DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Members of the Warrior Transition Unit at Tripler Army Medical Center spent a day of fun yesterday at Hawaiian Waters Adventure Park. Among them were Staff Sgt. Ponce Crosier, left, Sgt. Brianna Young-Navarro, Sgt. Lonnie Stokes and Pfc. Stephen Schwartzengraber, who slid down one of the park's slides. CLICK FOR LARGE
Recovering soldiers make a splash
Tripler's injured heroes take a day off to visit the water park
HE IS A LANKY 6 feet 7 inches tall, but it was a tough climb yesterday for 18-year-old Stephen Schwartzengraber to the top of the Waianae Coaster slide at Hawaiian Waters Adventure Park -- without his cane.
So he leaned on his buddies from the Warrior Transition Unit at Tripler Army Medical Center, then they shot back down on inflatable dinghies through snaking plastic tubes, landing with a splash at the bottom.
"That was scary," he said with a grin as he stepped out of the water, revealing a 10-inch-long scar that stretches from his sternum down to his swim trunks.
Pfc. Schwartzengraber knows a different kind of scary: the cold dread of going house to house in Ar Ramadi, Iraq, searching for weapons caches and explosives. During one of those patrols, on Dec. 4, just three months after being deployed to Iraq, he was shot in the hip by a sniper with an AK-47.
He and 40 other wounded soldiers, along with their families, were treated to a day of fun at the water park yesterday, a chance to get away from medical and counseling appointments. The outing was made possible by donations from the military community through Tripler's department of ministry and Hawaiian Waters Adventure Park in Kapolei.
DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM
About 40 wounded soldiers from active-duty, Guard and Reserve units who are members of the Warriors Transition Unit at Tripler Army Medical Center got a chance to play at Hawaiian Waters Adventure Park yesterday with their families. Staff Sgt. Francis Freeman, behind left, and Pfc. Stephen Schwartzengraber were all smiles as they enjoyed their ride. CLICK FOR LARGE
"The more we can do to help get these people to reintegrate with the community, the better," Lt. Col. Chip Pierce, troop commander at Tripler. "They are just like everybody else. Sadly, if we don't do it, they will begin to believe that they're different and withdraw."
The Warrior Transition Unit, established in June, is made up of active-duty, National Guard and mobilized reservists who have been injured either physically or emotionally. It focuses on helping them recover and transition back to military or civilian life.
"We want to do everything we can to assist the recovery not just of the soldier, but of the families, too, because they are struggling," Pierce said. "They can get as frustrated as the person who's recovering."
Capt. Richard Mendez of the Army National Guard, who has shoulder injuries and other wounds, brought his wife, Mildred, two teenage daughters and 5-year-old son to the park. He said the transition unit is "a very good concept" because the adjustment is tough for everyone.
"It's probably the hardest on the families," he said. "The reason why is they don't understand the mentality of the soldier."
Some of the soldiers' wounds are not visible, and they can appear after leaving combat. Sgt. Hyun Kim is strong, tan and fit, but inside he is still hurting. He has post-traumatic stress disorder after two tours as an Army combat medic in Iraq, where he dealt daily with the horror of "mutilated bodies and dead body parts."
It was not until his next posting, in Korea, that the carnage caught up with him.
"You could be wounded emotionally and sometimes it gets overlooked," he said. "I was going through some stuff and telling my command, but they said, 'Suck it up.' Even though you don't see it physically, it's just as bad. It takes a toll on you gradually, seeing the friends you've been working with dying."
Kim called the day at the park "a morale boost." He rode the water slides repeatedly with his friend Wilfredo Dayandante, an Army mortarman whose scars cover large swaths of his shoulder, arm and stomach. Dayandante served in Afghanistan but his injury came later, during live-fire training at Pohakuloa Training Area on the Big Island, where a high-explosive mortar round blew up in the tube.
Army Staff Sgt. Matthew Brumagin could not ride the slides because of a back injury. "I'm just glad I'm here," he said.