EDWARDS — On October 3, 2005, Sergeant First Class Joseph Kapacziewski was approaching the end of a tour of duty in Northern Iraq when the convoy he was with was attacked and a grenade fell through the gunner’s hatch. The explosion shattered Kapacziewski’s right leg below the knee, his right hip and severed a nerve and artery in his right arm.
For many, simply staying alive at this point would be enough. But in his powerful book, “Back in the Fight: The Explosive Memoir of a Special Operator Who Never Gave Up,” Kapacziewski takes the reader through the hell he endured, while also chronicling his ability to return to the line of fire as the only Army Ranger serving in direct combat with a prosthetic limb. This evening, he also will share his story with attendees at a special Bookworm event in Edwards.
“I am honored and excited to hear this remarkable story in person,” said Nicole Magistro, owner of The Bookworm. “When I learned Joe would come to the valley with the Vail Veteran’s Program I felt we just had to help share his story with more people.”
And the story is truly a remarkable one of resilience and determination.
After the explosion in 2005, Kapacziewski endured 40 surgeries on his right leg, but with each the results seemed to get worse. He was determined to return to duty and that meant there was only one option: in March of 2007, Kapacziewski had his leg amputated.
Six months of physical therapy meant learning how to walk again. But his goal was much bigger than that. Kapacziewski wanted to return as a squad leader position and lead other Army Rangers. So he ran five miles in under 40 minutes, marched 12 miles in under three hours, dropped out of a helicopter and parachuted with a combat load.
One year after amputation, Kapacziewski returned to the front line as squad leader of his Army Ranger Regiment. It would be the first of five deployments as a wounded warrior.
Since losing his leg, Kapacziewski has completed three triathlons and finished the New York Marathon twice on behalf of the Lead The Way Fund, a non-profit organization established to raise money for disabled U.S. Army Rangers and the families of Rangers who have died, been injured, or are currently in harm’s way around the world. When not deployed to war zones, he often visits wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Medical Center and Brooke Army Hospital in San Antonio, Texas.
His shared how his recovery is partly based on the incredible support system surrounding him. His wife Kimberly said that despite the horror and pain, she and Kapacziewski always try to make the “best of each situation and try to find the best ways to overcome the challenges.”
The Vail Veteran’s Program also plays a role for Kapacziewski.
Cheryl Jensen, executive director and founder of the organization, said that Kapacziewski participated in the program in 2006, returning with his supportive family several years later. She said she applauds the care he received from his family and reinforced the need for strong family commitments to healing veterans.
“Families [and] caregivers have an important role in the recovery of a wounded service member. Their unselfish commitments to be there for their loved one 24-7 is the key,” Jensen said.
A LIfetime of service
But familial care is not the only key to success for healing soldiers. Part of Kapacziewski’s recovery was his own resolve, according to his wife.
“Joe is an extremely determined guy,” she said. “He was there for the kick off for the War on Terrorism and he wants to see it through to the end.”
This courage stems from the friends he has lost and the soldiers he has seen wounded.
“He wants to honor them by finishing the job they sacrificed themselves for,” she said.
It also comes from knowing that he and other wounded vets are cared about, not only by their families and brothers and sisters in arms, but also by communities. Jensen cites that on average 22 veterans commit suicide daily. It is essential to show soldiers that people are grateful for their sacrifices.
“The Vail Veterans Program is here to let them know that we care about them today and in the future,” Jensen said. “Those who have attended our program will forever be invited back as we want them to feel a part of our community, and we want them to know we care.”
And Colorado citizens have done a great job of showing their appreciation. The program receives cash contributions, donated hotels rooms, lift tickets, discounts on winter and summer activities, and volunteers for the programs that benefit soldiers.
Vets like Kapacziewski needing help and support can not only turn to organizations like the Vail Veterans Program, but they can also read about other soldiers experiences. The flood of books about the Iraq War leaves no dearth of material, but “Back in the Fight” provides a unique family perspective on this genre.
Kimberly’s involvement in her husband’s career and healing make her voice shine in this account. To hear more about their amazing relationship, Kapacziewski’s experiences on the front lines, and his healing process, join the Bookworm of Edwards in honoring his work — both in the military, and now, in a published autobiography.
Leigh Horton is the journalism intern at the Bookworm of Edwards and a senior at the Colorado School of Mines.