Mitch Bocik waddles to the putting green, his legs bent and unsteady, his putter doubling as a cane. For balance, his left hand grips the right shoulder of D.J. Engel, his half brother and almost constant companion.
Enjoying a round of golf, the two are home from war, taking care of each other just as they did that dreadful day in Iraq when a roadside bomb blew apart their lives as Army soldiers.
Bocik misses his 15-foot putt, leaving it short. Engel picks up the ball, helping again.
The 22-year-old Bocik is paralyzed from the knees down. Lucky, he says, to be alive and able to even crudely walk. He sometimes falls, but says, "It is not that big a deal."
Engel, 26, deals with emotional scars — and some guilt. It was just months after he had encouraged his little brother to join the Army that he rushed to rescue him from a mangled Army vehicle, thinking he was probably dead.
Moving on together
Today, they live together in a new home in northern Wisconsin filled with modern conveniences, including a 55-inch flat screen TV, big-boy toys like snowmobiles, and medals from their tour in Iraq. They are young men who have lived the horrors of war as Army Reservists called to active duty and are moving on together.
"We have gone through hell," Engel says.
"Hell on earth," Bocik agrees.
Bocik, once a high school basketball star who averaged 21 points and eight rebounds a game, now goes daily for physical therapy to strengthen his legs and hopes to play wheelchair basketball. He would like to become a banker.
Engel works full-time as a prison corrections officer, though he is preparing to go back to Iraq again in November.
Golf gives them a chance to forget the war — and to kid around.
"I am at a disadvantage. I don't get a practice swing," Bocik jokes. Even so, he often drives the ball straighter, Engel says.
Just getting to be with his little brother, he adds, "is good enough for me."
Bocik is one of about 30,000 U.S. military personnel who have been wounded in hostile action in Iraq since the beginning of the war in March 2003, according to the U.S. Defense Department.
The casualties include more than 4,000 deaths.
Life is a partnership
For Bocik and Engel, whose father was married to their different mothers, life is a partnership. For example, as Bocik mounts a treadmill as part of his daily therapy, Engel turns on the television to ESPN for him. They play pool.
"I am definitely proud of him," Engel says.
Bocik's physical therapist, Scott Ziolkowski, is, too. "It was a huge thing for him to stand up," he says.
The brothers' journey to Iraq together began one night in Milwaukee, with some beers after they played basketball.
"You should join my unit. Go join the Army," Engel recalls telling Bocik. "He just kind of looked at me and thought about it for a second and said, 'OK.'"
Within two minutes they had a plan.
"The next day," says Bocik, "I was at the recruiting office." His attitude was, "Let's give it a whirl and see what happens." Sighing as he sits in his wheelchair and recalls that day in October 2005, he adds, "What a decision I made."
Two weeks later he was in basic training. Three weeks after that he was told he would be deployed to Iraq with a new company of recruits.
"I got myself into that company," Engel said.
They arrived together in Iraq in September 2006, assigned on missions to escort soldiers and search for roadside bombs.
"We find them. If not, we would get blown up," Bocik says.
Drove over bomb
In seven months, the brothers' unit found 100 roadside bombs, including the one that hurt Bocik on May 15, 2007.
"We drove over it once and they hit us coming back," Bocik says. "I don't remember any of it. I got knocked out."
The blast blew his head against the roof of the vehicle, compressing his spinal cord.
Engel was in the lead vehicle of the convoy, about a half mile away.
"I remember looking back and seeing the mushroom cloud," he says. He drove as close to the carnage as he could before jumping out and running toward it.
He remembers thinking, "my brother's dead,'" Engel recalls. "I must have been yelling his name. I don't remember. All the guys told me I was yelling his name. Then, I heard him yell my name."
The younger brother muttered that he couldn't feel his legs and, to keep him calm, Engel lied that it was just a temporary injury — a football stinger.
Bocik spent the next five months in hospitals. "They didn't know if I was going to make it or not when I first got to Germany," Bocik says.
Reunited last September
The brothers reunited last September when Engel's unit returned from Iraq. Engel spent a month with Bocik at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Milwaukee before they returned to Holcombe and established their new home.
"I still can't move my ankles or toes," Bocik says. "The sides of my legs, I can't feel. I can't feel the back of my legs. I don't have any hot or cold sensation from the waist down. When I bend my knees, I can stand. But as soon as I straighten my legs out, I will tip right over..."
He is able to do chores such as grocery shopping, while Engel can more easily vacuum, cook and carry things.
And they talk.
"It is like talking to shrinks when we talk back and forth to each other. We have been through so much," Bocik says. "It is definitely a lot of help having him here."
The brothers display their flags and medals, including Engel's bronze star and Bocik's purple heart, in a dining room cabinet. Nearby is a framed picture showing the wrecked Army vehicle that Bocik was driving the day he was hurt.
"The first time I saw those pictures, I broke down. I cried," Bocik says. "It is crazy that somebody could survive something like that. It also works like motivation for me to get to physical therapy."
Bocik knows his brother has orders to return to Iraq in several months.
"I would go back in an instant if I could, especially if he was going over there. That would be a no brainer," Bocik says. "I don't like it because there is always that chance he might not come back."