SAN ANTONIO — U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Ben Eberle was smoking a cigarette Nov. 19, 2011, in the Tangi Valley of Afghanistan when he saw the blue wire.
He took one last drag of his cigarette, knowing what would come the moment the enemy detected his movement. He took off running and the IED exploded.
Eberle threw up his right arm to protect his face from the blast. He lost that hand, and both of his legs.
Almost three years later, Eberle, now 27 and medically retired, smoked a cigarette as he described the overnight burglary that cost him his right hand for the second time.
Eberle awoke sometime after 10 a.m. Friday to the news that someone had smashed the window of his pickup and stolen an iPod Touch out of the center console.
It was no ordinary iPod Touch. The device had an application called i-limb, which Eberle manipulated with the pinky of his prosthetic right hand to achieve a range of movements that otherwise would be impossible with so many damaged nerves.
While the latest model iPod Touch normally costs about $240, the thief or thieves in this case, if caught, could be charged with felony theft between $20,000 and $100,000, police said.
That's because Eberle's prosthetic hand is programmed to only work with the stolen iPod, and vice versa. Now that the iPod is gone, he said he has to get a new hand and get it reprogrammed with his prosthesis.
“That takes a long time,” Eberle said. “It's tedious and it's a lot of work with the hand itself.”
The money will come from the government, but a new hand is worth $75,000, authorities said. A mailman passing by Friday morning noticed the broken truck window and alerted Eberle's wife. Ashley Eberle roused her husband and told him.
The iPod, which Ben Eberle kept out of sight in the center console for the times he had to drive somewhere, was gone.
“I was pissed,” Ben Eberle said. “I threw my blanket off and I wanted to just get up and run out the door, but I had to get my wheelchair.”
A thief apparently tried to pick the lock on Ben Eberle's Ford with a screwdriver, the couple said. The window eventually was smashed, and items in the truck appeared to have been rummaged through.
Whoever broke into the truck tried and failed to steal the in-dash stereo, the couple said. Then the center console was ripped open. The iPod Touch inside appeared to be the only thing missing, Ben Eberle said.
The iPod has a logo on the back reading “Touch Bionics,” the name of the company that produces the i-limb application.
Sgt. Javier Salazar, a spokesman for the San Antonio Police Department, stood in front of Ben Eberle's house Friday and asked the thief or thieves to come forward.
“I believe that we owe guys like this a lot more than this sort of treatment, as a society,” Salazar said. “We would ask that whoever did this recognize the gravity of their crime and do the right thing.”
A native of Michigan, Ben Eberle had been stationed in Korea, Germany and Iraq before he was injured in Afghanistan, where he was one of just two people in his squad with the expertise to disarm IEDs.
Ashley Eberle was seven months pregnant when the bomb went off.
The blast blew Ben Eberle into an armored truck. He ricocheted off the truck and flew 35 meters.
“They didn't know if I was going to make it,” Ben Eberle said.
From the hospital at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan, Ben Eberle was flown to Germany, then to San Antonio. He spent a month in the intensive care unit, then six months recovering at the San Antonio Military Medical Center.
When Ben and Ashley Eberle's daughter, Halle, was born at SAMMC, Ben still was strapped to his side in a hospital bed. He managed to cut the umbilical cord with his one good hand.
“I was pretty messed up,” Ben Eberle said. “They'd just cleared me that day, when she gave birth.”
He and his family moved to a house in the 5800 block of Avalon Terrace, in the Royal Ridge subdivision on the Northeast Side. He continues to receive treatment at SAMMC and at Veterans Affairs Department facilities.
San Antonio Crime Stoppers is offering a reward of up to $5,000 for information leading to an arrest in Ben Eberle's case.
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