The best gifts for Army Sgt. Joseph Grabianowski this Christmas aren't tied up with ribbons and bows.
in a new home he's made for himself this holiday season can't be
gift-wrapped. Transcendence over wounds that turned his body into a
medical battlefield doesn't fit under a tree.
Much of Joe has been cut away.
quiet, contemplative soldier carries the distinction of being one of
the worst surviving U.S. combat casualties since 9/11. His stirring
comeback, in the mind of his family and medical team, is little short of
"Joe, for me, was the most challenging case I had in a
decade of war," says Navy Cmdr. Jonathan Forsberg, a surgeon at Walter
Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.
As Joe acclimates to a new apartment and life outside the hospital, his family counts their Christmas blessings.
Dennis Grabianowski says he panicked briefly over the idea of his son living alone.
then," the dad says, "I thought, you know what? Because it is the
holiday season, the Christmas season and what that is all about for me,
it seemed like it was a very positive sign."
situation was beyond dire. Beyond the shattering roadside bomb that tore
through Joe's lower body, things living in the soil of Afghanistan -
bacteria and fungus with unpronounceable names - blasted deep into his
It was on a foot patrol May 29, 2012. Joe was 24.
the hellish landscape of Kandahar Province, where a buried explosive is
the wager of every step, Joe was leading a stretcher bearing then-Pfc.
Dalton Clemons, who had lost both legs to an improvised explosive device
just minutes before. As Joe led the stretcher down a slope, he was
himself hit by a second, even larger buried explosive.
"I know it
launched me," Joe recalls, "because I can remember a cloud of dust. And I
was out of the dust. And then I was back in the dust. So I knew I was
In the weeks that followed, medical teams from Kandahar to Germany to
Walter Reed cut, amputated and cut some more, but they could not get
ahead of fungus spreading in dark patches throughout Joe's body, killing
tissue in its path.
Both of his legs were removed entirely, as
was most of Joe's pelvis. Doctors even amputated a portion of his
sacrum, a triangular bone connecting Joe's lower spine to his pelvic
"Joe had the highest-level amputation of anybody at Walter Reed," Forsberg says.
Still the fungus spread higher.
All that could keep him alive, doctors told Joe, was a radical,
rarely employed procedure where he would literally be cut in half, his
body below the waist removed entirely.
Amputees have become emblematic of the post-9/11 wars, but this would be more than any servicemember had endured, doctors say.
start to question, 'Wow, if I was in Joe's situation, what would I do?'
" says Patricia Driscoll, president and executive director of the Armed
Forces Foundation, which assists the wounded and their families at
Walter Reed, and who grew to know Joe well.
Unable to voice a
response because of a ventilation tube down his throat, Joe carefully
penned in block letters on a grease-board his terms for what lay ahead:
"No more surgeries please ... I'll die comfortably here ... Let me pass
if heart stop."
Exhausted family members and medical workers embraced one another in a nearby waiting room and wept.
is probably the first and probably the only person that has said,
'Enough,' " says Navy Cmdr. Carlos Rodriguez, another lead surgeon.
So the cutting stopped. Estimates were that Joe might live another few weeks before the fungus killed him.
But in the hours and days that followed, something very nearly a miracle unfolded, says Joe's sister, Maria Grabianowski, 28.
"It's a blessing that he's here," she says now. "It really is."
FOLLOWED DAD INTO THE MILITARY
Joe Grabianowski grew up
playing Army and chasing coyotes on Kirtland Air Force Base in
Albuquerque. He was the second of three children of an Air Force
helicopter flight engineer who took a Filipino bride while stationed
The parents divorced when Joe was 9. He and his sister,
Maria, and younger brother Andrew - known as A.J. - would form a tight
nucleus over the years with their father, Dennis Grabianowski, whom
everyone calls "Ski."
Joe grew to a scrawny 5-foot-7 in high
school. But he was quick. "My weapon on the football field was my
speed," he says now. "I could run." He loved the conditioning work and
the way his body responded to exercise.
Inspired by his father's
military service - and the way those in uniform carried themselves with
an air of pride - Joe signed up for early basic training between his
junior and senior years and entered the Army full time right after high
He did his first deployment to Baghdad in late 2007. Re-enlisting, he deployed to Afghanistan in 2010.
was ready to leave the Army when his second enlistment would end on
Nov. 8, 2012. He dreamed of joining the U.S. Marshal's Service to track
But Joe's battalion was returning to Afghanistan early
that year and needed bodies. Commanders would need him to go, even
though they acknowledged that he would have to return home in a few
months to prepare for leaving the Army.
