A bomb blast, a phone call and a Navy family forever changed
By JOHN WILKENS | The San Diego Union-Tribune | Published: July 2, 2019
SAN DIEGO (Tribune News Service) — Standing in a hotel parking lot at Legoland, Lindsey Stacy felt her cellphone vibrate. She looked at the screen, recognized the area code and smiled.
Her husband, a 34-year-old master technician with the Navy’s bomb squad, was on a six-month deployment in Syria, fighting Islamic State. He was due home in three weeks.
Childhood sweethearts from a small farming town in Ohio, Lindsey and Kenton had been married for 13 years. They had four children, two boys and two girls, and they’d managed the hardships — cross-country moves, frequent deployments, long separations — that come with a career in the post-9/11 military.
This was his fourth combat tour in nine years doing one of the military’s most dangerous jobs. He’d been on more than 50 missions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, defusing improvised explosive devices (IEDs) buried in potholes, tucked inside culverts, hidden in cars.
Being gone this time, in the summer and fall of 2017, meant missing son Mason’s sixth birthday and the trip to Legoland. At the hotel, the boy blew out the candles and wished that his dad could come home.
The next morning, when Lindsey’s cellphone buzzed, she figured it was Kenton with the next-best thing: a birthday call from Syria.
It was Kenton’s commanding officer. There’d been an explosion.
Nineteen months later, Lindsey still remembers how her heart sank right then, how even though she’d tried to prepare herself for this possibility, for this moment, she wasn’t ready.
She wasn’t ready for how much damage the bomb did to Kenton.
She wasn’t ready for what it would take to keep everything together while he was hospitalized week after week after week.
She wasn’t ready for how many people — relatives, friends, strangers — would step forward to help.
When she answered the phone, she didn’t know it was possible to feel both cursed and blessed at the same time.
From a farming town in Ohio
The third of four siblings, Kenton was a dark-haired thrill-seeker. He liked sports and BMX bicycles and bonfires he could jump over. In high school, he wrestled and pole vaulted.
Lindsey was the older of two children, light-haired and passionate about crafting.
Both grew up in Greenville, Ohio, a town of about 13,000 residents. They met in homeroom in sixth grade and by the time they were high school juniors, they were a couple.
They graduated in 2002 and talked about a life together, how he would fight fires and she would work for a resort or an airline. They had their hometown roots in common, a love of the outdoors, and their Baptist faith.
One day he told her his car had broken down. Could she come by his apartment and pick him up? She arrived to find the lights out. Rose petals littered the stairs, next to lit tea candles. At the top of the staircase was a huge, stuffed dog with an engagement ring on its collar.
She said yes, but she also had to laugh: What’s a guy who wants to be a firefighter doing leaving flaming candles on a staircase?
As their dreams came into focus, she interned at Walt Disney World in Florida, then worked for a travel agency. He went to the Ohio Fire Academy. But when he finished, Greenville was in a hiring freeze. He joined auxiliary departments there and in nearby Union City, hoping for full-time work that never came.
One day, Lindsey saw a newspaper ad for firefighting jobs. When Kenton called the 800 number, a Navy recruiter answered. Nothing was available in fire suppression, it turned out, but there were openings in EOD, Explosive Ordnance Disposal.
He went through the yearlong training and discovered the work, people and culture suited him. He jumped out of airplanes, scuba dived in oceans, deployed with Navy SEALs and other special operations forces. He lifted weights, bulking his 5-foot-11 frame to 215 pounds, and got multiple tattoos — religious images on one arm, nautical themes on the other. He often grew a thick beard while overseas.
When Kenton’s first enlistment ended, he signed up again. And then again. He and Lindsey had mixed feelings about that path, but by the time he hit 10 years, they thought he might as well do 20 and get the retirement.
“He was one of the best EOD operators we had in harm’s way — systematic, safe, aware of his surroundings,” said Master Chief Mark Brittain, who oversees bomb units on the West Coast.
As Kenton’s career unfolded, Lindsey put hers on hold to raise their family. Logan arrived first, in 2007, then Mason in 2011, Annabelle in 2014 and Sadie in 2016.
