Operation Wounded Warrior Alaska, Part II

Story and photos by David Altom, Kentucky National Guard Public Affairs Office

email:  david.altom@us.army.mil

October 7, 2010

Part two of a three part series

 

Staff Sgt. Bart Greenwood and Master Sgt. Brett Hightower have a close encounter with an Alaskan native. Hightower holds a miniature version, a gift from his children that accompanied him during his wartime deployments. (Photo by David Altom, KYNG Public Affairs Office)

 

As anyone who has “been there, done that” can attest, humor is a great stress reliever as well as part of the teambuilding process.  Friendly jibes are passed between the warriors and the resulting comebacks invariably trigger a back blast of laughter among the team.  On the water Hightower gets the reputation of having the worst luck catching fish until the very last minute.  That is when he pulls in one of the largest catches of the day.

Master Sgt. Brett Hightower loves being in Alaska with his brothers in uniform. "This trip meant the opportunity to spend time with Kentucky National Guard Soldiers. The fellowship, the kinship, you kind of miss that." (Photo by David Altom, KYNG Public Affairs Office)

Master Sgt. Brett Hightower with the catch of a lifetime. Hightower is one of six injured Kentucky Army National Guard Soldiers who took part in Operation Wounded Warrior Alaska. (Photo by David Altom, KYNG Public Affairs Office)

xxx

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

XXXXXXX

“Way to go, master sergeant!” someone hollers.  Hightower’s grin reveals an impish pleasure.  Eyes alight, he takes the kidding, refines it and tosses it back, igniting a secondary burst of laughter.  He’s just glad to be with the troops and they’re glad he’s with them.

“For me this trip meant the opportunity to spend time with Kentucky National Guard Soldiers,” says Hightower.  “It’s the first time since my injury that I’ve been with a group of Guard guys who have been deployed, who have a whole lot in common, who have been injured.  These are guys who have been deployed and served our state and our nation honorably.”

His smile is emphasized by a dimple on his cheek, a subtle reminder of his 2008 encounter with a grenade and small arms fire.

“The fellowship, the kinship, you kind of miss that.”

Jaremy Austin was wounded in a IED blast during his 2005 deployment in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. "This is way beyond what I expected," he says of Operation Wounded Warrior Alaska. (photo by David Altom, KYNG Public Affairs Office)

Austin’s humor pushes the envelope, but the team understands.  He lost an eye when a car bomb exploded on him in Iraq.  He now has a Chevrolet insignia printed on the side of his glass replacement and he isn’t shy about showing it to the guides or anyone else who is standing within range.  A moment of disbelief is followed by guffaws and laughter, and an instant bond is formed.

“I’m here, but I ain’t all there,” Austin says with a boyish smile that belies his injuries.

Getting in and out of the boats is not easy for the 28 year old war veteran, but he carries on like he is still wearing the uniform.  Not once during the expedition does he complain.  Like the others, he feels like he has won the lottery.

“This is way beyond what I expected,” he says.  “I love the outdoors.  I like fishing back home, but this is Alaska.”

Chatter between catches gets the troops talking about their experiences.  Austin talks about his year in Walter Reed.  The others let him go on, and then someone gets a bite and the rhythm changes completely.

Austin smiles in the ensuing chaos.  “I love this.  The best thing about this has been the camaraderie with the guys.  I think it’s more because I’m with Kentucky guys.”

Jaremy Austin, Sgt. Casey Cooper and Ricky Brooks band together to bring in a halibut. "This best thing about this has been the camaraderie with the guys," says Austin. "I think it's because I'm with the Kentucky guys." (photo by David Altom, KYNG Public Affairs Office)

"W" for "wounded warrior": Jaremy Austin, Sgt. Casey Cooper and Ricky Brooks display the spoils of battle. (Photo by David Altom, KYNG Public Affairs Office)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

XXXX

XXX

XXX

XXXX

The concept of comradeship may seem cliché in today’s media saturated society, but here on the Kenai Peninsula it defines this team.  At one point Austin fights to bring in a halibut, his injured arm giving out after an epic fight.  Brooks and Cooper pitch in and all three have hands on the rod as the fish is drug into the net.  Beaming with pride, they pose with their trophy, Austin giving the “W” sign – “wounded warrior.”

The warriors’ stories are like their injuries, similar, but different.  Hit by a VBIED (vehicle born improvised explosive device) in 2005, Brooks found his wounds compounded by the death of his brother-in-law, Eric Lee Toth, who was killed in the blast.  Out of the Guard now, Brooks currently serves as a Kentucky State Trooper.  He looks at the trip as a way to reconnect with his military past and share his experiences with new friends.

“When I got the call to go to Alaska it caught me completely off guard,” he says.  “This is a trip I always wanted to do.  It’s a dream come true.  I’ve got a new network of friends, some good times and stories I’ll tell when I get back home.”

He pauses for a moment.  “I’ll never forget being wounded.  And I’ll never forget Alaska.  This is something I’ll remember the rest of my life.”

Hit by a vehicle-born IED in 2005, Brooks' found his injuires compounded by the loss of his brother-in-law, Eric Lee Toth, who was killed in the same blast. (Photo by David Altom, KYNG Public Affairs Office)

Brooks and Austin working together in search of halibut on Cooks Inlet, Alaska. "I'll never forget being wounded," says Brooks. "And I'll never forget Alaska. This is something I'll remember the rest of my life." (Photo by David Altom, KYNG Public Affairs Office)

XXXX

XXX

XXXXXXXX

XXX

Brooks’ energy contrasts with that of Cooper, who was injured during the March 20, 2005 firefight at Salman Pak, Iraq.  Cooper does not talk much about the war, focusing more on his family and friends and duties as a full-time Guardsman.  Looking younger than his battlefield experience – he is “carded” at least once in a restaurant – his quiet reserve is broken during moments like the fight to bring in the halibut.

A great day to be in the Kentucky National Guard! Sgt. Casey Cooper enjoys a day of halibut fishing on Cooks Inlet, Alaska. (Photo by David Altom, KYNG Public Affairs Office)

“I felt obviously honored and privileged,” the military police NCO says of his invitation to go on the trip.  “I felt a sense of ‘why me’, as opposed to those who are more deserving.  Some of these guys continue to fight their battles on a daily basis.  These are the ones who really deserve this.”

Cooper served a second tour of duty in Iraq since his injuries and continues to help train Soldiers.  He is also married to a Guard member, Staff Sgt. Emily Cooper.  His professional and private lives intertwined, he is thoughtful about what trips like this mean to his fellow troops.

A long way from Iraq. Sgt. Casey Cooper has served a second tour of duty since the 2005 Battle of Salman Pak. "I felt obviously honored and privileged," he says of being invited to Alaska. "Some of these guys continue to fight their battles on a daily basis." (Photo by David Altom, KYNG Public Affairs Office)

“Any show of faith from the military and private sponsors is a great morale boost for these guys.  This shows that the support we get from the Kentucky National Guard is more than lip service.  They really provide the kind of support these guys need.”

(Tomorrow:  Gratitude, reflections and  home)

About kentuckyguard