A.J. Grabianowski had followed his older brother into the Army and
wound up in the same battalion deployed at the same time to northern
Kandahar Province, a hotbed of Taliban resistance in 2012.
The brothers were in outposts a few miles apart.
On May 23, A.J. endured an IED blast while riding in an armored vehicle. It left him shaken and suffering headaches.
the morning of May 29 as his older brother was going out on patrol,
A.J. was on his way to the chow hall. He heard first one boom in the
distance - which would have been the blast that took Clemons' legs -
and then a second.
"The second," A.J. recalls, "was huge ... it actually shook the ground."
a few hours, A.J.'s company sergeant put him on a helicopter to a U.S.
Navy hospital in Kandahar to be with Joe. He would stay with his brother
on medical flights all the way to Walter Reed.
DOCTORS WERE STUNNED
From the moment of the explosion until he was fully sedated at the
hospital, Joe remembers everything: the chaos of soldiers trying to find
each other in the dust cloud; his severed left leg lying to his right; a
stunned medic putting several tourniquets on Joe; and - as Joe was
wheeled into the hospital - an audible gasp from doctors and nurses
"I was like, 'I must be pretty bad right now,' " Joe remembers thinking at the time.
the end of his third week at Walter Reed, when doctors told Joe his
only pathway to survival was being severed at the waist, so much of the
soldier was already lost to infection and surgery.
On Father's Day, doctors removed Joe's entire right leg because of fungus growing the length of it.
"It was a dark time," says his father, now 51.
infection is a relatively recent horror of the wars, arising as U.S.
troops began doing more foot patrols in agricultural areas of southern
Afghanistan during President Obama's buildup of troops ordered in 2011.
It strikes the most dire multiple-amputation blast cases - added suffering for those already in torment.
for ways to kill the growth, military doctors turned to World War I-era
answers - a diluted bleach called Dakins applied directly on infected
At least 112 wounded troops have shown one or more strains of fungus, Rodriguez says, and a handful of those infected have died.
On June 20, 2012, with words on a grease board, Joe accepted being among them.
was essentially in hospice care. The young soldier had already chosen
burial at Arlington National Cemetery. He was being allowed solid food -
among his first requests were pink lemonade and a McDonald's
cheeseburger - and Dennis was making flight arrangements for relatives
to come see his son for the last time.
Doctors under strict orders
for no more amputations had gone in one last time to clean Joe's
wounds. Now Forsberg called Joe's father. Come immediately, he said.
"He said there's something that may actually be encouraging," Dennis Grabianowski recalled.
tracked down Forsberg and Rodriguez and they looked encouraged. He
wondered why. They had been cleaning Joe's wounds and saw almost no
evidence of fungus or bacteria, a far different circumstance from 48
"His wounds were healthy appearing. Red. No evidence of mold," Rodriguez recalls.
What had happened?
could only guess. Perhaps somehow a corner had been turned with the
bleach, the anti-fungal and anti-bacteria medication and Joe's immune
system, they said.
The plan was for the family and doctors to all
tell Joe together when he emerged from sedation after the surgery. But
the doctors couldn't wait. He reacted with a soldier's response: "Holy
A CLOUD FINALLY LIFTS
Rough patches lay ahead - among them a threat of blood clots and fluid in Joe's chest. But he left intensive care in July.
Joe went through a period in the fall of that year when he was very angry.
was many things, he says. The blast. The wounds. The lost portions of
his body. How events replayed in his mind - what might have gone
"I knew what kind of person I was when I had my legs.
I could run fast. I was going to be in the (U.S.) Marshal's. I was
going to protect people still my whole life," he says. "And it was all
Making it worse, Joe said, were those well-meaning people who broke down in tears at the sight of him.
"That made me realize maybe some of these people don't think I have what it takes," he said.
He allowed a sign written by A.J. to be posted on the door to his
hospital room at Walter Reed: "To all who enter here. If you are coming
into this room with sorrow or to feel sorry for my wounds, go elsewhere
By October, Joe was living in an apartment in wounded warrior
housing at Walter Reed. In the months ahead, tired of the negativity of
his emotions, he began to accept what happened and think about how he
could chart his future.
This fall, Joe took a public safety
administration college course online. He plans to attend a university
full time in the future.
His medical retirement from the Army is Friday.
Helping Our Heroes Foundation provided him a modified, 2013 Dodge
Caravan that allows him to go anywhere he wants. Most important, he
signed a lease for an apartment in Rockville, Md., into which he moved
A.J. marvels at what Joe has accomplished so far.
"I told my brother," A.J. says, "though you may be half a man, there's no man that can compare to being the man you are."
Joe's attitude is concise:
"I got a second chance," he says. "I can do this thing. I can live my life."