By Dan Lafontaine, RDECOM Public AffairsMarch 29, 2016
ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. (March 29, 2016) -- U.S. Army Cpl. John M. Laursen couldn't eat or drink. His esophagus was closing.
"It was something I was breathing in from the air in Afghanistan," he said, recalling the events of 2013. "I ended up with complete dehydration. My first sergeant said, 'I'm walking you over to the doc now.' "
He would not return to combat.
"During the medevac, all they could do is pump me full of IVs. I got to Landstuhl, Germany, and they had an operating room waiting for me."
Laursen had been deployed to Afghanistan for four months before his emergency evacuation from theater. He was healthy, energetic, eager to serve, headstrong and 25 years old.
He didn't understand what was happening to his body. He didn't know what the future held for his life and career as a Soldier.
A CALL TO SERVE, ENLISTING, DEPLOYING TO IRAQ
Laursen was born in Staten Island, New York, and moved to Bricktown, New Jersey, at a young age. He was compelled to serve his country after the 9/11 terror attacks.
His father, John L. Laursen, was a Port Authority police officer assigned to Newark Liberty International Airport in the aircraft crash fire and rescue unit. The Port Authority's headquarters were in the Twin Towers. Eighty-four Port Authority employees, including 37 officers, were killed that day.
"Luckily, he missed it by working the midnight shift. I felt like I had to do something to serve," John M. Laursen said.
In 2008, two years after graduating from Brick Township High School, he enlisted in the Army at age 20. Laursen would become a motor transport operator, 88M.
Laursen's family has a history of public service, he said, and both grandfathers served in the military. His father; mother, Michelle Champagne-Wichterman; and sister, Andrea Knapp, supported his decision, although emotions were high because of the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He and his family knew he would be deployed to theater.
"I don't think it was a surprise to them when I brought up I was planning to enlist," he said. "I knew exactly what I was signing up for. I enlisted in a job where I knew I was going to be out every night on patrol.
"I wasn't afraid to get into it. I didn't know what to expect. It was just adrenaline. I was a headstrong 20-year-old, and I wanted to get out there."
Laursen deployed to Iraq, in the Baghdad Triangle, in 2009.
"When we got there, it was drought season. I was tasked with 2nd Battalion, 14th Infantry, which my forward support company was supporting," he said. "I volunteered to go out with the line units. I raised my hand. That's where I wanted to be. We brought medical supplies, food and water.
"People are people. When it comes down to it, we're all human. No matter where you are and what your religion is, we're human. That's the bottom line. That's something I really learned over there. Having the opportunity to work with people in need. When people are in need and help, we're all human."
His deployment to Iraq ended in 2010.
AFTER THE WOUNDS IN AFGHANISTAN
Laursen returned to the Mideast in 2013. This time, he would go to Afghanistan.
He hoped his deployment to Afghanistan would provide him with a sense of closure after his time in Iraq. However, he wouldn't find closure.
After his evacuation from combat, back in the United States at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, doctors searched for a diagnosis to his mysterious condition. Laursen would learn he had eosinophilic esophagitis, known as EoE, a chronic inflammatory disease of the esophagus.
"The Walter Reed doctors had a ball with me, documenting my whole case. There are two confirmed cases of Service members from the area of Afghanistan that I was in.
"I'm going to have recurring surgeries to keep my esophagus open until a cure is found. I take constant medications to keep the esophagus open. Anytime it starts closing, I'll have a procedure to open it. Every three to six months, I'll go in to pop it back open."
He could no longer serve. The Army medically discharged Laursen in March 2014.
"After I fought the good fight of trying to stay in and finding every option, I was lost," he said. "I went from working 14-hour days downrange to the Warrior Transition Unit. I had three formations a week and my doctor appointments.
"I found myself in a weird state. I didn't know what to do with myself. In combat, I had top adrenaline, on edge the entire time waiting for something to happen. Now I'm sitting in a room, looking at four walls. I went to Fort Belvoir. I'm dropped here by myself. I had to get my life on track.
"I felt lost. I didn't have my unit there. I didn't have anybody. It took three months even to get my wife, Casey, down here. I found myself alone. That's the worst place I could be when I first got back."
LIFE RESCUED BY HOCKEY
Laursen has played hockey since age 2. The game would rescue him from severe depression and despair.
His battalion commander at the Warrior Transition Unit was a hockey player, and he told Laursen about the USA Warriors, which were based in Rockville, Maryland. Wounded and disabled Service members comprise the team.
"We have two double amputees and a handful of single amputees on the team. Most of the players didn't start playing until they got injured," said Laursen, a goalie. "It's fun watching their progress. It's a ball, great fun, having that sense of camaraderie."
The team serves invaluable roles -- support group, social network, and as a connection to their lives in the military -- for its players, he said.
"We're family. We can tell if somebody is having personal problems. We have each other's backs. That's something most people lose when they leave the military. It's a unit. It's the same sense of family that a unit has -- if not closer.
"We practice every week and have tournaments. We travel two or three times a year. We've gone to Minnesota and Detroit. It's an all-around great program. It gets people out. We have representatives who go to Walter Reed and get people out of the barracks. Show them there is life after you get hurt.
"The Warriors saved my life. There is life after the military, whatever circumstances you get into. If something happens to you downrange, there are always people like you. There's always someone you can talk to."
Editor's note: John M. Laursen now works as a civilian contractor supporting the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland. He is assigned to RDECOM's Field Assistance in Science and Technology office.