By Steve Arel, U.S. Army Cadet CommandMay 14, 2012
RICHMOND, Ky. (May 14, 2012) -- When he commissioned last spring, Josh Pitcher made a vow to his fiancée. He would be there to watch her walk the stage this spring at Eastern Kentucky University's commencement.
The chances looked bleak when he was sent to Afghanistan with his 82nd Airborne Division unit earlier this year. Those chances appeared hopeless when the second lieutenant lost his foot in mid-April after he stepped on improvised explosive device, or IED, while leading his platoon on an ambush mission.
But there Pitcher was Saturday in Richmond, Ky., sitting in a wheelchair and positioned in the front row of Alumni Coliseum to watch his soon-to-be bride receive her degree in social work.
"It was surreal," Michelle Smith said. "I don't even know how to describe it. To have him there alone was the best thing ever."
Pitcher, of Rineyville, Ky., commissioned from Eastern and branched infantry before heading to the Basic Officer Leadership Course last year. He was then assigned to the 82nd at Fort Bragg, N.C. Pitcher, an airborne Ranger who is also air assault-qualified, soon became a platoon leader.
His unit had been in Afghanistan exactly two months when Pitcher and his Soldiers were patrolling a village known as an insurgent stronghold and for its development of IEDs. The platoon discovered numerous enemy weapons caches and IED materials.
As the Soldiers wrapped up the mission, Pitcher went to check his security teams. That's when he stepped on the explosive, setting it off.
Within 72 hours, he was at Walter Reed in Bethesda, Md. Pitcher lost his left foot in the accident, but doctors amputated another eight inches up to his knee to enable him to eventually use a prosthetic that will provide better mobility.
Pitcher remembers almost immediately turning his thoughts to Smith and attending commencement. Since he was back in the United States -- albeit under unfortunate circumstances -- he wanted to be there to support his future wife.
Doctors were against Pitcher attending the graduation, contending that he might contract an infection while away. Smith even tried to discourage Pitcher from making the trip, fearful the travel might trigger clots.
But Pitcher had made up his mind.
"I was going to do everything I could to go," he said. "We found a way."
Pitcher isn't aware of the logistics, but he was offered a seat on the military plane carrying Gen. David Rodriguez, U.S. Army Forces Command commander and former commander of the 82nd Airborne Division. It just so happened that Rodriguez was going to be the guest speaker for EKU's ROTC commissioning and school commencement.
Pitcher and his mother, a former nurse, boarded the plane Friday at Andrews Air Force Base en route to Fort Bragg, N.C., to pick up Rodriguez.
During his speech to graduates, the general spotlighted Pitcher, calling him inspirational and highlighting all that he had done during his brief career in less than a year. A number of people went up to Pitcher afterward, hailing him a hero and thanking him for his service.
"I'm not a hero," said Pitcher, who made it to Kentucky in time to also attend EKU's commissioning ceremony Friday. "Other people do so much more. I just did what I was supposed to do. I just did my job."
While Pitcher and Smith have not set a date, the 23-year-olds plan to wed sometime next year. They said they won't tie the knot until Pitcher is in better physical condition.
"I want him to be up walking and enjoying the day," Smith said.
Pitcher, meanwhile, is adamant he will return to service. His rehabilitation will last six to nine months.
"I want to get back with my guys," Pitcher said. "I want to get back to jump status. I want to get my platoon back."
Those who know Pitcher aren't discounting him.
Lt. Col. Ralph Hudnall Jr., the professor of military science at Eastern Kentucky, described the former Cadet as an inspiration whose approach defines the Army Values.
"I admire that young man," Hudnall said. "He'll succeed in whatever he's allowed to do. He certainly can contribute to the service going forward."
As Pitcher continues to recover, Smith will be there by his side. On Monday, she heads to Maryland, where she will be Pitcher's full-time caregiver.
"To see these Soldiers who are injured I have the most respect for them," said Smith, who admits she has some reservations about Pitcher returning to service.
"It concerns me, but it would any spouse. It's under God's control. If (returning to duty) is what he feels led to do, I'll be there to support him."