Wounded warrior hailed as a hero
Army Spc. Willie Stewart wants a cigarette, but he can't find the words.
Instead, the Fayetteville native turns toward his father and taps on his arm.
"Do you need a drink?" James Wilburn guesses.
A shake of Stewart's head and the guesses continue until, a minute later, Wilburn is lighting a cigarette in his son's mouth.
Less than a year ago, it would have been absurd to think Wilburn, who suffered a heart attack in early 2012, would be the one nursing his son.
But Stewart's 6-foot, 5-inch frame is now folded into a wheelchair at a rehabilitation center in Raleigh.
His body is a shadow of its once muscular, 250-pound self, the right half paralyzed, the left half still responding to months of slow, tedious rehabilitation.
The top of Stewart's skull has been replaced by a titanium plate. His memory is unreliable. His sight is gone, never to return. His speech is coming back, but at a pace that frustrates him. Stewart knows what he wants to say, but he can't get his body to respond.
Less than a year ago, Stewart was in Afghanistan, where the soldiers of his unit, 1st Battalion, 41st Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armor Division, said he was one of the best soldiers of the lot, combat-proven and not afraid to take charge.
They said he was a role model for younger soldiers.
Now, months removed from combat, Stewart is still a role model, the soldiers who served alongside him said. But they use another word to describe him.
They call him a hero.
"It was hell."
Those are the first words to cross Pfc. Alex Szakacs' lips when asked to describe Combat Outpost Charkh in Afghanistan's Logar province.
The words came, as if by reflex, as soon as the question was posed.
"They took combat every single day," Szakacs said of the soldiers at the remote outpost in a narrow valley in eastern Afghanistan. "A lot of guys were hurt there throughout our deployment. There were three deaths in our battalion."
Szakacs and others in Stewart's unit spoke with the Observer from Fort Bliss, Texas, where the 1st Armor Division is based.
Capt. Ross Zarzecki, commander of Headquarters and Headquarters Company, described the outpost, about 50 miles south of Kabul, as roughly the length and width of six football fields. He said it took some of the most accurate fire in all of Afghanistan.
Mortars, recoilless rifles, small-arms fire, all were fired on Charkh with stunning accuracy unseen on Zarzecki's prior deployments.
"It's something you expect from a modern army," he said. "I'm not entirely sure who we were fighting, but they were well-trained, well-armed."
Zarzecki said the geography made the area especially dangerous. There is only one way to or from the outpost. The route stretches about 12 miles, giving enemies ample time to plan an attack.
That's what happened on July 1, 2012, the date Willie Stewart's life changed forever.
Stewart was not originally going to be among the soldiers traveling in a convoy of 40 vehicles to Combat Outpost Charkh.
The convoy represented the last logistical push of the deployment, which was set to end later that month. Stewart, who is 25, went along to account for equipment that would have to be turned in at the deployment's end.
The enemy knew the soldiers were on their way. It's hard to conceal a convoy that stretches nearly two miles.
The convoy soon came under constant attack from roadside bombs, rocket-propelled grenades and small-arms fire.
Somehow, the soldiers all managed to make it to the outpost unscathed.
But they still were not safe.
Shortly after they arrived, the mortars started dropping. The first wave landed dangerously close, said Zarzecki, the company commander.
One round, he said, landed only 10 feet from where he, Stewart and the company executive officer, Capt. Andrew Reynoso, sat.
Later, a second barrage fell just as on target as the first.
Szakacs did not see what happened next. But he heard it.
Even from inside the reinforced concrete bunker, the impact rang through Szakacs' body.
"Next thing I know, somebody is screaming. They're screaming 'casualty.' "
Zarzecki, trailing Stewart and Reynoso, was knocked back by the blast and said he saw shrapnel fly past his head.
A mortar round had landed just in front of Stewart, Zarzecki said, and the hulking soldier took the brunt of the blast, shielding Reynoso.
"It landed 3 feet from Stewart," Zarzecki said. "He was bad. Me and Reynoso got to him first. There was just blood everywhere. His eyes were rolling into the back of his head, and he couldn't talk."
Stewart had taken a piece of shrapnel in the throat, his father said. The metal cut an artery and the optic nerve, causing a stroke.
At Charkh, a physician's assistant performed a small miracle to keep Stewart alive, Zarzecki said.
"He died three times," he said. "They had to give him an emergency tracheotomy.
"Someone asked me how he was, and it just hit me. I started crying because I realized how bad he was."
Szakacs said that only Stewart could have survived the blast.
"A smaller person would have been dead," he said. "He took 90 percent of the impact. (Reynoso) could have been killed. Stewart is just so big, he absorbed most of a mortar blast. God was looking after him."
On Saturday, Reynoso laid eyes on Stewart for the first time since Combat Outpost Charkh.
When Reynoso last saw the young soldier, he was holding the wound on Stewart's neck, waiting for medics to arrive.
"He was a hair's breadth away from passing away," Reynoso said.
When a superior officer later told him that Stewart would be all right, Reynoso said he thought he was being lied to.
Reynoso remembers the mad dash to the bunkers. He recalls mortars landing all around the base.
And he remembers being blown back by the blast that landed just feet away from Stewart.
Shrapnel from that blast is still embedded in Reynoso's arm, the scars a reminder of what could have been.
