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Part 5: Soldier’s charitable spirit survives

Called back to Army duty after 12 years, 38-year-old ad executive Tom Deierlein embarked on an improbable journey from a corporate office in Manhattan to the slums of Baghdad.  Here is the fifth installment in a five-part series on his struggle to make a difference.
/ Source: contributor

I am officially medically retired from the military on May 31, 2007 — 18 years and seven days after graduating West Point. This time it is permanent.
Excerpt from an e-mail update Tom Deierlein sent from Tampa, Fla., on April 26, 2007

TAMPA, Fla. — Tom Deierlein stepped outside onto the sunny hospital courtyard. He wore long, baggy Nike shorts, running shoes and a loose T-shirt with a black dog on the front. He carried a baseball and a baseball glove.

His physical therapist, William Haven, followed close behind with a glove of his own. They got into position, precisely 60 feet and 6 inches apart.

"We can practice this all you want, but the first one is the only one that matters,” Haven quipped, ramping up the pressure.

Deierlein smirked, leaned back and whipped the ball toward Haven.

It was a little low.

Deierlein grimaced. “I’ve got to stop relying on my ego!”

“It’s not fair,” Haven said, sympathetically this time. “Real pitchers get to warm up, at least. You only get one shot.”

Deierlein was practicing for the next night, April 24, 2007, when he would put on his Army uniform one more time and throw out the ceremonial first pitch at a Yankees game against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla.

He would be the guest of honor. For a lifelong Yankees fan, this was going to be a big moment.

He was concerned that he’d be experiencing intense pain when the time came. He dreaded the 45-minute drive from the James A. Haley Veterans Hospital in Tampa, where he had been rehabilitating since being transferred from Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Sitting for extended periods was especially difficult for Deierlein ever since the sniper’s bullet pulverized his pelvis and sacrum

“I think I’m gonna need oxy to get through this game,” he told Haven, referring to oxycodone, a powerful pain medication. “Or else a whole bottle of Tylenol. … I’m in a lot of pain today. I don’t understand it.”

“It’s going to be OK,” Haven said reassuringly.

Healing over time
When Deierlein first arrived at Walter Reed hospital in September 2006, he could do nothing but lie flat on his back and wait for the bones in his pelvis and lower spine to fuse back together. It was a shock to be so helpless, and to watch his muscles atrophy. 

“If I had an appointment, four people would have to come and lift me onto a gurney,” Deierlein recalled.

His wife, Hiwot Taddesse, took a leave from her new job as an airline pilot to care for him full time. His best friend, Pat O’Hanlon, traveled to Washington from New York for 18 of Deierlein’s first 24 weekends at Walter Reed. O’Hanlon rented stacks of movies from Blockbuster and spent hour after hour watching them with his bedridden friend.

“I wasn’t all that much fun to visit,” Deierlein said.

O’Hanlon didn’t mind.

“It wasn’t even a decision,” O’Hanlon said. “It’s just what a friend does.”

Other visitors arrived from all over the country. His parents traveled as often as they could from White Plains, N.Y., to see him, and many of his eight siblings spent time at his bedside as well. President Bush and first lady Laura Bush also stopped by to meet the wounded veteran.

A promotion and a gala
During this time, Deierlein learned that his promotion from captain to major had finally come through. He had been seeking this advancement since his abrupt return to Army life.

Back in New York, Deierlein’s friends and colleagues followed through on a plan they hatched before Deierlein got shot. They threw a huge benefit for the charity he started in Iraq, now dubbed the Tom Deierlein Foundation. The foundation is seeking nonprofit status. 

The gala took place in November 2006 at the Forbes Galleries and raised more than $22,000 to purchase supplies for children and families in Iraq. Deierlein is shipping the items to designated U.S. Army soldiers who have agreed to carry on the distribution work in the poorest areas of Baghdad.

Deierlein couldn’t attend the benefit in November, but his wife, mother and other family members made it. Hiwot spoke at the event, and her husband sent along a pre-recorded speech.

