Dispatches from the Third Front: Part III — The Curveball

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Sgt. First Class Travis Parker being awarded the Purple Heart by Maj. Gen. James Terry at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan.

In January, I spent a month embedded with the 1st Brigade, 4th Infantry Division in Kandahar. For four weeks, I went from outpost to outpost, and midway through that month, I heard from my old wingman that he too was in theater. Because I had to return to the U.S. to finish school, Travis Parker and I made plans for me to try and return and embed with his unit this summer.

Then in early June, I received a Facebook message from Parker’s father. After a decade of war, seeing friends deploy over and over again, I knew that out of the blue messages from friends’ parents are never good news. There was immediate relief when I learned that Parker was alive, and I went straight for the pictures his father had attached. It was another sigh of relief when I saw two arms and two legs, albeit one leg that was badly injured.

My knee jerk relief that Parker hadn’t lost any limbs would prove half right. It is a blessing to have been spared amputation, but his injuries were still severe. Parker suffered a fractured heel, which every doctor and physical therapist told me last week is one of the most painful injuries one can sustain. He also suffered broken bones in his back and was confined to a wheel chair with a back brace when he wasn’t in his hospital bed.

It was Parker’s idea to share his experience, another act of courage from a man whose valor I have seen many times. When I talked with him the day he landed back in the U.S., Parker talked for 20 minutes about the people who helped bring him and the other wounded warriors home. But in addition to the medics and doctors, the pilots and flight surgeons, he wanted to talk about the volunteers. The man at Landstuhl Army Medical Center in Germany who asked what kind of clothes he liked, ran to the post exchange and bought him fresh pants and shirts. It was the lady who handed out home made quilts to each warrior; even though his features a large Air Force symbol, Parker still sleeps with it every night.

Parker had his initial surgery about three weeks after he was wounded, and our plan was for me to visit him at Brooke Army Medical Center the week that he planned to take his first steps and begin physical rehabilitation. But as the old military saying goes, no plan survives initial contact with the enemy. Just before I arrived in Texas, Parker learned that he would need another surgery. His fractured heel appeared to be healing; however, the incision from his initial surgery would not close. After much discussion, he and his doctor decided that another surgery was necessary to remove the hardware–plates and screws that had been initially installed to hold his shattered bone together–in the hopes that the wound would finally mend.

My first night in San Antonio was Wednesday; Parker would undergo his surgery Friday morning. We went out for what we thought would have been a celebratory dinner, and I could tell the surgery was weighing on him. When I asked how he was feeling, he became the pragmatic Parker who always looked at the big strategic picture and encouraged me to take the long view. “You know, it would have been cool for you to be here when I started walking, but I’m glad you’re here for this surgery,” he said. “Healing isn’t a linear thing. It has peaks and valleys and setbacks suck, but they happen and you can get over them. This is an important part of the story you have to tell.”

I wholeheartedly agreed, but I was deeply conflicted with the desire to tell his story, as he wanted, and protect him as a friend. Good journalism can be incredibly intrusive for its subjects, and I knew that in the coming days my small team and I would be a constant presence, documenting every moment of his journey, from the painful, to the hilarious, to the potentially tragic. Perhaps he sensed my concern, because he became my old sergeant again. “You need to tell this story. If it helps one other person with this injury, then I’ve done my job,” he said.

I promised him I wouldn’t hold back. Then we had our catch up dinner with laughter and jokes, sharing old stories and new developments, two old friends who never expect the other one to call, but are elated when they do. For a moment, I almost forgot why we were there and didn’t worry about what the coming days might bring.