what’s next? Zeke is a good example of someone who looks normal on the outside but has challenges. People with brain injuries who are high functioning look OK but aren’t OK.”

Surviving the crash

Many people may remember the Chinook helicopter, call signal Extortion 17, that crashed in Afghanistan in August 2011. The Taliban shot it down, killing all 38 people onboard. It was and still is the deadliest day of the Afghan war, and it made international headlines.

Few people outside the military, however, know that just a few weeks before, shortly after midnight on June 25, 2011, another Chinook crashed in Afghanistan. No one died, though Crozier and another soldier, Kirk Kuykendall, were severely injured. The incident barely made a blip in the news.

Because of his brain injury, and because he was knocked unconscious, Crozier doesn’t like talking about the crash. He doesn’t know what he remembers first-hand and what he has been told or if any of it is accurate. He worries he’ll get the details wrong. That, in his mind, would be a huge disservice to his fellow soldiers who carried him to safety.

A photo in Crozier’s den shows him posing with pilots Buddy Lee and Bryan Nichols and two other crew members shortly before boarding the Chinook for that fateful mission. They’d never posed for a picture together before, Crozier says, so he’s not sure why they did on that particular night. He’s just thankful they did. They’d all grown close, like brothers.

“All we have is each other when we are (in a war zone),” he says. “You become very close with the individuals around you, you really depend on each other. Sometimes it’s lonely after a mission or during downtime and you talk. There is always a point where you are scared, so you form a very strong emotional connection.”

Between Lacy and details gleaned from military investigation report after the accident, Crozier knows he was standing in the Chinook at the time of the crash. The ground beneath the helicopter was rocky, and the pilot was trying to land in a small landing zone circled by trees. The sky was pitch black, punctuated only by ongoing fire fights.

Crozier was calling out the clearance of trees when an engine suddenly failed and the chopper dropped 150 feet to the ground. The impact jolted him so hard that his brain smashed against his cranium, causing hemorrhaging and swelling. His fellow crew members found him in the wreckage, unconscious and bleeding from the ears.

Author Ed Darack has devoted a chapter of “The Final Mission of Extortion 17,” due out in September, to the crash Crozier survived.

Reached by phone, Darack says the subsequent military investigation report was inconclusive, because the U.S. destroyed the Chinook after the crash to keep the Taliban from getting its parts. But Darack concluded that there is overwhelming evidence that the chopper was shot down.

“There were a number of bright flashes that a number of people in the helicopter reported seeing and then a series of pops and cracks, which is what happens when a helicopter is hit (by a rocket propelled grenade),” he says. “They also issued two Purple Hearts (including one to Crozier), and they never issue Purple Hearts unless it’s for injuries sustained in battle.”

Darack also noted that the fire fights in the area made it urgent for the crew to immediately evacuate the crash site. Nichols called in a medevac to transport Crozier and Kuykendall, who had a badly injured leg, to Bagram Airfield.

From there, Crozier was sent to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, where doctors put him in a medically induced coma and placed a bolt in his head to monitor his brain pressure.

Back home in Overland Park, Lacy had been getting a series of calls from Crozier’s officers. The first informed her that “a bird went down” and that Zeke was being sent to Bagram Airfield to get checked out. The second came the next day from his captain, telling her that Crozier was being transported to Landstuhl, that bad things were happening with his brain and he might not survive.

“I immediately broke down in tears and fell to the floor,” Lacy recalls. “Chase came out of his room, and I had to immediately wipe my tears and change my attitude, because I didn’t want him to be upset.”

Three days later, Crozier arrived at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland (now part of Walter Reed Army Medical Center). He was still in a coma, and doctors warned Lacy that he might never walk or talk again. The first time she laid eyes on him in the ICU, she bolted from the room.

“It wasn’t what I remembered him looking like. It wasn’t him,” she says. “His entire body was swollen. Everything was puffed up. It was terrifying.”

When doctors brought Crozier out of his coma two weeks later, he was in pain, confused and terrified for several days. He couldn’t walk, talk or even swallow.

His right hand was shattered and his eardrum was ruptured during the crash, and he was diagnosed with a diffuse axonal injury to the right side of his brain, a devastating injury that results in extensive lesions and often a persistent vegetative state.

Once stabilized, he was sent to the Minneapolis VA Health Care System, where he spent the next three months relearning almost everything, because the entire left side of his body, including his face, was paralyzed.

Lacy and Crozier weren’t married at that point, but she rarely left his side, leaving only to sleep across the street in a house for families of wounded vets. Chase and Gunnar stayed back home with Lacy’s parents.

Crozier impressed everyone with his grit and determination. But it wasn’t without immense frustration, he says.

