By Kari Hawkins, USAG RedstoneNovember 20, 2009
First impressions can be lasting ones.
And, for a group of 36 wounded warriors, their impressions of Huntsville and North Alabama - its hospitality, the beautiful fall weather, the fun events, the people - will be among their happiest memories for a long time to come.
Thanks to the Semper Fi Community Task Force, the local community once again rolled out the red carpet for a group of Soldiers and Marines, and their spouses, who have made tremendous sacrifices for the nation. Heroes Week is in its third year of welcoming wounded warriors to North Alabama for events leading up to and including Huntsville's Veterans Day Parade.
"You can tell there's been a lot of effort put into planning this for us," said Army Sgt. 1st Class Landon Ranker during an interview in the lobby of the Westin Hotel, where the group stayed during their visit.
"There's a lot behind it. There are a lot of contributions and a lot of people who have made this an overwhelming force of appreciation and thank you. The fact that they are doing this for us is incredible."
Besides all the work that many volunteers put into Heroes Week, Marine Staff Sgt. Francisco "Frankie" Quintero said the setting - North Alabama's mountains and lakes, its fall foliage and the scenic attractions - combined with the hospitable people to make it a visit to remember.
"I love it here," he said. "It's beautiful. This is my first time in Alabama. The scenery and the people are just wonderful."
Both wounded warriors enjoyed the activities the SFCTF planned for their weeklong stay.
"Every day has gotten better and better," Ranker said. "The fishing was awesome and I don't even fish. The boat ride in Guntersville was awesome."
The wounded warriors and their spouses - totaling 59 altogether - arrived on Nov. 6 and enjoyed North Alabama hospitality through Nov. 12. Activities included a public reception at the Heritage Club, a concert at Bridge Street Town Centre, boating and a boat parade hosted by the Lake Guntersville Yacht Club, fishing in Decatur, a visit to the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, a career fair sponsored by Still Serving Veterans and Veterans Day activities.
"They have really enjoyed being here," said Mike Dahl, chairman of Heroes Week. "They don't want to go home. This is now like a second home to them. For some, it was the only honeymoon they've ever had. Many of them said they could never afford a hotel like this."
Dahl said the wounded warriors enjoyed events that gave them the opportunity to meet and socialize with local residents. They particularly appreciated the public reception at the Heritage Club, the Lake Guntersville boat parade and the appreciation they experienced as part of the Veterans Day parade. And they were grateful for the information and assistance they received through the Still Serving Veterans career fair.
"Many of them had never been to Alabama. They didn't realize Redstone Arsenal is here. They didn't know we are home to 25 top military aerospace contractors," Dahl said. "Several of them said that once they leave the military they want to come back here."
On Nov. 11, following the parade, the wounded warriors attended a three-hour career fair hosted by Still Serving Veterans at the Embassy Suites. The fair provided them with information on their transition benefits, how to write a resume and network, and the top 10 reasons they should live and work in Huntsville.
"When you are recovering and full of medications, you really can't take a course like this," Dahl said. "Instead you are handed your benefit package and are left to figure it out yourself. SSV helped them with their benefits and gave them a lifetime contact. If they ever need help, all they have to do is call Huntsville, Ala., and they'll get the help they need."
For a wounded warrior like Ranker, rehabilitation has been a long time coming. During his 18 years of service, the 39-year-old Soldier has deployed to Iraq twice and once to Afghanistan. During those deployments, he has suffered from multiple injuries, but has always returned to his unit.
After his last injury in Afghanistan, he was assigned to the wounded warrior unit at Fort Campbell, Ky. Ranker is now recovering from head injuries and knee damage.
"I don't mind talking about it," he said. "But one of the symptoms of the head stuff is stuttering. In the early stages, I had headaches all the time. Now they only come when certain things trigger them. I have trouble with my balance. I've had to relearn how to carry my center. And I've had cognitive issues with reading, writing and speech, and my multi-tasking ability is sharply declined."
Ranker has also undergone knee surgery and is scheduled for additional surgery after his return from Heroes Week.
