Sgt. Maj. Jeremy Bruns demonstrates improvement in this June 2013 photo as he pushes his wife, Jenny, in his wheelchair. (Courtesy Bruns family)
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Sgt. Maj. Jeremy Bruns survived nine deployments only to lose both legs to a drunken driver who plowed into him outside his home on a Saturday morning in 2012.
On April 9, Bruns and his wife got some measure of justice in a North Carolina courtroom when the driver, Rhonda Sutton Bryant, was sentenced to 16 to 29 months.
Bryant, who was reportedly drunk and high behind the wheel and has since pleaded guilty, told Bruns in court she wished she could take his place. Bryant was at the time of the accident a 47-year-old Army spouse.
“Mr. Bruns, I sincerely offer you my apologies from the depths of my heart,” Bryant said through tears, according to local WTVD TV News. “I’m sorry for everything you and your family have been enduring since that dreadful day.”
After delays in the case, Bruns and his wife, Jenny, spoke with Army Times in March about the horrific accident and his recovery from Walter Reed Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.
“It was going to be a long road, the chaplain told me the first night, after the calamity, but I had no clue,” Jenny Bruns said.
After the verdict, Jenny Bruns said she believes Bryant’s stiff sentence in the case came from pressure she and her husband applied through the press and her own blog. She plans to continue to be vocal, lobbying for lower blood-alcohol limits and alcohol sensors in cars.
“I think it was justice,” she said of their case.
In the 95th Civil Affairs Brigade, Jeremy Bruns’ job involved humanitarian work with a military purpose, helping foreign governments provide services to their people. He had deployed nine times over his career — including three times to Iraq, once to Afghanistan and once to Qatar — all without ever being injured.
In the crash, Jeremy Bruns lost both legs above the knee, and the thumb and pointer finger of his dominant hand.
He has slowly learned to walk again on prosthetic legs. He is learning to use running legs.
“It takes a long, long time,” he said. “It doesn’t progress as fast as you want to regain balance and function in your hand.”
He had measured his progress in how long he can stand using his prosthetics, which can ache, or whether he needs to use two canes or one, and how long he can walk before he needs to switch to a wheel chair.
One of the Brunses’ frustrations had been how slow the justice was in coming. Initially Bryant was charged with a misdemeanor until, amid pressure from the Brunses, her charges were upgraded. They also lobbied for a speedier return of Bryant’s blood-alcohol analysis, which was holding up her prosecution.
The sergeant major hopes his story sheds light on the dangers of drunken driving.
“My life has changed significantly, and that change doesn’t just affect me but my wife, my family, my unit and organization,” he told Army Times.
In was 9:30 a.m. on Nov. 10, 2012, and Jeremy Bruns was loading his kayak into his truck, parked on the street outside his home in Fayetteville, when Bryant’s car came barreling at him through the wrong traffic lane. He was pinned between her front bumper and his tailgate.
“Right before she struck me, I turned to face her, so I was trapped, looking basically at her on her hood,” he said. “Her vehicle crumpled, the engine was exposed, and the back of my legs were pinned against the back bumper of my truck.”
Emergency crews took 40 minutes to separate the vehicles and extract Bruns. He was taken to Duke Hospital, where he spent 2 ½ weeks in intensive care before he was transferred to the Army hospital at Fort Bragg and then Walter Reed.
Jenny Bruns said her husband in the midst of the horror somehow had the presence of mind to tell first responders not to separate the vehicles too quickly, for fear he would bleed out.
“He was so smart on the scene, the doctors, the paramedics, the police officer, they were just amazed by his strength,” she said.
Since December 2012, he has been a patient at Walter Reed. For the last year, he has been an outpatient.
The biggest challenge, he said, is having to “reprogram” his life. He had planned a longer career in the Army before the accident.
“That’s the hardest thing, trying to find out what’s next,” he said. “
Jeremy Bruns was exploring the Continuation on Active Duty program, and had received support from his chain of command. Yet he said it is likely impossible to stay on since he says his injuries would exclude him from an operational unit.
“I have a leadership style that is based on example, so if I cannot do something physically that I would ask other soldiers to do, I wouldn’t feel comfortable continuing,” he said. “I didn’t join the Army to sit in a cubicle and do staff jobs.”
Bruns had planned at least a 30-year career in the military. Now after 23 years, he expects to medically retire in the fall.
“He’s talking about getting out, and that breaks my heart,” said his wife. “I hope he changes his mind. He’s an incredible leader. He’s compassionate and totally cares about soldiers.”