In May 2017, they were in San Diego, living in military housing in Liberty Station. He passed the test to make master technician and when his unit headed off on deployment a month later, he wanted to show his new rating wasn’t just window dressing. The group split up, half to Syria and half to less-risky Bahrain. He opted for Syria.
IED training in Syria
On Nov. 9, 2017, Kenton was in Raqqa, training local soldiers to disarm bombs planted by Islamic State fighters a month earlier before they fled a U.S.-led military coalition push to reclaim the city.
His team went into a hospital and defused a half-dozen IEDs in the courtyard, in the basement and on the first floor. They checked the stairwell and then cleared the first two rooms on the second floor.
In the third room, Kenton didn’t think the locals had been careful enough. He pointed out additional items for them to check and left. That happened two or three more times. When he went into the room again, a bomb exploded.
What triggered it is unclear, but one of the locals might have touched something. He reportedly was seen later with injuries to his hands, saying, “I’m sorry.”
Staff Sgt. Justin Peck, an Army Special Forces medic who was outside the hospital, heard the explosion. He ran in and found Kenton unconscious, with deep wounds to his throat, chest and left leg. Peck pushed a tube down his windpipe to open an airway and covered his torso with a chest seal. He tossed a tourniquet to other soldiers to put around the bloody leg.
As they lifted Kenton onto a litter, Peck pulled out his stethoscope to check for a heartbeat. Nothing.
Down the stairs they hurried, and into a medical vehicle. It was 20 minutes to the nearest base. Peck spent all of it doing CPR.
They were in the “golden hour.” About 80% of battlefield deaths occur in first 60 minutes after injury. Get someone help quickly, into the hands of surgeons who can stop the bleeding and make other repairs, and the chance of survival goes way up.
Kenton’s wounds put all that to the test. Four times his heart stopped beating, and four times they brought him back, once reaching inside his chest to manipulate his heart by hand for 20 minutes. He had more than a dozen surgeries in two days and went through 42 pints of blood.
He was flown to a Baghdad hospital, then was put onto another airplane that took off for Texas, to the trauma facility at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio.
While the plane was in the air, people in the U.S. were pausing for the annual nod to those who have served. It was Veterans Day.
When she imagined something bad happening, it was Kenton getting killed. Or losing a limb.
“Not this,” Lindsey said.
Not him in a hospital bed, comatose, paralyzed from the chest down, blinded in the left eye, missing 6 inches of his trachea.
But he was alive, and in at least one way very much himself. As the medical staff brought him out of an induced coma, they played his favorite kind of music, heavy metal. One day, the nurses saw him lip-syncing to a song. It was an early sign that the damage to his brain was minimal.
We’ll get through this, Lindsey told herself, and she set a goal: Bring Kenton home.
Part of her determination was rooted in their religious faith and a belief in miracles. Part of it was experience with other traumas.
Lindsey’s first pregnancy was triplets. All were born prematurely, at 24 weeks, but only one, Logan, survived. He weighed 1 pound, 2 ounces and spent more than six months in the ICU. He now has cerebral palsy, which impairs his motor skills, cognitive development and speech.
Then, during Sadie’s birth, in what was supposed to be a routine C-section, Lindsey started bleeding excessively and passed out. A team of doctors scrambled to save her.
“Life brings challenges,” she said. “You keep going.”
Two months after the explosion, President Donald Trump delivered a State of the Union address to Congress. Peck, the Army medic who had rushed to Kenton in Syria, was in the audience.
“Kenton Stacy would have died if not for Justin’s selfless love for a fellow warrior,” Trump said. “Tonight, Kenton is recovering in Texas. Raqqa is liberated. And Justin is wearing his new Bronze Star, with a ‘V’ for Valor.”
Recovery, though, is rarely in a straight line. Kenton remembered nothing about the bombing, and as the weeks and months passed, he fought off infections, pneumonia, headaches. There were surgeries to help him breathe better and swallow solid food. Cataracts were removed from his right eye.