“I know that this is a very controversial war and people have a lot of different opinions on it,” Deierlein told the crowd in New York from his hospital bed. “But … you understand that there are still people that are in need … and that’s really what we’re here for tonight. It’s not saying anything about politics. It’s not saying anything about strategy. It’s really just reaching out to some of the most desperate and needy children in this world.”

First steps
At Christmastime, a little more than three months after his arrival at Walter Reed, Deierlein took his first halting steps while being spotted by a hospital staffer. He approached his physical therapy aggressively, routinely adding hours of exercise to the regimens his doctors and therapists assigned him.

In February of this year he transferred to the veterans’ hospital in Tampa, which had a specialized rehabilitation program for people with spinal-cord injuries. He arrived in a wheelchair, but before long he was walking on his own without the help of a walker or a cane.

By late April, his pace was brisk, and nothing looked at all amiss with the 6-foot-3 executive-turned-soldier. In just a few days Deierlein would walk out of this hospital for good.

Chronic pain plagued him, though. He blasted ahead with his exercises, but it hurt.

“C’mon! C’mon! Please!” he shouted at a NuStep machine as he tried to maintain a pace of nearly 100 steps a minute for half an hour.

Deierlein reached his goal on the machine, but he was adjusting to the idea that not every battle could be won. The permanence of the injuries caused by the sniper’s bullet still astonished him on a regular basis.

Other losses caused a different kind of pain. His wife Hiwot had recently decided to end their marriage.

“I’ve filed for divorce,” he said. “I’ve filed, but it wasn’t my decision. Just within the past few weeks, she let me know.

“She was unhappy. I didn’t really know how unhappy. … A lot can change in a year and a half.”

Hiwot Taddesse did not did not respond to requests for an interview.

Deierlein, now 39, was rewiring in response to yet another drastic change in the direction of his entire life. As usual, he struggled to steer the conversation in a positive direction. He said he still believes in love and romance, and he hopes to have children someday. (“That still works,” he said with a wry smile.) He would just have to resume his life in New York by himself.

“It’s really going to be like starting over now,” he said.

Traveling again
As his release from the Tampa rehab program approached, Deierlein booked a demanding travel schedule for himself. He planned to spend a single night in Atlanta, where he would hire a moving company to get his things out of Hiwot’s condo.

After that, he would fly to Fort Bragg, N.C., to welcome the soldiers from his civil affairs company. They were coming home after their yearlong tour of duty in Iraq.

Then he would head to New York to find a new apartment, then to Club Med in the Caribbean for a week, then back to New York before a trip to Las Vegas for a friend’s bachelor party. Never mind that sitting was excruciating — he figured he’d cope with the long flights by taking pain medicine and standing as much as the flight attendants would let him.

He also was cooking up all sorts of long-term plans. He was talking about traveling to China. He was eager to start running again. He was researching how he could resume a favorite activity — scuba diving — while wearing a colostomy bag. And when he spotted a photo of Mount Rainier, he blurted out, “I wonder if I should make it a goal to climb that again.”

‘Far from ready to leave’
Other changes had left Deierlein feeling unmoored since his return to the States. From his vantage point, he was distressed by plans brewing among politicians to bring U.S. troops home from Iraq as quickly as possible.

“In my opinion, we are far from ready to leave this place if we want to leave a stable, functioning democracy,” he wrote in one of his e-mail updates from Baghdad about six weeks before he was shot by the sniper. “I do not want to see more American soldiers die, but we simply have to finish (properly) what we started.”

Deierlein hasn’t wavered on that issue despite what happened to him. He said it upsets him to think about leaving Iraq in the condition it’s in now, and he’s worried about how a U.S. pull-out would be perceived by the Arab world.

“History will show that we made a series of miscalculations and Saddam wasn’t an imminent threat. But we did go over there,” he said. “Is the right thing to do to leave when the job is half complete?”

Deierlein’s parents, who are crazy about their son and incredibly proud of him, disagree with him on this point.

“There’s going to be civil war there whether we leave now or a hundred years from now,” said Tom’s father, Bob Deierlein, who served in the Marines.

