VIDEO: Welcome home, soldier

Published 11:35 am Friday, October 31, 2008

Arnie Earl knows just how Austin’s Corporal Dan Stewart feels.

The U.S. Army veteran of the Vietnam War suffered a traumatic brain injury serving his country.

So did Stewart.

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“I think it’s great,” Earl said. “He deserves everything he gets.”

Richard Prizler, another Vietnam War Army veteran, agreed with Earl.

“I think it’s great, and I feel good for him,” Prizler said. “He’s entitled to everything he can get.

It was an emotional scene for Disabled American Veterans Earl and Prizler and the other members of local veterans organizations to see the young man; a mirror image of themselves when they returned from wars in America’s past.

Stewart received a home adaptability grant from the Wounded Warrior Program of the U.S. Marine Corps. The $60,000 grant and a private, not-for-profit Semper Fi $45,000 grant will pay for the renovation program of Stewart’s residence.

The Wounded Warrior Program is picking up their comrade, Stewart, and turning his life around with an extreme handicapped accessible makeover of his home at 1502 Second Avenue N.W.

The Marines landed in Austin Thursday to make it official.

Stewart’s traumatic brain injury came in August 2005, when he was a 21-year-old Marine serving In Iraq.

Stewart received a traumatic brain injury, when an improvised explosive device went off in a dumpster along a roadway where Stewart and other Marines were traveling in a Humvee vehicle.

It was his third tour of duty overseas fighting in the Middle East war.

Stewart left the United States July 4, 2005 and was injured by an insurgent’s IED only a month later, Aug. 4, 2005 in Iraq.

“It crushed the helmet into his skull,” his aunt and family spokesperson Sandra Easley said, “so that they had to remove all that broken skull out of there.”

The Marine was born in Austin, but grew up in Spokane, Wash., where the family moved during his childhood. He is the son of Jim Stewart and Cindy Stewart. His grandmother also lives in Austin.

But Easley is figuratively and literally his closest relative because of all she does for her nephew.

“This guy has helped make me tough,” the aunt said of her nephew.

Stewart was in hospitals for 18 months, according to his aunt. First Germany, then the Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland and eight months at the VA Medical Center in Minneapolis.

When he returned home to Austin, the Austin Medical Center – Mayo Health System rehabilitation staff also worked with Stewart.

“The Wounded Warriors are doing an awesome job. The VA is doing an awesome job. If I didn’t have these Marines here to help me through the whole thing, I don’t know what I would have done,” Easley said.

The aunt, Easley, lives with Stewart and serves as his personal care attendant.

“He’s a really determined individual,” Easley said. “When he sets his mind to getting something done, he does it.”

‘Marines helping Marines’

Gunnery Sergeant Roger Rands is part of the patient affairs team (SNCOIO) and Marine Corps liaison for the Wounded Warrior Battalion East based at the Veterans Administration Medical Center, Minneapolis.

Rands and a group of active Reserve unit Marines visited Stewart for the launching of the home renovation project Thursday.

The Wounded Warrior Program follows that familiar Marine Corps credo: We will leave no man behind.

The program assists veterans, who have been wounded in combat in a wide variety of ways, according to Rands.

The U.S. Army stated the Wounded Warrior Program, and now the U.S. Navy is starting one of its own.

According to Rands, the other branches of the U.S. Armed Forces do not have the same number of wounded soldiers the Marine Corps has suffered; that fact and the well-known USMC esprit de corps makes its own WWP unique.

“This is what the Marine Corps is all about,” Rands said. “Marines taking care of Marines. We never leave anyone behind.”

At Thursday’s backyard ceremonies in northwest Austin, they demonstrated their compassion.

“We’re here to show Corporal Stewart our support and see something good happen to a Minnesota Marine,” Rands said.

Craig Jackel of Jackel Construction is the general contractor for the project.

“This is a great experience and we’re very happy to be part of this,” Jackel said. “This is a tribute to Dan and all the other veterans who are out there who need this help.”

Jackel Construction will build an addition to the home, which will include a master bedroom and bathroom, all handicapped accessible.

There will also be an upstairs laundry room in the new addition.

Part of the existing house will be remodeled to make it more handicapped accessible, according to Jackel, from Stewart’s bedroom to the living room.

Ramps will be built on the front and rear of the northwest Austin home.

The work should take three months.

Thursday’s events were designed to share an example how the Wounded Warrior Program is helping Marines.

It was the first time Stewart wore his USMC camouflage fatigues complete with cap and boots.

As the medial tableau unfolded, Stewart went from one reporter to the next, answering their questions — many the same — over and over.

“We were just driving by that day,” he said recalling the moment in time that changed his life forever. “My corpsman had half his face blown off and my platoon sergeant lost three-quarters of his left arm, which later they were able to graft back on.”

The mention of the operation caused Stewart to divert from the point he was making.

“The stuff they can do now in the medical field for wounded veterans is just amazing,” Stewart said.

The wounded Marine, a bespectacled young man, answered the questions patiently and with disarming candor.

Not once did he speak of his own traumatic brain injury.

His last words of the afternoon were, “I would really like to thank everybody who made this possible,” he said.

“The quote I like to use about my house is ‘Make my house more of a home than just a place where I sleep between hospital visits’.”