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Fayetteville woman sentenced for DUI crash that injured Fort Bragg soldier

For 17 months, Jeremy and Jenny Bruns have wanted justice for the accident that forever changed their lives.

On Wednesday, in Cumberland County Superior Court, the Fayetteville woman who was driving under the influence of alcohol and cocaine when her Ford Taurus struck and pinned Fort Bragg soldier Jeremy Bruns against his Toyota Tundra pickup was sentenced to the maximum penalty allowable for a Class F felony with no prior record.

Bruns lost both legs above the knees, part of his right hand and suffered internal injuries, including the collapse of both lungs, in the accident. His wife calls his right arm, with all its pins and screws, "a lattice of hardware."

As the Brunses held hands in the courtroom, Judge Claire Hill gave Rhonda Renee Sutton Bryant an active sentence of 16 to 29 months in prison for felony serious injury by vehicle, misdemeanor while driving impaired and driving left of center.

The court recommended that Bryant receive substance abuse treatment and consulting, mental health evaluation and treatment while incarcerated, as well as be given credit for any pretrial confinement.

Bryant, 48, of the 7000 block of Calamar Drive, pleaded guilty to all charges. An analysis determined her blood alcohol level to be .10 at the time of the accident - on the early morning of Nov. 10, 2012. A driver with a level of .08 or higher is considered impaired under North Carolina law.

"Obviously, I'm relieved to get this portion done," Jeremy Bruns, 43, said afterward. With his wife by his side, the Army sergeant major stood on his two prosthetic legs.

"I think that she, within the current framework of the law, she got the appropriate sentence," he said. "I don't have any feelings of ill will against Miss Bryant, but this sends a public safety message to Cumberland County about when you drive impaired."

Before she was sentenced, Bryant stood and looked in her victim's direction before saying a few words.

Sobbing as she spoke, Bryant said, "I'm sorry for everything that you and your family have been enduring since that dreadful morning. I pray to God constantly that on days that you are hurting, that he will ease your pain. That on days you feel like you can't go on, that he will carry you."

About 2:10 a.m. Nov 10, 2012, Bruns was in the front of the family's Montibello subdivision home on Calamar Drive after installing a hitch extender to the back of his truck to load a pedal-propelled kayak for a planned fishing trip.

Bryant later told police she had been out looking for yard sales and was on her way home when her car crossed over the roadway and crashed into Bruns. His Tundra was lifted off the ground at impact, pinning Bruns between the hood of Bryant's car and the rear of his truck for about an hour.

Bruns' blood pooled under the vehicles, and police said he was in and out of consciousness in their report.

"On that horrific day 17 months ago, from the middle of my front yard, I had to witness my husband in excruciating pain while pinned between the two vehicles," Jenny Bruns, 40, read aloud from a prepared statement in the courtroom. "The hardest part was being held back by the police, because I wanted to be near him in what obviously looked like his last minutes of life."

She stood not far behind Bryant, who was seated and faced straight ahead with her head lowered. Jenny Bruns made an emotional plea for the maximum jail time possible sanctioned by the state, and she occasionally showed anger.

"Stiff penalties make people think twice about dangerous behavior," she said. "Her choices showed an utter lack of concern for the safety of her neighbors. She dismembered, mutilated and maimed my husband with her car. His biological life as an amputee is, in fact, shorter, and our quality of life is diminished."

Just a few weeks before the accident, Bruns was selected to be command sergeant major of his battalion with the 1st Special Warfare Training Group (Airborne) on Fort Bragg. Come May, he will have been in the Army for 23 years.

"The first of many things I have lost is my career," he read from his statement. "I was selected for command sergeant major and had another 10 years to give to the service of our country in the U.S. Army."

Jenny Bruns told the court that she suffers anxiety from an uncertain future, and that she has started to realize her dreams of being a senior Army wife are shattered.

"I miss curling my naked feet in Jeremy's naked feet," she read while the paper that contained her statement shook in her hands. "... At times now, cuddling him makes him feel trapped, and he panics, so I have to disengage."

As his wife tearfully spoke, Bruns sat upright on the bench and adjusted the way his prosthetic legs were positioned on the floor.

On Tuesday, for the first time in 17 months, Jeremy returned to his Fayetteville home.

From Dec. 2, 2012, through Feb. 7, 2013, he was hospitalized at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland. Bruns continues to recover from his injuries, and he and his wife now live close to the hospital. He undergoes physical and occupational therapy on a daily basis.

The couple have a 22-year-old son, Drake, who just finished his psychology degree at Appalachian State University in Boone.

Drake was on hand with his parents in the courtroom, along with a large support group of family, friends and Fort Bragg soldiers.

"You don't know how strong that family in there is," one service member said as he left the courthouse. "I want people to know that."

Jenny Bruns said that more than 1 years later, any sense of normalcy in their lives continues to evade them.

"My chaplain first told me it would be a long process - the degree of difficulty and challenges," she said. "The first hurdle was hoping that Jeremy would live through it. He had extensive injuries. We know he's going to live, which is fabulous. The recovery is still awkward. We haven't lived in a real world where things are made for handicapped people. Everything is challenging.

"It really takes years to get that, that 'graceful-esque,'" Jenny Bruns said. "He will always have a bilateral gait. He's still in pain. This whole process has been traumatic."

futchm@fayobserver.com 

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