Sunday, September 19, 2004
'Heath is a lot like the town of Grundy itself: We don't quit'
The community that has faced trying times welcomed home Staff Sgt. Heath Calhoun, who lost part of both legs in Iraq.
Less than one year after losing both legs in Iraq at age 24, Calhoun has not only learned to walk and drive on prosthetic legs, but he's also snowboarded, waterskied and recently cycled more than 30 miles in a single day. Calhoun's amazing recovery has inspired the other amputees with whom he volunteers. And if the size of the crowd welcoming back their native son to Grundy on Saturday is any indication, he's become a source of pride to a community that has also faced devastating floods, fires, even a triple murder, and emerged determined to rebuild.
"I think Heath is a lot like the town of Grundy itself: We don't quit," said Chuck Crabtree, Grundy's town manager. "Even though we as a town have gone through flooding and whatever else has taken place, we as a town still have that Bible Belt [mentality]. You take it, you don't quit and you go forward."
"He told me out there that he doesn't feel like a true hero," state Del. Jackie Stump, D-Buchanan County, told the crowd gathered for the homecoming. Turning to Calhoun, Stump added: "But you are a true hero."
A member of the 101st Airborne and an elite Army Ranger, Calhoun was helping transport a contingent of fresh troops to guard a bank in Mosul, Iraq, Nov. 7 when a rocket-propelled grenade slammed into the back of the Humvee.
The blast killed one soldier, wounded several others and severely damaged Calhoun's lower legs. Stranded on the street without a medic, the other soldiers did their best to save the lives of the wounded, including tying tourniquets around Calhoun's legs to stop the bleeding.
"They didn't want to do it," Calhoun told the more than 100 people gathered Saturday. "They knew if they tied the tourniquets that I was going to lose my legs. But they did it." Calhoun said he has no doubt the actions saved his life.
Doctors were forced to amputate both of Calhoun's legs above the knees. After being transferred to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., which is where many of the U.S. troops seriously wounded in Iraq receive treatment, Calhoun began the slow, painful physical therapy process.
Calhoun and his wife now live in Clarksville, Tenn., where he is awaiting a medical discharge from the Army.
On Saturday, Calhoun stood on a stage in the Grundy theater where he once worked and explained how he began to relearn how to walk on parallel bars before graduating to crutches and then to two canes. He is now down to a single cane.
Although still somewhat unsteady on stairs, Calhoun can walk without assistance and easily drives the full-size Nissan Titan pickup truck retrofitted for his use. The truck was purchased with more than $45,000 raised by the Levisa River chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution during their "Wheels for Heath" campaign.
Local schoolchildren and their families contributed the final $5,000.
Janie Owens, a DAR member, said that in that part of Virginia, the entire community is family. "In this county, oftentimes the people who have the least will donate the most because they take it as a family affair," Owens said.
Indeed, everyone present Saturday seemed to treat Calhoun like family. Following a parade down U.S. 460 led by a local high school ROTC group, the crowd gathered in the theater that doubles as the town's community center to hear Calhoun and others talk about patriotism, family and faith in God. The crowd gave Calhoun at least six standing ovations.
After Calhoun spoke, the audience watched a five-minute montage of photos chronicling Calhoun's past - from infancy through his physical therapy - set to patriotic songs such as "Proud to be an American." Many audience members could be seen wiping away tears as the theater's lights came back on.
Afterward, Calhoun autographed pictures of himself for nearly two hours while his wife, Tiffany, and 2-year-old son, Mason, sat nearby. Calhoun just grinned as nearly every woman in line came around to his side of the table to give him a hug and a kiss.
Rita Ratliff, a cousin of Calhoun's, traveled to her native Grundy from Roanoke to show her support for her blood relative.
"He's my cousin, and I'm so proud of him," Ratliff said.
Calhoun, who was clearly somewhat embarrassed by all of the attention, said he is proud of his service and believes that U.S. troops are doing the right thing in Iraq. He remains overwhelmingly optimistic about his future - a fact he credits to his very large, extended "family" of blood relatives and community members.
"By no means am I saying I don't have bad days," he said, explaining that he still cannot do many of his favorite activities. "You have bad days, but now I talk to my family and I talk to my friends."
And afterwards, he added, he doesn't feel bad anymore.