“I do think that it’s time for us to go,” Tom’s mother, Kitty Deierlein, added quietly.

A stray bullet, a little boy
Two months before the sniper’s bullet pierced Deierlein’s left hip, a 2-year-old Sunni boy suffered a similar experience in the same neighborhood of Baghdad. He and his family were on their way to a funeral in the Sunni enclave of Adhamiya when gunfire erupted.

A stray bullet sliced through the little boy’s left hip, smashing his thigh bone andleaving him unable to walk. His frantic parents tried in vain to find medical care for him in Baghdad.

“The local hospital either wasn’t able or wasn’t willing to treat him,” said Capt. Bill Billeter, Deierlein’s friend and fellow soldier. “They just sewed the leg up and told the family good luck.”

Desperate for help, the boy’s parents put aside their misgivings about Americans and discreetly approached Billeter, who was with Deierlein that day.

“Can you do anything to help?” the mother asked through an interpreter.

Billeter scrambled to line up assistance for the little boy — a process that took months of finagling and required the help of many people in many time zones. Maj. Phil McIntire, commander of Billeter’s and Deierlein’s civil affairs company, worked in the medical field for years in his home state of Michigan, and he started making calls. A surgeon, other doctors, an anesthesiologist and physical therapists with the University of Michigan Health System agreed to treat the little boy free of charge.

The process of actually getting the boy from Adhamiya to Michigan was daunting, though. Passports, visas and safe passage to Jordan and then to the United States had to be obtained. Beyond that, travel expenses for the boy and at least one of his parents would total thousands of dollars.

By this point, Deierlein was back in the United States recovering from his own gunshot wound. Billeter and McIntire contacted him. They knew he was always looking for ways to help Iraqi children. Throughout his recovery, he had continued to run his charity, using his laptop to arrange for a massive shipment of children’s clothes, shoes, school supplies and stuffed animals to Baghdad in January for Billeter, McIntire and others to distribute.

Deierlein immediately agreed to use money donated to the foundation to cover travel expenses for the boy and his mother.

When the little boy’s parents learned that this group of U.S. soldiers had gone to so much effort for their injured son, they were overwhelmed. The boy’s father began to cry.

“I feel like I am talking to an angel from heaven!” he told the interpreter. “I feel like I’ve been talking to an angel!”

The boy, now 3, arrived in Michigan in April and underwent surgery in early May. He is still recovering in Michigan with the hope that he will be able to walk again — something that would not have been possible without such extensive medical care. (For the safety of the boy and his mother once they return to Iraq, is not publishing their names or photographs.)

“The mother told me something interesting as she was on her way to the airport,” Billeter recalled. “Months before this happened, she distrusted the Americans and saw us as the enemy, but now she trusted us as much as her own brother. …

“That was a success story in an otherwise pretty bleak situation. … When you do happen upon something like this, it’s something to remember.”

First pitch
William Haven, Deierlein’s physical therapist, was at the baseball stadium. So was Holly Oswald, the bartender from the pool bar at the Doubletree Hotel in Tampa, where Deierlein had been living for the past couple of months. Other wounded veterans and their families made the trip from Tampa as well.

Deierlein walked to the mound. His balance was fine. His gait was quick. The expression on his face was stoic.

“Ladies and gentlemen, this West Point graduate and Airborne Ranger … was severely wounded by enemy fire, which fractured his pelvis,” the announcer said. “After months of hospital care he is on the mend and, by the way, out of the wheelchair and walking. Baseball fans, please welcome and salute United States Army Major Thomas J. Deierlein!”

Applause rippled through the audience. A drum roll began.

“Major, it’s your pitch.”

He stood on the mound, alone. He paused for a moment, then threw the baseball.

It was high and outside. The catcher strained for the ball, but he couldn’t get it.

“A little bit outside, but that’s all right!” the announcer was saying. “Our thanks to Major Deierlein ...”

Deierlein broke into a huge smile. He knew it wasn’t perfect. But it would have to do.