He was moved to a rehabilitation center in Houston, and then in late August 2018 to San Diego to be closer to his family. At the Naval Hospital in Balboa Park and then the Department of Veterans Affairs spinal cord unit in La Jolla, physical therapists put him through daily range-of-motion exercises.
He has some movement in his hands, but little else below the chest. He operates a motorized wheelchair with a joystick held between his lips.
When he talks, what emerges is barely a whisper because of damage to his vocal cords. He can’t talk for long, either, because of the strain. He tried an electrolarynx but didn’t like the robotic sound. It frightened the kids, too.
To hear him, Lindsey leans close to his mouth. When she’s farther away, she lip-reads. He eventually might be able to use a device that tracks his eyes to spell out words on a keyboard.
“I don’t think he’ll be this way forever,” Lindsey said. “But I don’t know when our miracle will happen.”
Not long ago, he told her she should move on, find another partner, build a new life.
“I’m not going to do that,” she told him.
March 20 was their 15th anniversary. She gave him a photo album she’d made of their life together. He gave her charms for a bracelet. She arranged a trip to the Crab Catcher restaurant in La Jolla, where they sat at a table with a panoramic view of the coastline. She held his hand.
“We have shared so many laughs and tears,” she wrote in an anniversary message on Facebook. “I promise to you … I will be your arms, I will be your legs, I will be your voice until the very end.”
Camaraderie and company
Much of America doesn’t pay attention to the wars going in distant places, doesn’t know about the sacrifices made daily by servicemembers and their families.
Within the military, though, this is their life, and when Kenton was injured, word spread quickly, especially in Navy EOD, a tight-knit world of about 1,800 enlisted sailors and 550 officers. Theirs is a bond forged by the work they do, underlined by a kind of gallows humor that shows up occasionally on T-shirts — “Initial success or total failure” — and bumper stickers.
“When there’s an injury, we all feel it,” said Brittain, the master chief. “What happened to Kenton could happen to any of us.”
After the explosion, commanders assigned someone to be there with him in his hospital room. Every day.
The assignment was rotated, one week at a time. Except it wasn’t really an assignment. People volunteered, and not just the EOD techs. Special operations team members who had been on deployments with Kenton showed up, too. So did other Navy personnel. They hung out in his room for hours at a time, ran errands for the family, played with the kids.
Some flew in from the East Coast, and some came from San Diego. Some had worked with Kenton and knew his family. Some had never met him.
Geoff Shepelew, assigned to an EOD mobile unit based in Imperial Beach, walked into Kenton’s room at the VA in La Jolla in early March, carrying an electric massager. Kenton had been having trouble with neck pain the day before, and Shepelew thought the massager might help. He went out and bought one.
“There’s a camaraderie in this group that’s hard to articulate,” Shepelew said. “We’d do anything for each other. I know if something happened to me, they would be there for me, too.”
The Stacys welcomed the company. “It shows good support,” Kenton whispered. Lindsey said, “What it tells me is they’ll always be there for him.”
The caring came through in other ways, too. A parachute rigger who had worked with Kenton and admired his strength and resilience got a tattoo in his honor. Seven Seas Roasting Co. in San Diego had “Stacy Strong” T-shirts made and sells them as fundraisers for the family. Others collected money through the sales of specially made metal bracelets, skateboards and artwork.
In Greenville, the VFW chapter raised $10,000 for the family and sent a contingent to deliver the money in person. Help Our Heroes, a nonprofit in Connecticut, donated a minivan modified for wheelchair use, which the family quickly dubbed “The Stacy Bus.”
EOD squad members in Virginia pitched in to repair the Stacys’ home in Chesapeake after a tenant trashed it. They helped make other fixes so it could be sold, and the real estate agent handling the sale donated her commission.
Sometimes the enormity of it all overwhelms Lindsey, and the brave face she puts on crumbles.
“I miss him,” she said. “The kids miss him. They keep asking why daddy can’t get up.”
Mostly what she misses are the little things. Watching him play with the children. Hearing his voice. His arms around her.
She still finds it hard to accept that the man who went off to war was not the man who came home. Why did he have to go to Syria? Why was he on the hospital-clearing assignment that day?
