Wounded warriors, wounded families: East Brady embraces its hero
Brianna "Breezy" Kammerdiener hugs her brother, Kevin, before he was awarded the Purple Heart yesterday.
Spc. Nathan Rigney helps Cpl. Kevin Kammerdiener dress before the Purple Heart ceremony at an apartment in Butler yesterday. The two have been in the same unit since they met in basic training.
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EAST BRADY, Pa.-- Nearly 14 months ago, he lay near death in a military hospital, a comatose Army soldier whose wounds from a terrorist bomber in Afghanistan were so severe that, even if he lived, doctors foresaw a life with little cognitive or physical ability.
But yesterday, Cpl. Kevin Kammerdiener, the 21-year-old Army Airborne soldier who surpassed all those prognoses, returned to his hometown during its annual Riverfest festival to receive his Purple Heart medal.
Wearing a digital camouflage Army Combat Uniform for the first time since his wounding, the only word he spoke to the crowd was "Thanks," but he did so with heart and a smile.
Just that word -- plus his walking up three steps to a stage, waving and smiling and blowing kisses to the crowd -- were enough to have the throng of about 1,000 jump to their feet numerous times, applaud, cheer and even weep in the grandstands and hillside of a former football field where the ceremony was held.
There was a crescendo after Army Capt. Sandra Turner, the Army liaison at the James A. Haley Veteran's Hospital in Tampa, where Kevin was a patient, pinned the medal on his chest. Assisting was Spc. Nathan Rigney, 20, of Bishop, Calif., who took leave to come from his assignment in Germany to be with his friend and fellow 173rd Airborne Brigade member. He was in the convoy in May 2008 and saw what happened to his comrade.
A 21-gun salute was fired in honor of those killed in the suicide bombing that nearly killed Kevin and Sgt. Daniel Thornhill, the other soldier injured in the incident, who is now a double amputee with a spinal cord injury.
At the end of the short ceremony on a small plywood stage amid Riverfest's carnival rides and booths offering cheesesteaks and funnel cakes, Kevin walked down the steps as a crowd converged on him at his mother Leslie's invitation "as long as he can take it."
He smiled and hugged grandparents and children and those in between, and posed for pictures. His mother and his sister, Brianna, were elated he had done so well because victims of brain injuries like his often are over-stimulated by crowds and noise.
The community had provided moral and financial support for his mother, Leslie, 44, and Brianna, nicknamed Breezy, 25, during his long and difficult recovery. Both had to quit their jobs and move first to San Antonio, Texas, and now to a Tampa, suburb to be with the injured solider. The community responded by donating between $30,000 and $40,000 to help them live.
Leslie, as Kevin's primary caregiver in their new Florida home, is hoping that Congress will pass bills it is considering to provide training, certification, stipend, medical coverage, mental health counseling and respite care to non-medical attendants like her who gave up jobs to care for injured service members.
But yesterday, all she was concerned about was how the day would go for her son. On the day he was injured, May 31, 2008, Kevin, a private at the time, had only been in Afghanistan for 11/2 months.
He was a gunner atop a Humvee, the last in a NATO convoy that had just left the military forward operations base at Jalalabad, when a speeding car, loaded with explosives slammed it, killing two soldiers, critically injuring another and sending the burning private 35 feet in the air -- equal to 31/2 stories -- over a roadside billboard. He landed on his left side, striking his unprotected head because his helmet had been blown off.
He spent just short of a year in hospitals. He can walk short distances despite a weakened right leg that needs a brace, can only speak about 35 words, wears burn pressure garments on his scarred legs and left arm, his right arm is curled and doesn't move, and he has lost his peripheral vision. But the physical and cognitive improvements he has made and the return of his likeable, joking personality have amazed doctors and elated Leslie and Breezy.
Earlier this month in Tampa, Dr. Steven Scott, director of polytrauma at the veterans hospital where Kevin was a patient from September until May, said his recovery has astounded him and other medical personnel.
"It's not typical progress," he said. "It's a miracle. No one ever thought he would ever wake up, let alone that he would communicate. When he came here, he was staring into space. He went from nothing to something, to where he's now interacting with his environment."
He said Kevin's motivation, like that of other service members who volunteered for duty, is key to recovery.
"His motivation to be independent, the ability to go the extra mile, that's what we see a lot in this generation. It makes you tremendously proud of the spirit, the drive, the motivation -- these are America's best."
In Kevin's case, he said, Leslie "had a tremendous effect. She was there morning, noon and night, especially when he was completely disabled.
"As good a staff as you have you can never be perfect all the time. With a mother there who looks out for everything being perfect, she can level the field and can really improve the amount of care he receives consistently around the clock."
Kevin has become an inspiration to staff and the parents of other wounded warriors at the hospital. On July 7, he visited his former ward and proudly walked for nurses and the parents whose children still have not come around from their traumatic brain and other injuries from explosives.
In past wars, Kevin and other service members never would have survived their injuries, the doctor said, but improvements in body armor, battlefield medical treatment, antibiotics, speedy transportation to hospital, and improvements in multi-trauma care have kept alive those who otherwise would have died.
"The machinery to destroy people and win wars is getting more destructive every day. No longer do they use bullets, they blow people up with stronger and stronger weaponry.
"The mechanism itself--the pressure wave, the fragments being thrown, the burns. They come back with multiple trauma type injuries, are moved 8,000 miles, halfway around the world, with the most catastrophic injuries, and they're kept alive. It's a remarkable story.
"No one ever would have ever envisioned this, yet this is where health care is going, where wartime injuries are going."
He said the goal is "to give back to those who fought for our freedom -- freedom to talk when they can't talk, the freedom to walk when they can't walk, the freedom to think when they can't think, the freedom to see when they can't see.
"We are honored and privileged to treat them. We're treating them but we're also treating the spirit of our country and what they represent."
In the months to come, Kevin will undergo more neurological and plastic surgeries but after that his routine will primarily be therapies to improve his speech and mobility.
Last night, as her son continued to hug well wishers, Leslie said the event had been bittersweet.
"Obviously, we're elated he handled it so well. I'm proud of him. I just wish it wasn't due to this."
Nearby, Breezy agreed: "It was for a sad reason but it was a good thing. It was good that all of these people came out. It made him so happy."
First Published July 20, 2009 12:00 am