Saturday, May 9, 2009

2nd Anniversary of Breaking My Neck

I keep many anniversaries, both silly and serious. Beyond the obvious ones, like my wedding anniversary and family birthdays, I always celebrate the anniversary of my driver's license. It was easily one of the best days of my life. I wanted to drive ever since I could remember and knew by heart the driveline and engine specifications of every Detroit Muscle Car available in the 60s. In fact, this coming December 19th I will celebrate the 40th anniversary of my driver's license in Iraq. Maybe I'll get two pieces of cake in the DFAC here on that day.

Today is the 2nd Anniversary of the day I broke my neck, and a lot of other stuff: I cracked the first two vertebra in my neck, smashed the 7th, broke four ribs and my collarbone and shoulder blade on the right side and my nose. It all happened in about a second when I flipped and crashed in a downhill race at 50mph on Turkey Hill in Lancaster County PA.

I don't remember the accident or more than two minutes of the following two days, but that accident almost kept me from being here in Tallil, Iraq, writing this post. Of course, you might wonder in the other direction "How did they let him in the Army?" since I re-enlisted (after being a civilian for 23 years) three months later on August 16, 2007. The short answer is: I hang around with academics enough to know that I should always answer the question I am being asked--and nothing more.

The Thursday before Easter 2007, in late March, I called a recruiter and started the enlistment process. By late April I had passed the physical and other tests and was just waiting for an age waiver--I was one year too old to enlist even with 11 years of prior service. As it turned out, I did not get that waiver until July 13. So on April 28, I was set to enlist and just waiting for paperwork. On May 9th I was being MedEvaced from the crash site to Lancaster General Hospital where Dr. William T. Monacci happened to be the neurosurgeon on duty in the trauma center.

Dr. Monacci had just come to Lancaster. He is also a colonel in the Army Reserve. His last practice was in Baghdad, so he had a lot of recent, relevant experience. The next day he and his team replaced my smashed 7th vertebra with a bone from a cadaver then bolted it to the vertebra on either side with a titanium plate. I could have been a paraplegic or worse. As it was, I was up and walking in a neck and chest brace five days later and out of the hospital in eight days.

Of course, I was worried this was the end of joining the Army. But I passed the physical and I did not yet have the waiver. The recruiter said there was nothing to do but wait, so I did. I walked at least three miles per day (to the Starbucks at Stonemill Plaza in Lancaster among other places) and started doing zero-weight exercises at the gym to keep loose.

In July the waiver came through. I was supposed to get the neck brace off during the first two weeks in August, so I told him I would enlist on August 16. I did. I felt fine. No one asked me if I had broken my neck recently, so I had no question to answer.

The following spring, May 2008, we were getting prepared to go to Iraq. I listened to the medical briefing as carefully as I would listen to a prize drawing. At one point the earnest young private giving the briefing said, "If you have enlisted in the last year and there have been no changes in your health SINCE YOUR ENLISTMENT write NONE on the block at the bottom of the form." So I did. Nothing had changed since I enlisted in August 2007.

Then a doctor interviewed us. My health records looked great, tests all good. At the end of the exam the doctor asked, "Is there anything else you would like to tell me?" There was not a thing I wanted to tell him. So I said "No."

So here I am. In an ironic medical twist, I had surgery on my right shoulder on October 30, 2008, to repair a torn rotator cuff and three other ligaments. The likely cause of the ligament damage was hitting the road with my helmet and shoulder the year before, but that was not part of the diagnosis. Because that surgery caused me to miss Army training November, I was classified non-deployable until 2 days before we went to Oklahoma. But I passed the medical test and got on the plane with several hundred of my closest friends.

So that is how I got here despite breaking my neck.

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