Jeremy Feldbusch couldn’t see, but he could hear the voice of his parents. He couldn’t understand how it was possible since he was in Iraq guarding the Haditha Dam along the Euphrates River from insurgents as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
But this member of the U.S. Army 3rd Battalion 75th Ranger Regiment wasn’t in Iraq anymore. Jeremy now lay severely wounded in Brooke Army Medical Center (BAMC) in San Antonio, Texas.
On April 3, 2003, the special operations ranger was hit by shrapnel from two incoming artillery rounds that detonated 10 meters away – damaging the optic nerve behind his left eye and embedding in the frontal lobe of his brain. His brain injury also left him blinded.
Jeremy was in a different battle – a fight for his life.
Are you ready?
His parents, Brace and Charlene, stayed by his side for weeks as their son lay in a medically induced coma with his life clinging to a respirator. A sixth and final attempt to remove the respirator was successful. Jeremy was coming back.
Today, Jeremy is still learning about the details of what transpired over those weeks that that he was hospitalized – including a call Tom Marlett, U.S. Army retired Chief Warrant Officer (CW3) had placed from his hospital room at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center near Frankfurt, Germany. Tom had sworn Jeremy into the U.S. Army in 2001 and was serving as a military intelligence officer.
Jeremy explained, “Tom got an email from back home that I was injured and found out where I was. He drove several hours to see me and asked the doctors if he could make a call to my family. He had already prepared my mom, letting her know that he would be calling. Then he got my mom on the phone and he asked her, ‘Are you ready?’ She cried. Then my dad and brothers got on the phone so that I could hear their voices. I understand that I started to get fidgety and they had to give me more medication.”
That anxiety was felt all the way back in Jeremy’s home town of Blairsville, PA too. He was one of the first injured soldiers of the Iraq War. As news trucks were descending upon his home, Jeremy’s parents were already on their way to Brooke Army Medical Center (BAMC) in San Antonio, Texas where Jeremy was about to be taken. “They landed a half hour after I got there,” Jeremy said.
Jeremy spent two months at BAMC where he underwent surgery and early rehabilitation for his injuries. He commented, “When you’re recovering from a brain injury you go through stages of recovery. They include short-term memory loss, anger – and a lot of times just not understanding. I went through all the stages.
It’s the anger issues, though, that lingered for him. Some medical personnel and his mother were on the receiving end of his backlash.
He remarked, “My parents were there with me in the hospital the entire time. I had already thrown my mother out of the room twice. The third time, she didn’t leave. My mom stayed in the room and gave it back to me. When she was done she asked me why I had a smile on my face. I said I didn’t know, but later I realized it was because she made me feel like a person again. Recovery takes a lifetime, but this helped me move a step forward.
A new vision
Jeremy left the hospital blind, but with a new vision and purpose for his life.
He wanted to return to BAMC with his parents to do something to honor the veterans and the staff of doctors, nurses, and therapists. So when Jeremy was contacted by one of the founders of the Soldiers Angels Foundation wanting to send him a gift, he knew just what he could do to honor them.
“I told her, ‘no thank you’ to the gift and asked, instead, if the Foundation could send gifts to Brooke Army Medical Center that my family could give to our Veterans in their time of recovery.
Nine months after I left there, my parents and I returned. When we arrived at the medical center, two four by four carts stacked with boxes were waiting for us. They were filled with playing cards, throws, word search books and other things sent from the Foundation. We went room to room giving the items to service members,” he said.
Jeremy’s commitment to helping wounded veterans caught the attention of John Melia, a co-founder of the Wounded Warrior Project (WWP). In March of 2004, Jeremy and his parents met John and he asked them if we they would like to work with him.
“After finding out more about the Wounded Warrior Project, my family and I were on board 100 percent. We became one of the organization’s 26 co-founders,” he said. Jeremy also became the first national spokesperson for the WWP and his father took on the role of one of its outreach coordinators.
Leaving no service members behind
“Severely wounded soldiers are typically brought back and taken to Bethesda, Walter Reed or Brooke Army Medical Center. When you come back everything you had is now gone and you are left with a hospital gown. You could be brought shorts and tee shirts but they may not fit.
The Wounded Warrior Project works to leave no service members behind, bringing them backpacks filled with comfort items like socks, tee shirts, underwear, shorts, phone cards, and shaving kits – as well as providing someone to talk to and move them forward.
To accomplish this mission, we are granted access by the federal government and the Veteran’s Administration to veteran’s records and given permission to visit them across the country.
The Wounded Warrior Project also works hand in hand with the USO to visit injured service members at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. I was able to go there several years ago with my mother. For me, it was not only about visiting service members, but also filling a void to see one of the places where I was treated,” he said.
Jeremy’s determination to fill the gaps faced by military service members and their families has taken him around the country and to Capitol Hill.
An avid hunter, he lobbied the Pennsylvania Game Commission to enact a law allowing a blind person to hunt with the aid of a laser grip and a sighted and licensed guide. He was among three severely wounded military service members who successfully lobbied the US Senate to provide low-cost traumatic group life insurance. Traumatic Servicemember’s Group Life Insurance is now available for returning wounded service members, providing immediate assistance to them and their families.
Four years ago, at the age of 30, Jeremy was honored by the University of Pittsburgh with the Distinguished Alumni Award, the youngest recipient ever to receive the award. The university endowed a scholarship in his name for injured military veterans, surviving spouses and children. And for living an extraordinary life in the service of others, Jeremy was named a White House Champion of Change.
An extraordinary journey
His ongoing recovery was chronicled in a 2006 film “Home Front”, which aired on Showtime. It has been an extraordinary journey that continues for Jeremy. He is the owner of NEIE Medical Waste Services, LLC, an environmental services company that employs wounded veterans. He has learned Braille and uses adaptive equipment, when needed, to work and to play.
“My blindness doesn’t stop me one bit,” Jeremy said. He travels around the country speaking to groups, hunts and fishes with his father, and skis with the help of a guide.He also participates in “Soldier Rides” across the country, a pedal bike journey to raise awareness and funding to support the WWP.
“Any service member is grateful to be thanked. I did it for a reason. When someone says they are sorry for my injury, I’m not sorry for my injury. I’d do it all over again for the same reason firefighters and EMS workers go out and save lives and police officers serve and protect. I do it for those exact same reasons – to serve and protect my country,” he said.
Jeremy is motivated every day to get up and go out and make a difference. “It’s important for me to give whatever I can, emotionally or physically, to make lives better for service members, veterans, and their families.
To this end, Jeremy and his family and friends recently founded the Homefront Hope Foundation whose mission is to provide critical support and to strengthen care for Veterans. “Our immediate goal is to reduce the suicide rates by funding continued mental health care, especially for those suffering from Post Traumatic Stress and Traumatic Brain Injury. We also want to develop treatment facilities, programs, and resources to transition Veterans back into full and productive lives,” he said.
Almost two years ago, Jeremy married Cardin, an elementary school teacher he met while they were on a mutual mission to help someone in need.
With all that he has been through, Jeremy knows that it’s possible to have sight and still be blind. “My hope is to teach others to see from their heart,” he said.