Why couldn’t he have just had an arm blown off?
“Kenton and I talk about it,” she said. “At least then he’d be up and moving around.”
They also know he could have died, though, and they’re grateful he didn’t. In December, she and Mason went to Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery and put holiday wreaths onto headstones.
That see-saw of emotions runs all the time. Anguish over what happened, then faith that God will make Kenton better. Exhaustion, and then energy from the encouraging words people post on #StacyStrong pages on Facebook and Instagram.
“No one can say how you should act, or how you should feel,” said Sarah Swincicki, a family friend and Navy vet. “Lindsey has a million things to worry about, and she is going 100 mph all the time, trying to be a wife and a mother and now a caretaker. It takes a lot of strength.”
Kenton tells her to get away when she can, to recharge the batteries through her passion for travel. She went to Spain with Mason last year. She took the girls to Japan in March. Thailand with her sister-in-law.
When she comes back, it’s to a future she finds frightening. “I don’t know what’s going to happen, which is maybe the scariest part,” she said. “He may get better. He may be like this for the rest of his life.”
Kenton rides the emotional waves, too. He sometimes tells Lindsey he hates his life and can’t go on. He feels like a burden. Then one of the kids sits in his lap or gives him a hug and he beams.
On a sunny April morning, about 80 Navy sailors dressed in green camouflage stood outside the Stacys’ home in Liberty Station. Many were EOD, recognizable by the bomb insignia on the left chest of each .
Two “Welcome Home” banners hung nearby, including one with a photo of Kenton in uniform and the words “Husband, Father, Hero.” It had been used for earlier homecomings, when that last word meant something simpler.
Inside the house, the walls were filled with pictures of Kenton from before the explosion — sky-diving, motorcycle-riding, accepting a Sailor of the Year award, posing with family.
Slowly, the Stacy Bus made its way down the street. Lindsey was behind the wheel, wearing a blue dress and heels. She always dressed up for homecomings.
The van stopped in front of the house and everybody outside applauded. They stood silently while the side door opened, and Lindsey and a nurse maneuvered Kenton’s chair onto the lift. It lowered the chair to the ground, and as Kenton motored up the driveway and turned around so he could face the crowd, everybody clapped again. He was wearing green Navy cammies, too. He smiled.
Brittain, the master chief, walked up to Kenton and bent down to hear his words. Then he repeated them out loud. “Thank you for coming,” he said. “Everybody come over and say Hi.”
The sailors lined up and one by one touched him on the left shoulder as they leaned in with greetings.
“Welcome home, brother.”
He nodded at each of them. Later, his face lit up as members of his EOD team, Mobile Unit 11, based in Imperial Beach, gathered around for photos. Some were scheduled to leave the next day on another deployment. Had he not been injured, Kenton would have gone, too. After that, he probably would have had one more overseas deployment before wrapping up his Navy career.
Now a different retirement looms, a medical one. When that happens, later this year, they’ll need another place to live — “a forever home,” Lindsey calls it. They’ve been working with the Gary Sinise Foundation, which builds specially adapted houses for wounded veterans, to find land in North County.
Other changes await, and other challenges. He needs around-the-clock care and regular visits from physical therapists. Several times since the homecoming, including in recent days, an infection sent him back to the hospital.
But on this April morning, they were celebrating a milestone and aiming for others. Lindsey has been reading up on stem-cell and nerve-transplant therapies, still hopeful for a miracle. She’s lined up an Alaskan cruise to take together in September.
She also has the calendar circled for Nov. 9, when the EOD Warrior Foundation is hosting the fundraising run in San Diego.
Nov. 9 is a Saturday. It’s also the second anniversary of the day a bomb went off in a Syrian hospital.
In the Stacy family, Nov. 9 is Alive Day.
While Lindsey Stacy speaks with her husband's physical therapist, John Colaneri, her 5-year daughter, Annabelle, slips in to give her dad a massage using a hand held massage tingler.
NELVIN C. CEPEDA/THE SAN DIEGO UNION-TRIBUNE/TNS