War injuries draw couple, community closer
SPRINGHILL -- When Russell "Kyle" Burleson joined the Army, he was willing to give his life for his country. Instead, he forfeited much more.
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Burleson, a large strapping man with the beefy build of a footballer — which he was — now is a quadriplegic, paralyzed from the neck down.
"It'll never be as big a price as what others have paid, though," he said from his home in north Webster Parish, thinking of the nearly 4,000 men and women who have died in the war in Iraq since it began five years ago Wednesday.
Though Burleson will spend the rest of his life in a motorized wheelchair or in bed, with a tracheotomy tube providing every breath, he is a surprisingly upbeat 24-year-old. His plans include watching his children, son Alex, 31/2, and daughter Ally, 5, grow up, though not too fast.
"I couldn't be luckier, really," he said, bundled against the cold on the day snow blanketed the area. "My son was born after I was shot. I couldn't be luckier. I couldn't ask much more than that."
Burleson also is thankful to be alive. "If it wasn't for all the great medical staff that was close by, I wouldn't be here."
Army was his choice
Burleson fulfilled a lifelong goal and joined the Army in 2001, not long after he graduated from Springhill High School and before the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001. He played football as a guard all but his senior year, missing what usually is the biggest season in a player's life because of the effects of a bad shoulder injury the previous year.
That injury actually caused the military to turn him down at first. Undaunted, Burleson had surgery — at his expense — that repaired the shoulder enough to please the military.
After service in Korea, he was based at Fort Hood, Texas, where Burleson met his wife, Kristi, at a fort social where he stepped on her boot and, Kristi said, "I kicked him in the rear."
That got his attention, and he got hers.
"And then we went to IHOP," she said.
He got orders to Iraq, so they put off their big-wedding plans until his return.
That was before the day that changed his life forever: Aug. 18, 2004.
Burleson was the top turret gunner on a Humvee on patrol in Baghdad with other members of his Fort Hood-based 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment "Black Knights" during an operation to cordon off the city that hot summer day.
He thinks he was the only one of the four soldiers in the armored vehicle to be wounded in the attack . Burleson doesn't remember anything for a week before the attack and about a week after.
By the latter, he'd already been treated for several days in Iraq until his condition stabilized then was at the Army's European medical facility at Landstuhl, Germany.
Kristi learned of her husband's wound through a phone call. "They don't come to visit you when they're still alive," she said.
From Germany, he was shipped stateside to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where he underwent several operations. That October, Burleson was sent to the VA Medical Center in Dallas, which has special facilities to treat spinal cord injuries.
Burleson an inspiration
Burleson's sacrifice and his struggle to join the Army inspired his neighbors and veterans groups near and far to band with volunteers and contractors to build the family a house adapted to his needs.
The 3,000-square-foot, $300,000 structure now commands a low hill on longtime family property on Percy Burns Road, just south of the Arkansas border. The couple received the home in late 2006.
The effort also was helped by Massachusetts-based Homes for Our Troops and Colorado-based American War Heroes.
The two-level home, built from Eco-block insulated concrete, can withstand 200-mph winds. It also has a sophisticated lift that can move Burleson from his bed to the bathroom and to a few other necessary areas of the house.
"It certainly brought the community together," said Ken Koval, who led Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 5951 in its efforts to help the couple. "People and businesses would donate this, donate that. It was unbelievable. I was surprised by the generosity shown."
Springhill embraced its wounded soldier
"In such a small community, it did bring people together," said Federico "Max" Arends III, of the state VFW.
Fundraisers have included athletic tournaments and church events. And contributions continue to roll into East Side Baptist Church, which has an account set up in Burleson's name.
But church underscores the many changes war has wrought in Burleson's life.
"I don't go so much anymore," he said with slow, measured, almost poetic timing dictated by the tube supplying him air. "It's so quiet in there you can hear my vent. And then it beeps and stuff and I feel self-conscious. It's not their fault, it's nobody's fault. I know it wouldn't bother them."
What happened to Burleson and how he and Kristi have faced the challenges have touched the lives of family members.
"I've learned the value of life a lot more," said his uncle Wayne "Fig" Newton, a Webster sheriff's deputy. "I used to take for granted things like getting out mowing the yard, raking leaves. But he can't do the simplest things.
