Wounded 173rd Airborne soldiers undergo multiple surgeries, major therapy before returning to action
VICENZA, Italy — Since the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team began its deployment to Afghanistan in May, 26 Sky Soldiers have lost their lives.
Additionally, more than 150 troops from the brigade have required some kind of hospitalization for wounds suffered during that same seven-month span.
Some soldiers are receiving treatment at places such as Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington and Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. Others are recovering at their home bases in Vicenza and in Schweinfurt, Germany.
Lt. Col. Todd Johnston, the brigade’s rear detachment commander at Caserma Ederle, said he believes that fewer than 10 percent of the soldiers suffered injuries grievous enough to force them out of the military.
But such recoveries can be a long process.
Just ask Staff Sgt. Leonard Day, Sgt. Nathan Williams or Pfc. Russell Chappell.
Each has undergone multiple surgeries. And each still has a lot of work to go — in and out of the hospital — before they’re back to where they want to be.
Almost killedWilliams, assigned to Company A, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, was wounded July 5 while on a foot patrol in Kunar province. He and the rest of his unit were returning to base when they were ambushed.
Spc. Christopher Honaker was killed. Two others were seriously wounded. Williams was shot in the chest — on his left side between the gaps in his body armor — and hip.
“We suspect there was a sniper on the ridge line,” he said. “They knew where to shoot.”
Williams doesn’t remember a lot of what happened afterward. Helped by several buddies, he made his way about a mile from the ambush to a place where he could be evacuated. One of his soldiers, Pfc. Matt Witt, used some of the emergency medical treatment training to revive Williams, who had stopped breathing at one point.
He was taken by helicopter first to Jalalabad, then to Bagram Air Base, though he doesn’t remember much of either trip.
“I woke up in Landstuhl,” he said.
He spent three weeks in the hospital and two more at the nearby Fisher House.
He doesn’t know how many surgeries he’s had.
“I’ve had at least five on my hip, because it became infected,” he said.
The bullet that went into his chest is still in his back.
“I initially couldn’t walk at all” after the surgery, he said. He describes his recovery as “wheelchair to crutches, and now I have a cane.”
Williams said he doesn’t know if he’s going back downrange or even staying in the military. He’s waiting on some tests to find out if he needs another operation.
Wounded by shrapnelChappell says he’s heading back downrange as soon as he can.
“I’m ready to go back,” he said.
Well, not quite. He was pulling perimeter security at an outpost on Aug. 31 when it came under attack. Chappell returned fire until insurgents fired a rocket-propelled grenade at his position.
“I saw it coming at me, but I didn’t have any time to react,” he said.
He suffered wounds to both legs and arms. A three-week stay at Landstuhl involved five surgeries.
“I have one more surgery to go before I’m fully mission-capable,” he said.
Once that’s done, he plans to head back to his unit, the 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment.
“I’d rather be there than here,” the 20-year-old from Cayuga, N.Y., said. “All my friends are there.”
Roadside blastUnlike Chappell, Day has four good reasons to recover in Vicenza: his wife, Angelina, and three children.
He was riding in the right front seat of a Humvee on the night of Aug. 8 when it hit a roadside bomb. Day’s hand was outside the window. He pulled it back in, but not in time. The blast ripped off skin near his wrist, requiring a series of surgeries to take skin from his hip and graft it onto his arm. A few more are planned.
He called recovery “challenging.”
“It’s been hard trying to work again,” he said. “Doing simple things. Picking up the kids. Playing with them. Doing the dishes.”
Day, also a member of “First Rock” — the 1st Battalion — goes to rehab five times a week to work on strengthening his hand. He still doesn’t have feeling in two fingers, but that doesn’t stop him from doing assorted exercises “to try to get back in shape again.”
Still, he hasn’t tried to fire a weapon since his injury. And he doesn’t know if he’s going back to Afghanistan again or will even be able to stay in the military and finish his career as he wants to.
“It all depends on what the doctors say,” he said.