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Despite severe injuries, wounded soldier remains thankful

Army Spc. Stefan Leroy rides a hand-pedaled bike during a four-mile run at Fort Bragg, N.C., on Nov. 2, 2012.

Stefan LeRoy returned home to Santa Rosa this week, fresh from a seven-day vacation in the Virgin Islands, kayaking and snorkeling in clear water over coral reefs.

Like most tropical tourists, LeRoy, a 21-year-old Army specialist, got plenty of sun during his trip.

“I have weird tan lines,” said LeRoy, a slender man with close-cropped dark brown hair and an affable manner.

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Without any inhibition, LeRoy lifted the stump of his left leg to display the irregular tan that formed between the bottom of his shorts and the top of the liner that cushions one of his two prosthetic legs.

LeRoy, a Santa Rosa native and a 2009 graduate from Maria Carrillo High School, lost both legs after stepping on a buried bomb June 7 in Afghanistan's Kandahar province, becoming one of the more than 1,570 service members to lose an arm or leg in Iraq and Afghanistan.

After six months at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., LeRoy is back in Sonoma County for the first time since last Christmas.

The week-long visit has been a whirlwind of reunions with family and friends. On Wednesday, the former Eagle Scout met with Boy Scouts from Troop 32, where he shared his plans to go skiing next month in Breckenridge, Colo. — seated on a monoski. Further ahead, he contemplates competing in the 2016 Paralympic Games at Rio de Janeiro.

“You can't look at now. You have to look to the future,” LeRoy replied when asked how he maintains such a positive attitude.

For now, LeRoy mostly gets about in a wheelchair. He will return to Walter Reed next week and faces up to a year of rehabilitation before he can walk, all-day long and unassisted, as well as run on his titanium and carbon fiber legs.

“I sway a little bit in the hips,” LeRoy said, describing his imperfect gait. He typically uses a cane, but he can surmount stairs and escalators.

He was delighted to be back home for the Thanksgiving holiday. On Thursday, LeRoy went with his parents to share turkey dinner with his father's family in Fremont and then again with his mother's family on Friday in Sebastopol.

As a reminder of what he's thankful for, LeRoy said he merely needs to hold both hands in front of his face. He appreciates what he has, rather than bemoan what war took away from him.

At Walter Reed, where about 200 servicemembers are currently rehabbing, amputees are referred to as singles, doubles, triples and quads, based on the number of missing limbs.

LeRoy, technically classified as an “AK/BK” — his left leg amputated above the knee and right leg below the knee — counts himself fortunate to have one knee and two hands.

“In perspective, I'm not that bad off,” he said, sitting at a table in his parents' Rincon Valley home. “I know I can work through the (missing) legs.”

In the Virgin Islands, he swam with the fish and sea turtles with webbed flippers on his hands. He's already competed in marathon and half-marathon events on a hand-powered cycle, and if he takes up running it would be on carbon fiber legs like those used by Olympian Oscar Pistorius, the “blade runner.”

Still, his mastery of the prosthetic legs has been delayed by a lingering wound on the bottom of his right leg, and LeRoy takes painkillers every day.

His father, Mike LeRoy, stayed with his son for all but 10 days since he arrived at Walter Reed in June. After Stefan's release from the hospital, the two have shared a modern, two-bedroom apartment in Building 62, with Mike handling the shopping, cooking and dishwashing.

An independent computer programmer, Mike took his work with him to Bethesda and works from home in Santa Rosa. Having his son home, Mike joked, “means I don't have to do everything.”

His mother, Kathy, an elementary school teacher, was at Walter Reed until August and said she was thankful for the support from hospital staff and the other family members “sharing a common situation.”

Black humor pervades the conversations among the amputees, who took special note of the TV commercial depicting the “hands-free” hatchback opening of the new Ford Escape.

Stefan, who left Cal Poly at San Luis Obispo to join the Army in 2010, said he's not sure what his future holds. He plans to explore federal agency internships that are available while he's still at Walter Reed.

On Wednesday, he told the Scouts that his next move would have been unclear “even if I wasn't blown up.”

He'll return to Walter Reed on Monday, then come back home for the holidays in early December.

A man like Stefan LeRoy, facing a long road to recover his mobility and self-sufficiency, might have a sizeable list of holiday wishes.

Not so, said the Eagle Scout turned paratrooper, combat veteran and Purple Heart recipient.

“I don't really need anything for Christmas,” LeRoy said.

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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