"Seeing what they go through has brought me closer to the Lord with my religion, has made me see things through different eyes. The value of the day means more," Newton said. "We never know what could happen. We could have a traumatic car accident tomorrow and our lives could be in the same way his is."
Burleson said his faith hasn't been tested by what has befallen him.
"Everybody asks 'Why me, why me?' From the beginning, I thought, 'Why not me? I'm not anybody special. I have just as much a chance of getting wounded as anyone.'"
At that moment, daughter Ally burst into the room, making her father laugh.
"Daddy, Daddy, I finished a snowman!" she blurted as excited as only a 5-year-old could be of such a feat. "He's a baby one, and he's gonna melt!"
Aside from doting on his wife and children, the former soldier names coins, autographs — including country music duo Brooks and Dunn — and a love of dogs as his interests. He, Kristi and his mom, Tammy Burleson, have a business — Burleson's Kennels — that operates out of a nearby building he designed.
"I never wanted anyone to come by and look in our kennels and feel sorry for our dogs," Burleson said. At some kennels, he said, "they won't let you see where they keep their dogs — real cramped, it smells. Ours is wide open. They lead very good lives."
He's also developed an intense interest in history.
"After I got shot, I was kind of 'No way, no war stuff.' But now I like Vietnam and back. I'm collecting military rifles and stuff, and just studying the history of war.
"It's an amazing contrast as to what we went through and how much harder it was for them — you know, (in) Vietnam and the Korean War," Burleson said. "They just didn't have the equipment we have now. It's just amazing how much more they went through."
He sees a parallel between today and the past in terms of the nation and war.
"If you look back through history, from the Revolutionary War all the way to this one, the American people haven't held any favor toward a war after five years. Every war this country's been in, after five years, nobody supports."
As for the war that cost him so much, "I don't know if we should have gone over there or not, but we did, and they were in bad shape over there," Burleson said. "But I think they'd be in even worse shape if we leave and just let a new dictator or something else come in.
"It's kind of you don't know what to do, but whatever choice is made is not going to be an easy one to make. You pull out and then the bad guys take over. But you stay and you lose more American lives.
"I don't think anyone's in any position to say what we should do without all the information. And the only people who have all the information are the ones who are having to make the decisions. We just have to trust our leaders, I guess."
Burleson keeps up with the war through the VFW, its magazine and friends he and Kristi have made in their visits to VA medical centers in Shreveport, Dallas and Houston.
They follow research in nerve regeneration somewhat, they said. Not a lot, though. "I'm not really wanting to be a guinea pig and lose what I've got," Burleson said.
Couple face new challenges
The past five years have thrust a new life, values and maturity on the Burlesons.
"It's a whole new lifestyle," Kristi, 23, said. One hard part is "getting everything you want done in a day done. It takes about three hours to get him up. And then once you get loaded up and everything, that's another hour. And once you go anywhere, that's another hour. ... There are not enough hours in the day. Kennel, kids, Kyle, house."
The medical issues are daunting. Locally, Burleson has his tracheotomy checked and gets primary care. His special van and a smart wheelchair he can control with special sensors have to be serviced out of Dallas. More specialized medical work is done in Houston. A recent trip there saved his life.
"He went there for kidney stones, and they (found) his pneumonia," Kristi said.
Added Burleson: "Pneumonia's the No. 1 killer of quadriplegics."
"We're still the babies of the (veterans) hospital," Kristi said. "Lots of times, you go to the hospitals with kids and you attract a lot of attention. The older people think 'How cute.' It's interesting being in the hospital. You talk a lot with a lot of different people. (But) there's definitely a big difference between what you do there and what you do here."
Burleson's wound has made their marriage "different," both said.
"Whenever you introduce a caregiver role into a marriage, it's going to make it a lot different," he said. "You've got to deal with the fact that you can never be alone and that people can never just go away and leave you alone. Things like that make it a lot different."
Kristi, who can almost finish some of her husband's sentences, like someone married 30 years, concurs.
"Then there's the obvious one," she said. "It's not like I can lay down in bed with him. There are some paralyzed people (who) are able to share a bed and stuff, but he's got to have that special mattress. ... I gripe a lot at him. He gripes a lot at me."
Said her husband: "It's when you stop fighting you've got to worry."