Wounded Springhill soldier looking ahead
Van, home, hope, love of family and community help Kyle Burleson.
SPRINGHILL -- The crack of softballs on aluminum bats and sweat coursing down the faces and backs of players on Melvin Boucher Field are evidence this north Webster Parish city has its heart and mind on wounded Iraq War veteran Kyle Burleson. A year after a sniper in Baghdad shot the then-21-year-old Army specialist, a top gunner on a Humvee, he has been robbed of feeling and almost all movement, but not hope.
On this blistering Saturday, he sits under a canopy watching members of eight softball teams play to raise money to help him with medical expenses.
Nearby is a two-week old, fully equipped, handicapped-friendly Ford Chariot E250 van, a gift from a donor who asked the family for anonymity. Some of the players are Burleson's friends, friends of his family, and some are relatives. Others just know him as a name, and as someone who put his life on the line for them far away.
Cousin Jessica Newsom is 22 years old, like Kyle, but she's six months older. The two are quite close. She's one of the players working up a sweat, and her team is whipping others it's played so far.
"The last time I played softball was when I got out of high school in 2001," the Sarepta High graduate said. She was playing "despite the ants and the heat," for her cousin who was so determined to join the Army that he paid for an operation to mend a football shoulder injury so he'd pass the physical.
Now if you ask the soldier, you'll get a clipped and laconic response, spoken with more force and good humor than you'd expect from someone whose every breath comes courtesy of a respirator.
"Nothing," he says of what more the community can provide to help his life. He sounds surprising stronger than when he arrived home in May from months of surgeries and rehabilitation in Dallas. And then, in a remarkable understatement: "Nothing has really been that bad."
The Aug. 20 softball tourney, sponsored by Louisiana HomeCare of Springhill, was held a year and two days after Burleson was shot in Baghdad. In that time, the community has rallied.
"Ever since Kyle was shot, people have been there," his aunt Shelia Newton said. "It's overwhelmed us."
She fills in the blanks Kyle won't.
"Several months ago, he went through some real hard times," Newton said. "He was depressed, angry, he wouldn't get out of bed."
Her nephew, she said "isn't much of a talker. He doesn't talk much about what he's feeling." She and her husband, Webster Parish Sheriff's Deputy Wayne Newton, live "across the pasture" from the century-old family home Kyle and Kristi Burleson share with their two children and his mother, Tammy Burleson. Newton said her husband "uses (Kyle) as an inspiration. He says when he thinks about Kyle, 'I haven't got any problems.' Kyle is an inspiration to people, but he may not know it."
Kristi Burleson stays up most of the night each night tending her husband and taking care of their two children -- daughter Aly, 2, and son Alex, just shy of a year old -- Tammy Burleson said.
"She's running most of the time."
Kristi Burleson also tries to keep up with the latest developments in medical research that might help Kyle. Their eye is on treatments to the phrenic nerve, which might help Kyle breathe better on his own, with less dependence on a respirator.
The immediate goal is a house the couple hopes to see rise soon on the acreage off Percy Burns Road.
Benton builder Bob Simpson of Simpson Custom Homes is coordinating construction of the Burleson home, which he says should break ground within the next few weeks. The home, for which plans are just now being finished, will be roughly 3,500 square feet, and with safety, maintenance ease and economy a premium, he said.
"I'm building it out of Eco-block, which uses an insulated concrete form," he said. "It'll be a really safe house for him. It can withstand a 200 mph wind, and has a 4?-hour fire rating. It's mold and mildew resistant, and termite resistant, and has a tremendously low energy cost."
Simpson is donating his services and says many of his suppliers also are. Those vendors include Eco-Block, Remco Enterprises, Phillips Custom Home Designs, Don Thurmon and Gordon Russell Engineers, Total Countertop Solutions, All Seasons Windows and Doors, Jean Simpson Personnel Services, Williams Equipment, Williams Concrete and Lance Mosely of Mosely Rogers Title Company.
Other entities helped tremendously include VFW Post 5951 in Bossier City, Overton Brooks VA Medical Center and the national agencies Homes for Our Troops and Adopt a Soldier/I Care, Simpson and Burleson family members said.
"Homes for Our Troops wanted to donate $150,000 strictly for Kyle," he said.
"We're building a room upstairs for his mom so she'll be there to help take care of him."
Thanks to the VA, he said, the home will have an overhead rail system that will help lift Burleson out of bed and assist in movement from room to room. Simpson hopes to install a backup electrical system so outages won't affect Burleson's respirator or other electronic life aids.
"We're hoping to get that donated," said Simpson, who added that efforts are also being made to find an expert in electronic voice command willing to help with the project.
"I think Kyle can see is that the house is going to be a reality," Shelia Newton said. "The fact he will have his own house is very important to him and to Kristi."
Kristi Burleson said "it's hard to imagine it's going to be built. The main thing is it will be comfortable for Kyle. And he'll be able to get around. Right now he can barely squeeze in the kitchen, and he can only get to the living room, his room and the porch."
Shelia Newton marvels at the effort Kyle makes to do things that are passed off without a thought by most people.
"He gets up and tries to go to church," she said. "He can't make it every Sunday, but there are people who are healthy and don't even make the effort. And he's more concerned about disturbing others in the church, so he's started sitting in the back so he won't be in everyone else's way."
Asked if Kyle holds thoughts deep inside, Kristi Burleson stops talking, thinks hard for a moment. Seconds tick while there's silence over the long-distance phone line.
"I don't really know," she says, at long last. "It's hard to read that part. We try to be the most normal we can be. I think that's what matters most."