By Staff Sgt. Scott GriffinSeptember 5, 2014
RUKLA, Lithuania (Sept. 5, 2014) -- Nerijus Gvergzdis was born with his legs crossed. He has cerebral palsy. Born in the winter in Soviet-occupied Lithuania, Nerijus' mother, Egidija, was told by state doctors to wrap her son in wet clothes and leave him in a room with the windows open so he would contract pneumonia and die.
Egidija chose otherwise.
There are about 600 "Sky Soldiers" of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, serving in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Poland as part of Operation Atlantic Resolve, an exercise dedicated to demonstrating commitment to NATO obligations and maintaining interoperability with allied forces.
One of those is 1st Lt. Andrew Martin of Nashville, Tennessee, 2nd platoon leader for Troop A, 1st Squadron, 91st Cavalry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade. Of all the countries to which Troop A could have been sent in support of Operation Atlantic Resolve, Martin's unit was selected to conduct combined training in Lithuania.
Cut back to America almost 20 years ago, Martin's grandfather, Fred Young, of Atlanta, a former U.S. Army corporal, was making a pizza run while visiting the family, when he made the acquaintance of Egidija and Nerijus. They were in town visiting Egidija's sister-in-law.
"It was just a trip, you know?" Egidija said. "My sister-in-law works at a pizza house, and she met [Fred and his wife, Valjean,] and she talked about us. They said, 'Oh, we want to help!' and they helped us. Just like that. They saw Nerijus and said to me they said 'Okay, we will help you.'"
Fred and Valjean quickly got to work and organized medical treatments for Nerijus.
"They went down to Atlanta, and there's this pretty famous pediatrician, Dr. Leila Denmark," Martin said. "My grandmother talked to her and they got Nerijus hooked up with some medical treatments with Scottish Rite," the famed pediatric hospital in Atlanta.
"Fred and Valjean helped with everything -- the hospital, the insurance, everything," Egidija said.
Fred and Valjean enlisted the help of other family and friends to raise funds for Nerijus' expensive surgeries and treatment. He received hip surgery to uncross his legs as well as treatment for the muscles in his legs so they would work correctly. He received dental surgery to fix his teeth. Originally planned as a trip of just a few weeks, Egidija and Nerijus ended up staying for 18 months, while he received his treatment.
"It's so amazing to hear the story," Martin said. "I can only imagine what it was like to come to America and have that happen."
That help was more than just a one-time act of kindness. Fred and Valjean's assistance spanned years.
"It turned from a two-week vacation to staying for a year and a half," Martin said. "Once they had him fixed up they set them up with the proper equipment, so they'd buy him computers and they'd buy him chairs, stuff like that."
Fred and Valjean made the trip to Lithuania in 1996, to see their "family" once again. Martin found himself strongly moved by walking in his grandparents' footsteps almost 20 years later.
"When I found out I was coming to Lithuania, they told me all about their trip here back in '96," Martin said. "It's cool to see some of the places they went and visited."
During the visit, Egidija fondly recalled the Youngs.
"I remember so much, your grandmother, your granddaddy, they are so sweet," Egidjia said to Martin when he visited. "They're very special people."
Martin said his family kept in touch with Nerijus and Egidija through emails throughout the years, never losing contact with their "extended family."
"Growing up, always hearing about Nerijus, we would read emails at Christmas or the holidays, and it was like distant relatives," Martin said. "'Nerijus is this many years old,' or 'Nerijus just finished this grade ...'"
Martin was able to find time to visit with Nerijus and Egidija at the family's apartment in Kaunas. Martin stood in the same spot his grandparents had in 1996 when Fred played checkers with Nerijus. Martin climbed the same stairs that Egidija does every day, carrying Nerijus down and back up five flights again whenever they journey out.
"It was really moving to see their home and see pictures, my family photos, sitting on the TV there!" Martin said.
Martin was a toddler the last time he saw Nerijus and was happy to finally meet him.
"Granny and Granddad talked about how smart Nerijus was, how intellectual he is," Martin said. "He's just awesome."
Egidija said Nerijus finished high school with high grades.
"He can talk. His English is perfect!" Egidija said. "He watches movies, and only in English. He sees movies or games, something else, only in English. He says it's better in English to him."
Nerijus will always use a wheelchair. Egidija still has to carry him up the five long flights of stairs to take him home, but no one will ever tell her to leave her son to die again. Fred is cared for in a rest home now, suffering from Alzheimer's disease. Valjean still tries to make the drive to visit him every single day.
"My grandparents are such humble people, I didn't truly know the scope of what they did until almost 20 years later," Martin said. "It was all just 'Oh, I helped the family,' or 'I helped take care of these people.' It was just, you know, help. I didn't realize the true extent of their 'southern hospitality.'"
Call it luck or call it fate -- cosmic coincidence, kismet or divine intervention -- Martin was able to reconnect with his Lithuanian "family."
"To me, being the grandson, it's one of those stories you try to capture," Martin said. "You try and get a full scope of understanding of what they did, which I was blessed enough to do here."