Wounded Iraq war veteran awarded Purple Heart
200 attend bittersweet ceremony
SATELLITE BEACH - Surrounded by more than 20 friends, relatives and officials Monday afternoon, Staff Sgt. Paul "Russ" Marek was awarded a Bronze Star and Purple Heart at the veterans hospital in Tampa where he is recuperating from the massive injuries he suffered in a roadside bomb explosion in Iraq.
But these days, his thrills come in less daredevil-like ways of being a soldier. He has relearned how to swallow. He'll learn to live as an amputee.
"Every day is a new challenge," said Mrs. Marek, "but he's making such good progress." She has been at his side virtually every minute since Marek was wounded.
On Thursday, Marek's once-muscular 170-pound frame, now nearly 50 pounds lighter, slumped in a high-back wheelchair at James Haley Veterans Hospital in Tampa. A slight smile appeared on his face as he worked with occupational therapist Laurel Adams. This was a big day: He was able to flex his wrist, slowly up and down, for the first time in five months.
"Yea, my hand works," said Marek, laboring to get the words to cross his lips.
"It's a beautiful thing," Adams said. "He's so motivated."
After 21 skin grafts and operations, Marek is being fitted for prosthetic limbs.
"When his eyes first opened, it was like one inch in a one-mile race," said Marek's father, Paul. Another inch -- another milestone -- came with news from a doctor that Marek once again could swallow.
"He kind of made nice, slow progress," Dr. Joel Scholten said. "He's now starting to get movement in his left side."
"I want to get walking again," he said.
Marek was injured eight days before he was to return to Satellite Beach for a two-week break.
Neighbors had thrown a street party on the circle where his parents live in Satellite Beach before he left for Iraq. They signed well wishes on a banner, tied yellow ribbons on trees throughout the neighborhood and prayed Marek would come home unharmed, next-door neighbor Bill Vance said.
It wasn't to be.
On a nighttime patrol, Marek -- on his second tour of duty in Iraq -- was in command of three M1A1 Abrams tanks. A roadside bomb exploded, ripping through the bottom of Marek's tank. Two members of Marek's tank crew were killed.
When the other tanks traveling ahead turned around, a second bomb exploded, killing a third crew member.
"How he got out of that tank, nobody knows," Marek's father said.
Even Marek is unable to recall the details.
The news of Marek's critical injuries hit home like a shock wave.
"It was 9:15 on a Friday, and I was getting ready for bed," said childhood friend David Baldwin of Boca Raton. "I remember looking at the phone."
Baldwin and Marek have been friends since second grade, when they were neighbors in Boca Raton.
Marek and his twin brother, Todd, played soccer. Their dad was coach. As the brothers entered their senior year at Satellite High, Marek's focus turned from soccer to surfing. He also developed a knack for one-liners to entertain his friends.
"He makes up goofy stories about things that happened to him," said longtime friend Amy Titsch of Melbourne. "He would always cut up."
Longtime friend John Alexander of Pine Bluff, Ark., visited Marek in the hospital in Tampa in December.
"Russ is one of those guys who would do anything for you," said Alexander, who became friends with Marek when they both worked at a grocery store in Indian Harbour Beach.
They remained friends after Marek went to work as a busboy at the Officers' Club at Patrick Air Force Base. Marek and Todd attended Brevard Community College. Marek left school one algebra class short of an associate degree, and joined the Army, his father said.
His grandfathers on both sides of the family had served in the military, so Marek's decision was not a surprise to his mother.
"I think all young men and young women should go in, even if it's for two years," Rose Marek said.
After almost nine years in the Army, Marek began thinking of getting out and going back to college, his family said.
It's now a loftier goal than once envisioned.
And there's also the goal of once again experiencing the thrill of parachuting that Marek hopes to do once he recovers.
"We'll definitely go again," Todd Marek said. "He said he wants to go."
Marek recently discovered one of his nurses skydives.
"I said, 'Can I go with you?' She said, 'Yes, I will take you,' " Marek said.
His younger brother, Adam, said the immediate goal is for Marek's continued recovery and, hopefully, for him to be able to join the family on its annual vacation retreat to a small resort at mile marker 80 on Islamorada. It's a 32-year tradition, Paul Marek said. This summer would mark year 33.
The family remains hopeful and optimistic.
"He's learning to read and talk again," Paul Marek said. "Russ is a miracle."
Contact Moody at 242-3651 or firstname.lastname@example.org