Wounded soldier learns to appreciate small things
When we last checked in on Army Staff Sgt. Matthew Keil in the fall of 2007, the former Swanton resident and Anthony Wayne High School graduate was thrilled to be participating with another wounded soldier in the first-pitch ceremonies before Game 3 of the World Series at Coors Field in Denver.
His new life now is taking form.
On Sept. 27, he and his wife, Tracy, moved into a 5,000-square-foot, handicapped-accessible home that a group called Homes for Our Troops built for them in Parker, Colo., close to where some of Tracy's relatives live.
The couple had been married for only six weeks when Sergeant Keil, on his second tour of duty in Iraq, had his spine shattered by a sniper's bullet on Feb. 24, 2007.
They clutched the little signs of hope. Such as one 10 days after the shooting, when Sergeant Keil - hospitalized then at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in suburban Washington - defied the odds by lifting his left arm.
That was done to salute Maj. Gen. Robert W. Mixon, Jr., as the general was about to leave Sergeant Keil's room after presenting him with a Purple Heart medal. The general came back and saluted Sergeant Keil.
For a while, it appeared Sergeant Keil would be paralyzed for the rest of his life from the neck down, unable to talk and unable to breathe without a ventilator.
His wife stayed at his side as he underwent therapy. He remains paralyzed, but from the midchest downward. He has regained partial use of his left arm, but nothing in his right one.
"She's my rock," Sergeant Keil said of his wife in a story published 17 months ago by the Rocky Mountain News.
Their new source of joy is their home. It is intentionally large because the couple plan to start a family.
In last Tuesday's journal entry on CaringBridge.org, caringbridge.org/visit/matthewkeil, Ms. Keil wrote that she is starting in-vitro treatment in January.
"I am really excited, I feel like I am counting down the time till January already. Forget Xmas!" she wrote.
Sergeant Keil declined to be interviewed on Friday, when he turned 27.
Too much going on. Some friends had stopped by to wish him a Happy Birthday. More company was expected that night.
Tracy, though, provided an update, distracted by a phone call or two and by the delivery of some birthday presents.
"He's doing really well," she said. "He's having the support of everyone all over the country."
Ms. Keil said the couple are savoring their private time together at their house, which sits on five acres.
Homes for Our Troops, a nonprofit created in 2004 to help wounded servicemen, built the home with the help of volunteers and donations.
As a quadriplegic, Sergeant Keil not only needs a wheelchair but has trouble doing some things people take for granted, such as opening drawers or reaching light switches. His lack of mobility has been compared to that of the late actor Christopher Reeve.
Homes for Our Troops made it possible for Sergeant Keil to execute many functions around his house, from turning on ceiling fans to electronics, with the aid of a palm-sized computer known as a PDA, or personal digital assistant.
"It's about independence and freedom for him. That's why we do this," John Gonsalves, president and founder of Homes for Our Troops, said in a YouTube video from the home's dedication.
In that same video, Sergant Keil fought back tears as he expressed gratitude to the group.
"It's really changed our lives," Sergeant Keil said. "It felt like the heaviest weight had been lifted off our shoulders."
The couple traveled to South Carolina to see friends from Oct. 22 to Oct. 30.
Ms. Keil had a special treat on Oct. 24, her 31st birthday - watching her disabled husband bag his first deer during a special hunt for those with impaired mobility.
He had just learned to discharge his firearm with "sip-and-puff" technology, in which a joystick-like device is manipulated by sipping and puffing on a wand.
Sergeant Keil had done some bird-hunting before his injury. But he had never gone on a deer hunt before and was successful on his first day of the hunt.
"It was just the coolest thing. He was so excited he got a deer on his first day," Tracy said. "You know, I always wanted venison on my birthday."