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Trip home to see daughter helps ease pain of war injury

By Rose Post

Salisbury Post

Eighteen-month-old McKenna Ann Curry really didn’t know her daddy was coming home from war in Iraq less a sizeable part of his left leg.

She just knew she was having a wonderful time investigating the waiting room of the Rowan County Airport on Friday afternoon. She and her baby-sitting aunt, Dawn West of Salisbury, were waiting for her parents, Steven and Samantha Curry, to get home for a visit after a long stay — with more to come — at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington.

What fun it was to push around a lightweight magazine rack and take off her shoes and walk in her white socks until they turned black and look out the door and — finally — run into her parents’ arms when they got there.

She was just happy — ready to offer Mommy and Daddy a kiss one minute and a cushion for his wheelchair the next.

And there was no question that Steven Curry not only believes in Santa Claus but knows there’s more than one — with names like Hubie Tolson and Walter Fricke and Karen Opp. They and many others are giving him and his wife the best Christmas gift they’ve ever dreamed of — a flight home to Rowan County from Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington to spend Christmas with McKenna.

And for him nothing could be better. McKenna openly adores her daddy, even if she doesn’t get to see him every day, and as far as Steven is concerned, any time at all with her is “a blast.”

He’ll remember this Christmas for the rest of his life because so many people helped him get home.

The 23-year-old son of Buddy Curry of Salisbury and Marcia Curry of Cornelius, Steven grew up in this area and graduated from Mount Pleasant High School in 2001. He joined the Army in March 2003, when he was 19, and took his basic infantry training at Fort Benning, Ga.

He was first assigned to Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, but he went to Afghanistan in April 2004, for a year before he returned to Schofield Barracks.

His left foot was injured when he was with the 2nd Battalion, 35th Infantry Regiment of the 25th Infantry Division in Iraq this year.

He’d been there for 31/2 months — from August until Nov. 19 — when a roadside bomb exploded beside a truck and “some shrapnel went through my left foot,” he says.

“The same thing had happened about a month before,” he adds. “My truck had been hit by a roadside bomb, but I didn’t get hurt at all. So when it happened again, I knew what it was.”

But that time, he says, “I could tell something had happened to my foot, and I got out of the truck as soon as I could, and I saw the blood coming out of a hole in my boot.

“I was just upset that it happened, mad that it had to happen,” he says. “It was painful. A medic stays with the platoon, and he treated me on the site and put me on another truck.”

When he got back to the base, doctors had to amputate part of his left foot.

“Then,” he says, “they sent me to Germany. I stayed there a week and had three more surgeries just to wash the wound.”

Then they sent him to Walter Reed in Washington on Nov. 24.

He had two more surgeries, “just to wash it up again,” he says, “and then I made the decision to have them amputate my leg below my knee.

“I have the knee and about eight inches below it … There are a lot more I can choose from and use with the amputation, whereas if I had kept my entire leg, there were very few choices to use and few things I could do with them.”

Doctors removed “about 12 inches of the leg” on Dec. 1.

“I did a lot of research before I did it. I was pretty well informed, and it was my choice to have it done. So it didn’t really bother me. It probably was the best thing for me.

“My leg’s still healing and pretty tender. It’ll be a little bit before I can walk, between six to nine months before I can walk and run, but I’ll learn.”

He got his first prosthesis last Monday, but he couldn’t put it on. The “extra” leg was to function with the portion of his own leg that he has left.

“After surgery,” he says, “the leg is pretty swollen, and you have to wait for the swelling to go down and the leg to toughen up before you can put it into a made-to-help special leg, so to speak, and stand up and bear your weight on it.”

At Walter Reed, he has physical therapy every day.

“And that,” he says, “is pretty much my job. I have to have my wife with me constantly because I can’t do the things I have to do for myself.”

So their daughter, McKenna, is living for now with his sister-in-law, Dawn, in Salisbury.

In November, McKenna visited them in Washington for three days.

“And I had a blast,” he says, like he always has when she’s around.

He had last seen her in August before he was deployed to Iraq.

“And that was a blast.

“We just kind of figured it out last week that we could come home for Christmas because the doctor said it would be OK for a few days, and Walter Fricke, who heads the Veterans Airlift Command, made arrangements for us to fly into the Rowan County Airport.”

Steven and Samantha will stay here about four days and return to Walter Reed Tuesday.

“I’ll have to be at Walter Reed for six to eight months more, doing physical therapy and all of that stuff,” Steven says, “but I’m pretty excited to come home. I feel pretty good now that I’ll get to come home and see my kid and see my whole family.”

While all that planning was taking place, Hubie Tolson of New Bern, a private pilot who was on the U.S. aerobatic team in the world championships in Spain last year, offered his time and Cessna to bring Steven and Samantha home.

It’s Tolson’s first mission for the Veterans Airlift Command, which arranges charitable flights home for injured and wounded soldiers, veterans and their families, says Fricke, the command’s founder and CEO. The command uses a national network of volunteer pilots and their aircraft.

“When the command called and asked him if he’d fly up to D.C. and bring this family home for the holidays, he readily agreed,” Fricke says.

Fricke is thrilled that the command could get Steven and Samantha home for Christmas.

“He’s only seen his daughter once since he’s been in the hospital, and Hubie will pick him up in Washington and bring them to Salisbury on Friday or Saturday,” Fricke said a few days before the event.

A trip on a private airline wouldn’t work, Fricke explains, “because of time constraints. Steven needs to be back at Walter Reed Medical Center soon for therapy early next week.”

This isn’t what Steven expected when he joined the Army in March 2003, when he was just 19.

But that doesn’t matter now. He’s going to be with his daughter for Christmas. And that makes him feel like Santa Claus.

It’s the kind of thing the Veterans Airlift Command does well, Fricke says. The nonprofit group operates entirely with donations, and that pleases him.

Founded in July, it flew its first mission in November and already has 20 missions to its credit and a national network of more than 200 pilots.

By the end of next year, Fricke expects to have 1,000 aircraft in its volunteer network.

And nobody doubts that the Veterans Airlift Command will make life better for other veterans, as it has done for Steven Curry.

So Fricke has no hesitancy about asking for help.

If you want to help others like the command is helping Steven and Samantha Curry, he says, send a donation to Veterans Airlift Command, 5775 Wayzata Blvd., Suite 700, Minneapolis, MN 55416 or go online to the group’s Web site, www.veteransairlift.org.

And tell other people about what it does to make life better for this country’s servicemen and their families.

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Contact Rose Post at 704-797-4251 or rpost@salisburypost.com.

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