Hartford Courant

Bristol’s Bravest? Kap Fits

September 26, 2008|By JEFF JACOBS

Joe Kapacziewski turned down an interview request for Thursday morning. He asked if he could do it right away Wednesday night. Now, what in the world could be so pressing that a home state kid would inconvenience the nation’s oldest continuously published newspaper?

“I have to jump out of an airplane,” Kapacziewski said.

Oh.

And then you think about it for a minute.

Staff Sgt. Joe Kapacziewski is jumping out of an airplane with one leg.

Whoa!

We live on a peculiar planet in peculiar times. An NFL quarterback or a major league outfielder plays through an injury and we’re ready to knight him Galahad. A team of American golfers sinks a few putts, holds up the flag and we’re stirred to great patriotism. True, Joe Kapacziewski’s paycheck may be meal allowance for Alex Rodriguez, but once you learn about this Army Ranger you’ll have no doubt who you’d have battling in the clutch.

Kapacziewski, 25, will compete Saturday in the Men’s Health Urbanathlon in New York, an interesting race that includes a 52-story stair climb at 7 World Trade Center and a taxicab hurdle at Battery Park. Just as the U.S. Ryder Cup victory did not make the world safe for democracy, Kap will not threaten to make the 2012 Olympic triathlon team. This neither diminishes the golfers nor Kapacziewski, but it points to the power of a group of elite athletes uniting for a common cause and the glory of one soldier/athlete who knows nothing but that shared commitment.

This is what you need to know. After being shredded by an enemy grenade in northern Iraq in 2005 during his fifth tour of combat duty, Kap had his right leg amputated eight inches below the knee. Not only did he stay in the military, he stays fit and stands ready with the 75th Ranger Regiment at Fort Benning, Ga. By Kapacziewski’s count, there are about 50 active-duty amputees in military service and he is one of only a handful operating in the same capacity they were before undergoing amputation.

That fact is as close as Kap comes to bragging. The dude gives new definition to playing hurt.

Born in Durham, he played football and wrestled at Bristol Eastern. His dad was killed in a car accident when he was 12 and, learning early the blows life can deal, he was raised by his grandparents. Kapacziewski has spent seven years in the Army. That lines up with 9/11, but he did not enlist as a reaction to the day our nation was brought to its knees. He already had signed as a delay entry.

“I was signed to go in Sept. 18, 2001. Lo and behold . . . a week after 9/11, I was in basic training,” Kap said. “There are guys who have a whole career in the military, do 20 years and never see combat. I’ve been able to stay busy.”

He is not allowed to discuss the specifics of what happened that day in October 2005, but the Bristol Press, at the time, quoted a friend of Kapacziewski as saying a hand grenade was dropped into an armored personnel vehicle.

His right leg was shattered below the knee. He had severe arm injuries, including brachial and median nerve damage. He took considerable shrapnel in his hip. He spent 6 1/2 months at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, where they tried to save the right leg.

“It wasn’t healing properly,” Kap said. “I was having a lot of pain and motion issues. After 15 months, I finally had it amputated.”

For three months, he still had phantom pains. He went to the Center for the Intrepid at the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio for five months of rehab. Toes that aren’t there still tingle from time to time.

“But everything is good,” he said.

Leg, arm, hip, skin grafts . . . he has undergone 42 surgeries. That’s not a misprint. Asked if he had enough of hospitals, Kapaczewski said, “I have.”

That’s it. Two words for all the pain and suffering. Heroes evidently don’t need many words.

“It’s hard for me to look at it that way,” Kap said. “The way I see it is I made my commitment to the military. They’ve trained me to do a certain job and that’s my livelihood.

“I work with a great bunch of guys who really enjoy what they do. That, to me, is what makes it worthwhile. Our unit has a lot of camaraderie. It’s like going to work every day with your best friends. And when you’re around warriors every day, that is what you want to do. Guys get hurt, guys get beat up, they just want to heal up and get back doing what we do.”

So Staff Sgt. Kapaciewski goes on marching. He goes on training. He goes on airborne training missions. Thursday’s jump was his fifth from a plane on his prosthetic. He has no plans to get out. He had been to Iraq three times and to Afghanistan twice when that grenade changed his life. He expects the sixth deployment next year.

“My prosthetics are great, I basically use two,” Kapacziewski said. “I haven’t had one fall off during a jump. Haven’t had one break. I do everything everyone else does.”

The army wouldn’t have it any other way. It is not a place for sentiment. And among the Rangers, the best of the best, there is even less.

“This is the way I explained it to my chain of command,” Kapacziewski said. “If someone else breaks an ankle, they’re getting sent home. If I break my prosthetic, I’ll go back, put another one on and I’m good to go in five minutes.”

He competes in triathlons. He runs races. On this weekend, he will compete as part of a relay team for Operation Rebound, sponsored by the Challenged Athletes Foundation. Kapacziewski figures once he hands off the time chip, he’ll continue on to the finish line unofficially. Then he’ll keep on running and jumping.

And the next time you wonder whatever happens to the best of our high school athletes, the best our state has to offer, you’ll have at least one answer.

jjacobs@courant.com

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