Friday, February 09, 2007

Our Wounded Warrior

Physiotherapists encourage Sapper Mike McTeague
to walk at St John's Hospital
To help other injured soldiers, his father Sean and family friend Captain Wayne Johnston have established the Sapper Mike McTeague Wounded Warriors Fund, their attempt to create something positive out of something terrible. The fund, started in October, has collected about $50,000. The goal is $250,000. The warriors fund would pay for hands-free phone sets, DVD players, iPods, laptop computers, whatever is needed. It could also help families defray smaller expenses, such as hospital parking, that add up during long recoveries back home. And, say the men, it would show the wounded they're not forgotten.
"It can aid in the healing," says Johnston, president of the fund. "It's an extremely effective way for Canadians, regardless of political leanings, to show they support the troops."
McTeague's hospital room is decorated with a poster and letter from grade school kids, and he's got plenty more cards stored away. One girl, nearly 8, wrote that for her birthday party she wanted donations to his fund instead of presents. And could he or a family member attend?
Shy and soft-spoken, McTeague reacts to the attention with a quick smile and a slight blush.
He was the kind of kid, he says, who liked playing with his army men and asking his father about his experiences in the reserves. "I'm following in his footsteps," says McTeague, who joined the reserves after high school and hopes to become a police officer.
He volunteered for Afghanistan, attracted by the money, experience and chance to travel. No regrets, says the 6-foot-1, rail-thin soldier, wearing a red T-shirt boasting an army logo.
His memories of the bombing are sketchy. He recalls being on patrol in a village, staring off into the desert, when he felt a wave hit him and he blacked out.
He woke up on a stretcher, hearing his name, feeling a tourniquet on his leg. Helicopters landed nearby. He woke up next in hospital in Kandahar with a breathing tube down his throat.
He woke up again in Germany. Doctors there removed part of his bowel. Shrapnel had entered his lower abdomen and exited on the side above his hip.
During all this, he never thought he'd die, he says. "I just kept thinking, `Now I'm on the way to recovery.'" He was upset, however, that he'd missed out – his unit had been promised two beers after the patrol.
"We were talking together before we got blown up," his buddy Denver Williams, 30, reminds him.
Williams, from the same unit, has dropped by to visit. His hand and lower legs were badly injured in the same attack. A toe was blown off, but was found in his boot and reattached. His dog tag, hanging over his heart, stopped a ball bearing. "I'd be a goner," he says.
On this day at St. John's, on Cummer Ave. in Willowdale, word spreads that a new guy has arrived. It's Master Corporal Jody Mitic from Brampton, who stepped on a land mine in Afghanistan and lost both his legs below the knees. McTeague and Williams will visit him.
The two buddies, both in Afghanistan for less than two months, talk about the trip to Europe they had planned for an upcoming leave. "We'll still make the trip, when we're healed," says McTeague.
There's a ways to go. At home in Orillia, he'll continue physiotherapy.
The extent of the nerve damage caused by the ball bearing through his neck is unknown. He can't have an MRI scan because of the metal fragments still in his body.
"We're working without a diagnosis," says physiotherapist Sydney Johnson.
Doctors at Sunnybrook hospital performed skin grafts and operated on his legs. His left leg, so shattered that a metal bar holds the bones together, can't yet fully bear his weight.
"There are days I'd get depressed," he says. "I'd think, `How much longer will I be here? When will I do things on my own?' It would feel like forever.
"Then, the next day, I'd wake up feeling better. When you make progress, it keeps you up."
A big milestone, he says, was feeding himself. Scratching himself was good, too, he remembers with a laugh.
It's time for physiotherapy and the long, lanky soldier looks like he's unwinding as he slowly stands up. Johnson has him climb stairs and come down using only one crutch. "The army mentality kicks in," she says. "He's not afraid to push hard."
Following behind, Tom Succamore, 77, pushes the wheelchair in case McTeague needs it. Succamore, a retired construction superintendent who served in the British army, heard about the injured soldiers and started visiting McTeague and Williams nearly every day.
"I leave here so enthused," Succamore says. "I rejoice in myself seeing their progress."
McTeague's therapy finished, he and Succamore head to the hospital cafeteria. A man in the
cashier line sizes up McTeague – army T-shirt, wheelchair – and says, "Proud of you, bud."
"Thanks," says McTeague, quick smile, slight blush. Complete Story

For more information about the Wounded Warriors Fund click:

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