After Surviving Sniper's Bullet, Soldier Looks to Future
September 7, 2007
FORT COLLINS, Colo. (American Forces Press Service, Sept. 7, 2007) - In a decision that had more to do with simple human compassion than a desire to be in the thick of things, Staff Sgt. Matthew Keil volunteered for his first tour in Iraq.
"There were a lot of married folks that didn't want to leave their Families right away," said Staff Sgt. Keil, who was assigned to the 2nd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division out of Fort Carson, Colo. "I was single at the time so I figured I'd step up and take their place."
Staff Sgt. Keil returned home from that first tour unscathed. He met Tracy Wyatt shortly thereafter, and they soon became inseparable.
Staff Sgt. Keil found himself headed back to Iraq in October 2006, and the couple married Jan. 12, while Staff Sgt. Keil was home on leave. Suddenly he was that guy he'd tried to keep out of the line of fire the first time around.
On Feb. 24, six weeks to the day later, he was setting up a patrol base near Ramadi when a sniper's bullet hit him. It entered the right side of his neck before exiting his left shoulder. As it traveled through his body, the bullet severely injured his spinal cord. "I knew instantly that I was paralyzed," he said. "I was still conscious. I remember everything."
Half a world away, before her husband had even been shot, Mrs. Keil had a bizarre feeling something wasn't right. "I don't really have any explanation why I felt that way," Mrs. Keil said. "I don't even know how long it had been since I'd talked to Matt, but ... I just couldn't shake this feeling.
"I was crying at work and everybody was asking me if I was OK. I said, 'I don't know. I just feel like something's wrong. I haven't talked to Matt, and I just feel like something's wrong,'" she said. "Obviously it was because he was shot pretty much within an hour of that conversation."
Though Staff Sgt. Keil knew he was paralyzed, he didn't know the severity of his injuries until he arrived at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, in Washington D.C., on Feb. 27.
"The doctors really hadn't talked to me yet," he said. "I think they were waiting for me to come out of the sedation. That's when Tracy told me everything."
Until she arrived at Walter Reed and saw Staff Sgt. Keil, she hadn't realized how serious her husband's injuries were, either. "When they told me he was injured, they told me he was shot in the shoulder," she said. "I packed my bathing suit and some clothes for him."
She and her mother had planned a vacation to Mexico and thought they'd pack Staff Sgt. Keil up and take him along.
Seeing her husband on a ventilator was just the first shock for Mrs. Keil. Soon she was learning to care for her husband, which required, among other things, steeling her stomach against the "gross" stuff.
"All the gross stuff's gone now. We're all over that," she said. "The suctioning of the wound, that was tough. That was really tough. But I wanted to be able to take care of him. I had to do it.
"I think you're just surprised what you're able to do when you're just butted right up against it," she said. "I think that's when you realize, 'Oh, I can do this.'"
"I was a lot more comfortable with her doing a lot of it too, instead of a stranger," Staff Sgt. Keil said.
As the days and weeks passed, Staff Sgt. Keil made progress. First he was able to move his left arm. Then he could brush his teeth and feed himself.
"It's been unbelievable," Mrs. Keil said. "If you saw a picture of him at Walter Reed, just the look on his face; he just looked sick.
"Now, he's off the ventilator," she said.
The ventilator was removed June 24, a month after he transferred from Walter Reed to Craig Hospital in Denver. The facility deals exclusively with rehabilitation and research for patients with spinal cord and traumatic brain injuries.
Three months later, the couple is looking to the future and things like a honeymoon, Staff Sgt. Keil said. "We haven't had a honeymoon yet because we got married so quickly and I went back to Iraq," he said.
They're not sure where that trip will take them, but Mrs. Keil said there would definitely be a beach and it will be "extremely handicap accessible."
There's one other thing that many newlyweds often dream of that the couple is looking forward to, a first house. But they've found the hunt frustrating.
"We're having a hard time finding open floor plans and accessibility for a wheelchair," Staff Sgt. Keil said. "This chair is pretty big."
Several groups are working together to take this particular worry off the young couple's shoulders. While attending a troop-support charity event this weekend, the couple learned they will soon receive a custom-built home in Parker, Colo., near Mrs. Keil's Family.
During the "Hoedown for Heroes" charitable event Aug. 11, Mrs. Keil and Staff Sgt. Keil were surprised with the happy news. Hoedown for Heroes was put on by a group called "American Military Families" to raise money for troop-support causes. The event was part of Military Appreciation Day at the Larimer County Fair.
John Gonsalves, president of another troop-support group, Homes for Our Troops, made the announcement. "We're here to offer to build you a home, fully accessible, at no cost to you," he said.
"I don't know what to say. I'm speechless," Staff Sgt. Keil said after sharing a dance with his wife, one she said he had owed her since their wedding. "It takes a huge burden off of us. We've been looking for houses for three or four months.
"Now we don't have to anymore," he added. "We'll be able to build the house of our dreams."
"With room for kids," Mrs. Keil added, beaming at her husband.
Debbie Quackenbush, American Military Family's founder, who organized the event, said she couldn't think of a more deserving couple.
"He needed to know how much we appreciate his sacrifice," she said. "He is one of the most heroic men that I've ever met, and I think that somebody that exemplifies that need to be recognized."
While the Keils were the guests of honor, the event was an evening to say "Thank you," Ms. Quackenbush said. The dinner featured retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Steve Ritchie as the speaker. He is known as "America's last fighter ace;" Brig. Gen. Ritchie has five combat kills to his credit between May and August 1972.
Attendees had the chance to participate in both silent and live auctions. There also was a raffle for prizes, including gift cards and a bicycle. The Kory Brunson Band provided the entertainment to conclude the evening.
Both American Military Family and Homes for Our Troops are supporters of America Supports You, a Defense Department program connecting citizens and corporations with military personnel and their Families serving at home and abroad.