"It could just as easily have been me in front of him," Reynoso said. "I would have been hurt a lot worse."
Reynoso was one of more than 80 people to attend a small ceremony for Stewart at the Embassy Suites in Fayetteville.
Stewart received his Purple Heart and was honored by family, friends and strangers alike.
Many of the older soldiers he grew up idolizing were there, as were soldiers from his unit in Fort Bliss.
The ceremony, Wilburn said, was important because it helps to show Stewart that he is loved.
"I want Willie to feel the love and support of the community," Wilburn said. "Willie didn't have to do what he done, and this lets this young man know it was not in vain."
Wilburn, like many others at the ceremony, was brought to tears when his son stood up from his wheelchair and, with the help of two soldiers, walked to the front of the room on shaky legs.
"He did not want to come in, in the chair," Wilburn said after the ceremony. "It was very, very important to him."
Stewart again surprised many when, during the playing of the Army song, he did his best to sing along, smiling the entire time.
In Raleigh, Stewart is living at a sort of halfway house.
He is surrounded by stroke victims, mostly elderly, who are learning how to take care of themselves again.
After months of rehab, Stewart is able to speak, but only a few words at a time.
"Are you ready to go home?"
"Hell, yeah," Stewart replied with a smile. For all he's been through, Stewart has not lost his sense of humor or his trademark smirk.
It's an uncharacteristically warm day in January, less than a week after parts of the state were covered in a light blanket of snow, and Stewart is sitting with his father on a patio.
Stewart wears a Wounded Warrior Project T-shirt, a 7th Special Forces Group hat and a slim rubber bracelet that reads "Bulldog Strong."
"If you could go back, would you do anything different?" he is asked. "Would you change anything about that day?"
Stewart quickly replied with a terse shake of his head.
"No," he said. "Duty."
"Would you be willing to go through this again?"
Stewart's attitude doesn't surprise his fellow soldiers.
"He's a great person, a great soldier," Szakacs said. "If we took fire, he was going to be the first to respond. He obviously knew what he was doing, and he always looked after the lower-ranked soldiers."
Spc. Jonathan Carter, Stewart's former roommate and fellow jokester, called him a "professional and a great soldier."
"Stewart was first and foremost about getting the job done and keeping everyone safe," Carter said. "Just the way he carried himself, he made a lot of people feel secure."
Carter said he took the news of Stewart's injuries hard. Stewart was more than just a roommate, he was a friend and a rock who helped many make it through the deployment.
"I was shocked," Carter said. "I didn't know what to think.
"Mentally, I don't know if I would have made it through the deployment without him."
Since July, James Wilburn and his wife have been living out of a suitcase, constantly traveling, first to military hospitals outside Washington, then to a Veterans Affairs hospital in Richmond, Va., and finally to the rehab facility in Raleigh.
In the early days of his recovery, Stewart was in a medically induced coma, his father said.
"We would stand at the side of the bed and hold his hand and talk to him," Wilburn said. "Little by little, he started coming out of it.
"This kid was in bad shape. We came very close to losing him."
Stewart is still months from coming home to Fayetteville, Wilburn said, but he's now able to take weekend trips to stay with his parents.
In the meantime, he is working on his speech and learning how to walk with the help of a brace that immobilizes his right leg.
Stewart remains on active duty, assigned to a warrior transition unit on Fort Bragg.
Wilburn said his son is ready to get home, tired of being poked and prodded.
To Wilburn, Stewart is still the young boy who did everything he could to be around and talk to Fort Bragg soldiers.
Years ago, Wilburn managed a paintball range frequented by soldiers from Fort Bragg's special operations community.
Stewart latched onto every word those soldiers said and dreamed of one day wearing the uniform of a U.S. soldier, Wilburn said.
Before he was injured, Wilburn said, Stewart talked of completing 10 years in the Army, then getting out and joining the Cumberland County Sheriff's Office.
In his off time, he planned to do a lot of fishing and take frequent rides on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.
Those dreams for the Westover High School graduate are all but shattered.
"It's amazing how fast your life can change in a blink of an eye," Wilburn said.
He said his son will need a caretaker for the rest of his life. Stewart's mother, Bonnie Wilburn, will assume that role.
"The woman is an angel," Wilburn said, before detailing how horrible 2012 had been for his family.
Early last year, Wilburn suffered a heart attack. It was so bad that Stewart took two weeks off from Afghanistan to return home and care for his father, feeding him, dressing him and attending to his every need.
Now, Wilburn said, he and his wife are ready to do the same for their son.
"I will not let him go without," he said. "I will take care of him. Now, Willie needs us."
Last month, a fundraiser for Stewart at Black Ops Paintball earned nearly $10,000, despite coinciding with a nasty storm.
In addition to the money raised, many in the community donated items to Stewart, including one woman who baked him more than 140 cupcakes.
"It is amazing how the community is coming together," Wilburn said.
When Stewart does return to Fayetteville to live, his father hopes to give him as normal a life as possible, with lots of fishing and road trips.
"We just want to get him back home and go back to a normal life," Wilburn said. "He's done his part. Now I owe this kid. I will not fail him. I will not let him down. We almost lost him, but we'll make it through this. We've made it through everything else life has thrown at us."
"2013. This has got to be our year."