"I can't kneel anymore, and that's not a good thing when you are in the infantry," he said. "I'm not supposed to run anymore. But that's like telling a fish not to swim. I work out in the gym and I just don't run very much."
During his first deployment to Iraq in 2003, Ranker was on a night mission when he fell down a 60-foot cliff. The accident knocked him unconscious for six hours and damaged his knees.
"I was medevaced out and received treatment," he said. "Back then, they (Army hospital staff) didn't know much about treating head stuff. But they did fix my knees and after many months of rehabilitation I felt good and I was sent back to my unit."
In 2005, on his second Iraq deployment, Ranker was traveling in a Humvee that was wrecked after just missing an improvised explosive device and then crashing at 45 mph into a crater caused by the IED explosion.
"Everyone in the truck got medevaced. There were broken bones and faces bashed in," Ranker recalled. "Everybody that's over there - it doesn't matter if they are Marines or Army - just about everybody has had a near miss with an IED. You always have to be prepared. After we crashed, we could have been ambushed. It was simply a matter that on that day our attackers were inept. They detonated the IED and then ran."
Ranker received head damage and a concussion in the accident. He again underwent rehabilitation and therapy, and returned to the infantry.
In 2008, while participating in an 18-day mission, a mortar round exploded about 6 feet away from Ranker as he slept.
"It was late at night and I had just checked on patrol. I was laying in a prone position behind a ruck sack," he said. "The ruck sack took a lot of the shrapnel and blast. We were used to the enemy launching one or two mortar rounds and then disappearing because they can't stand up and fight us head on."
With head and knee damage, Rucker once again faced months of rehabilitation. Slowly, though, this time he has come to realize that he won't be able to lead other Soldiers on the battlefield anymore.
"After my second injury, my wife saw problems that no one else saw," he said. "She was upset that I went on another deployment. But she also knew how much it meant to me to be with the guys and do my job.
"And I would have kept going. But all these injuries combined made me realize that during a mission I would not only be putting myself at risk but also other Soldiers. My senior leadership told me my injuries could affect my leadership. That kind of put everything in perspective and I stopped resisting."
For Quintero, a rocket propelled grenade has yet to put an end to his Marine career.
During a deployment in 2003, he was serving as a gunner in the turret position in a Humvee that was following three tanks and leading some 300 other vehicles.
"We started getting hit with mortar fire. The Abrams (tank) in front of us stopped to orient itself to the mortar guns," Quintero recalled.
"We couldn't go forward or backward. We took small arms fire from the right. I turned and fired. Then, we took it from the left. I returned that fire. Then, back to the right the RPGs started raining in on us. One came in at the side and blew me out of the turret. I was laying in the back of the truck. Another hit my medic in the face, and blew him out of the truck and killed him instantly. He was the first Navy corpsman to be killed in action in Iraq."
Although the grenade that hit Quintero didn't detonate, the force caused tremendous internal damage.
"I'm missing 2 feet of intestines and a rib because of that grenade," the 31-year-old staff sergeant said. "It lacerated my liver and collapsed my right lung. It caused severe enough damage that I have to keep going back to get scar tissue removed."
Since then, Quintero has deployed a second time to Iraq with a sniper platoon and is planning for a third deployment in 2010. He is stationed at Camp Pendleton, Calif., with a Marine Expeditionary Force, and is planning on a Marine career that extends far beyond the nine years he has served.
"I've been put through three physical evaluation boards and I have passed," he said. "There is nothing else I want to do. I still have so much to offer the Marine Corps. I still have my heart and my desire and all my knowledge. My wife's grandfather was a World War II Marine and my father-in-law is a wounded Vietnam veteran. This is my way of honoring them. My wife bleeds scarlet and gold. She would go with me if she had the chance."
For Ranker, he won't be able to return to war duty, but he hopes to continue serving.
"I want to help other wounded warriors," he said. "I joined the Army in 1989 to be in the infantry and that's all I know and all I've done. It's hard to let go of that. It's my duty. It gives me a sense of honor, a sense of purpose."
"It's where everything makes sense," Quintero added.