“When I was in rehab and couldn’t walk right or do an activity, I would say things like, ‘I suck, I’m so crappy,’ ” he recalls. “One day my therapist said, ‘Would you talk to another person like that?’ She told me I should treat myself with the same kindness I would another person. When I see others struggling, I want to help them. But for me, I have my own standard. If I can’t do something right away, I get mad.”

There were setbacks, particularly when Crozier learned about the second Chinook crash. The five flight-crew members, which included Nichols and two other soldiers from the New Century AirCenter, were his close buddies.

His doctors in Minneapolis released him for a day so he could attend their memorial service in Overland Park. Crozier was able to walk by then, but his balance was so bad that he had to wear a special belt for Lacy to hold onto to support him.

He doesn’t remember much from the service because he was still in a haze from his injuries. All the same, it was vital he attend, he says.

“I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye.”

There were also moments of joy during his rehab, including the day he and Lacy got a day pass so they could go to the courthouse down the street and tie the knot. By the time he left Minneapolis in late October, Crozier was able to walk and talk.

And he surprised everyone — his doctors, therapists, family, friends — by passing a driving test.

Moving forward

Crozier continued with rehab and was still enlisted when he returned home. He reported to New Century AirCenter every day until July 2013, when he was officially retired.

It didn’t take long for him to get tired of doing nothing.

He tends to sit and think too much — about his fellow soldiers still in Afghanistan; about how he’s forgetful and sometimes short-tempered with his sons; about the way he was before the crash.

“I didn’t take things too seriously before,” he says. “If it wasn’t a big deal, I didn’t make a big deal out of it. Now, the point of a pencil hitting a tabletop can really irritate me. I have to see something, and once I see it, I calm down. It’s a struggle, and that struggle is real and it’s every day.”

More than once, Lacy has had to quiet Chase and Gunnar. Young boys are supposed to be boisterous and make a lot of noise, he says, but sometimes it’s too much for Crozier.

He also doesn’t like taking help from others, something he had to do after the crash.

About three years ago, he started making personalized artwork from bottle caps to give as gifts to repay people for their help. He begins each project by painting a design on a wood surface, then bending and gluing different colored bottle caps to those designs, before covering it all with a high-gloss resin.

Soon people began asking if they could buy pieces from him, and Handy-Cappin blossomed. He has hundreds, maybe thousands, of caps sorted by color in the new workshop “Military Makeover” created for him in his basement. Bartenders at Johnny’s Tavern in Overland Park save the caps for him, and people from around the country send them to him after a video clip from a Channel 9 feature on Crozier went viral on the internet.

“Military Makeover” incorporated several of his pieces into its designs in his den, including one of Arlington National Cemetery inspired by a trip he took to visit the graves of his fallen Extortion 17 comrades. He almost threw that one away several times while making it because he couldn’t get it the way he wanted. Now it’s his favorite piece.

“Every bottle cap is going to look different in how it’s popped off the bottle,” says Dail Blake, a member of the Amy Thompson Run committee. “Then, how he twists and cuts them to fit the design, and pours the resin over it — it gives it so much depth.”

Blake sees Crozier as a samurai of sorts.

“You look at him — a young fit man — you look at his artwork and you’d have no idea of the battle he faces every day,” he says. “That artwork is therapy in many ways. The samurai could not earn their sword until they mastered a fine art. Many wrote haiku or painted. When they came back from battle, they would work their fine art and that re-engaged the frontal cortex and helped turn down their enlarged amygdalas, which fired off fight-or-flight chemicals.”

Blake nominated Crozier to be honoree of the Amy Thompson Run after meeting him in 2015.

Blake says Crozier was hesitant to appear on “Military Makeover” because he doesn’t like being the center of attention..

“But I said, here’s the deal, Zeke: If one other veteran battling a similar situation who can’t pull him or herself up sees your story and is inspired, it’s worth it. If one other caregiver, one other spouse continues to push on because they’re inspired by Lacy, it’s worth it. If somebody is inspired to serve another person, then it’s worth it.”

Of course Crozier immediately looked up the “Military Makeover” logo so he could make a piece of bottle cap artwork for them.

He has been finished with physical therapy for several years now and is focusing on what he calls “personal therapy,” to be more like the laid-back guy he was before the crash.

“I am my toughest critic,” he says. “Whatever you say to me, I’ve already said it to myself. I am always working on my self.”

Cynthia Billhartz Gregorian: 816-234-4780, @CindyBGregorian

Amy Thompson Run for Brain Injury

The run/walks on Monday begin as follows: 8K run at 8 a.m.; 5K run/walk at 8:40 a.m.; 2K Walk for Thought at 9 a.m. Start line is at the Loose Park Pavilion, 5100 Wornall Road. $40 registration day of events; $35 military members and under 18; $10 for kiddie dash; Parking is limited, so carpooling and planning for extra time is recommended. Go to amythompsonrun.org for more information.

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