- Special Sections
- Public Notices
By JOSHUA COFFMAN
FORT KNOX — Injured in Iraq nearly 14 months ago, Spc. Joshua Gracia’s military career has been a roller-coaster ride. Now he is ready to get back on track.
A step away from being medically discharged from the Army, he is preparing to return to duty as a combat engineer. Gracia shipped out with the 19th Engineer Company from Fort Knox in August 2006 and worked alongside the 82nd Airborne Division building fortified patrol houses so infantry soldiers could leave their forward operating bases and communicate with Iraqis in neighborhoods.
While traveling in a piece of heavy construction equipment on May 30, 2007, a roadside bomb exploded directly beneath the 22-year-old from Archbold, Ohio. It marked the second IED attack Gracia had encountered in a week and one of several explosions he endured during nearly 10 months in combat.
The blast disabled the 70,000-pound excavator and left him unconscious.
He was evacuated to a military hospital in Balad, Iraq, and, 10 hours after the explosion, his appendix ruptured. Garcia then was flown to a hospital in Germany where soon after he would be diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury.
He was left with memory loss and slurred speech.
The medical determination left Gracia, the first on his father’s side of the family to serve in the military, down and out as his fellow combat engineers continued their tour of duty.
“It ripped me,” he said. “I wanted to push back with them. I felt like a part of me was left back there. It’s like a band of brothers.”
After receiving treatment in Germany, Gracia returned to the states to heal, undergoing testing at Walter Reed Army Medical Hospital and at Fort Bragg, N.C., before returning to his unit’s rear detachment at Fort Knox.
In January, he was assigned to the installation’s Warrior Transition Battalion — formerly the Warrior Transition Unit — and his case went before an Army medical board.
NEW LIFE, NEW WIFE. The healing process has been trying for Garcia, but it has brought other changes in his life as well. While in the Warrior Transition Battalion, he married his second wife, 19-year-old Renee.
The two were friends for several years and she traveled to Fort Bragg to be with him. But the Army world was entirely new to her.
“She’s never been to a military installation,” Gracia said. “I had to explain a lot of stuff.”
Though a military newcomer, Gracia said his spouse has coached him through his brain injury, coming up with memory exercises, such as word-search puzzles, and helped him with his speech.
“If I needed something, she was there,” Gracia said. “Having a good spouse in the military means a lot. It’s amazing.”
The Army specialist said, over time, his memory has improved.
“I’ve accepted the fact that I needed to give it time to heal,” he said.
The medical board initially ruled him not medically fit for duty, but a determined Gracia bumped into a colonel serving on the board in a Fort Knox parking lot.
The discussion led to the officer writing a letter supporting Gracia and he was found fit for duty in May. Lt. Troy Miller, his platoon commander in Iraq, led a re-enlistment ceremony for Gracia last month.
Sgt. 1st Class Daniel Collier, Gracia’s platoon sergeant in the Warrior Transition Battalion, said Gracia has kept a positive attitude throughout his medical ordeal and that has spread to other soldiers assigned to the battalion who interact with him.
“It’s been a constant state of flux for him,” Collier said. “In (my) 17 years in the Army, I don’t know if I could have handled as much change as he has.”
Gracia will serve at least another six years and hopes to stay in the Army long enough to become a command sergeant major.
STAYING STATESIDE. Gracia will be assigned to the 911th Engineer Company, a unit stood up after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to perform rescue and recovery missions in stateside government buildings.
The unit does not deploy and a limitation on Gracia’s medical evaluation currently prohibits him from serving in overseas combat.
He is set to link up with his new unit in October, but the ever-eager Gracia wants that day to come sooner.
“Right now I’m trying to push it up,” he said. “I’m in the Army to do my job, not to be held back.”
Joshua Coffman can be reached at (270) 505-1740.