Joseph Grabianowski, 25, gathers his belongings for movers to pack as he prepares to relocate from his quarters at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. (Doug Kapustin / for USA Today)
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Joseph grew to a scrawny 5-foot-5 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. (Doug Kapustin / for USA Today)
The best gifts for Army Sgt. Joseph Grabianowski this Christmas aren’t tied up with ribbons and bows.
Independence 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.
This 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 miraculous.
“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.
“But 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.”
Joe’s medical 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 wounds.
It was on a foot patrol May 29, 2012. Joe was 24.
In 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 flying.”
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 remains.
“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.
“You 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.
“Joe 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 overseas.
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 school graduation.
He did his first deployment to Baghdad in late 2007. Re-enlisting, he deployed to Afghanistan in 2010.
Joe 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 fugitives.
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.
On 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.”
Within 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 assembled there.
“I was like, ‘I must be pretty bad right now,’ “ Joe remembers thinking at the time.
By 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.
Fungal 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.
Grasping for ways to kill the growth, military doctors turned to World War I-era answers — a diluted bleach called Dakins applied directly on infected wounds.
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.
Joe 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.
He 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 hours earlier.
“His wounds were healthy appearing. Red. No evidence of mold,” Rodriguez recalls.
What had happened?
Doctors 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 s---!”
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.
It 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 differently.
“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 gone.”
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.
The 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 this month.
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.”