The massive black wheels of the C-17 slammed down hard against the tarmac. On the runway the skidding tires sprayed the air with the snow and salt mixture causing the plane to rock as it taxied in. The rough landing welcomed the occupants of the plane back into the United States and, more specifically, into Washington, D.C. 

All except Sergeant First Class Andrew Hladik:  his body stirred in his seat, but his mind was elsewhere. He did not arrive with the rest of the soldiers. His mind was still in Fallujah.

Anguish, the part of his memory best forgotten enveloped him - the fateful explosion on that hot desert night. And it was always the same obliterating sounds in real time replaying over and over again.

The 24 year-old was on manoeuvres with his squad. As they began taking fire from all sides, the men ran for cover in the stygian heat, trying to make it back to the Humvee. Then all Hell broke loose. Screams of anger and pain came from every direction echoed in the night by the sounds of weaponry fire.

Sergeant Hladik stared inconceivably as the two insurgents racing toward him suddenly turned into two gigantic balls of orange flames. The suicide bombers had gotten to the men and their vehicle.

The sergeant was pinned beneath the overturned Humvee. Their driver, Private First Class Tony Ambrasino, only 19 years-old, stared at Andrew. His lifeless gaze acknowledging that his tour of duty had now ended.

Andrew felt a warm liquid spraying his face:  blood from a severed body part - his right leg. That was the last thing Sergeant Hladik remembered before unconsciousness mercifully slipped him away.

In his head he could hear people talking:  something about sutures and trying to stop the bleeding. But the quick bits of dialogue seemed random and failed to register in the sergeant's brain.

He knew the triage unit had carried him away from the wreckage to the medic station for stabilisation. But he did not know where he was or what had happened.

A nurse had tried to tell him that he was in the hospital in Balad. But the massive doses of morphine made him not really want to care.

Several days later he endured the six-hour flight to Landstuhl Army Regional Medical Centre in Germany. It was there that the doctors had told him that the remainder of his right leg had been amputated.

His response was that a prosthesis was out of the question.

In his mind, the attack hadn't happened. In an effort to maintain his sanity, his brain shouted that his leg was still there. He could still feel it. The bottom of his right foot still burned, and the toes on his right foot still itched. Admitting anything different would be surrender and, he wasn't ready for that. And yet he knew he must.

Learning to walk with crutches brought new parameters to Andrew's world view. He came to terms with his new situation.

"We're here, Sarge," said the private nudging him awake. "You can take a taxi from here to get to the Amtrak Station. Then you'll be on your way." Thus began the final leg of the journey home from Iraq.

Andrew would board a train heading north. His apartment was waiting for him in a village in the mountains of upstate New York.

The strobotic effect of the light from the moving train windows was wreaking havoc with Andrew's psyche. They morphed into more flashes of Iraqi gunfire. Even closing his eyes could not stop the bursts of light which threatened his soundness of mind.

The picturesque Village of Easttown nestled quietly in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains. Sergeant Andrew Hladik had grown up here, had gone to school here, and in the course of time, his Army tour had also left from here.

The knee-deep snow banks and slippery sidewalks exacerbated his getting around. His crutches were not designed for the patches of ice that crossed his path. He had been coming to Barone's Bar & Grill nightly since his return home because he was a known entity there and because drinking was his only gate to forgetting. He hated using alcohol as a third crutch, but he had no other way to extinguish his horrific memories of the war. Others had been able to leave Iraq behind; instead he had left a leg. This missing limb was an omnipresent reminder of Fallujah.

On this particular Thursday night he was sitting at the bar with a group of locals. They were rehashing the day in sports when a terrific screeching of tyres interrupted their debate. The ominous sound was followed by a thud and a yelp. The group dropped their beers in unison and rushed through the door into the cold night air.

There in the middle of Main Street was a big, black lump. A pair of bright red taillights sped away in the late night darkness. There was no intent to stop.

Sergeant Hladik bent down over the still form. "Oh my God, it's a dog! And I think it's still alive!"

"Best leave it be, Andy," warned Frank Turner, "if it's been hurt it might bite ya."

"We've got to help it Frank. We can't just leave it there. Can one of you drive me to the emergency vet's office? I've had too much to drink."

"Heck Sarge, it's not like you can drive when you're not drinking," quipped one of the guys.

Frank spoke up:  "Hush up, you jerk! We'll get you there, Sarge. Johnny, you get a blanket. We'll put it under the dog and we'll lay it in the back of my truck."

"Looks to be a black lab - a bitch. Front leg looks mighty bad. I'll have the bar call ahead to the vet's office so they'll expect us; you know."

Frank Turner knew all the short cuts, both in life and on the highway, and at this time of early morning he knew observing the speed limit was not a priority. Besides, he had grown up with most of the cops in town and when he explained the circumstances, he knew he wouldn't have a problem.

Dr. Reginald Stubblefield's office was located on the outskirts of town. He was the area's sole veterinarian and always made himself available in an emergency.

Dave, the vet tech, greeted them at the back entrance. "Bring her in back here guys, and lay her on the table. Dr. R. will be here shortly."

Dr. Stubblefield came down the back stairs. He had the air of old Saint Nick sans the beard. When it came to sick or injured animals, he assumed the guise of St. Francis - with a degree in veterinary medicine. He had absolutely no use for people who neglected or abused their animals.

"Gentlemen, what we have here is a critically injured female black Labrador retriever with a mangled right front leg."

Frank Turner interjected, "And you know, Doc. They didn't even stop!"

"Well gentlemen, I would like to believe that there is going to be a very special place in H-E-Double L for someone like that. But for now, in order to save her, I am going to have to amputate that front leg. She is going to need a lot of blood and even more - love and comfort. I need one of you gentlemen to accept responsibility for her care. Do I have any takers?"

Andrew piped in, "I've got her Doc. I'll take care of her. We'll have a little something in common - both of us missing a leg and all."

"I'll make you a deal, Son. Since you're a vet and I'm a vet, I won't charge you for my services, just the supplies. Just promise me you'll always take good care of her. Deal?"

"You've got a deal, Doc. I promise."

The surgery took hours with Frank and Andrew pacing and hopping back and forth in the small clinic's waiting room.

After what seemed like an eternity, Dr. R. came out to speak to them.

"Well, she made it through the surgery okay. Dave is keeping an eye on her while she comes out of the anaesthetic - just so there are no complications. She'll need a few days IC with us, but she should do just fine. She'll need to learn how to walk all over again, but I've seen a lot of these three-legged dogs in my day. And even though it takes them a while, most of them adapt just fine. Sometimes I think canines are better at compensating than their human masters. Give us a call first, but you can probably pick her up on Monday. And I expect you to keep your promise. What are you going to call her?"

"I've decided on Rhea. Mainly because we both are going to need a lot of rehabilitation. I can teach her; and I can learn from her. That's only fair."

The next few months were a strenuous period of adjustment for them both. Everywhere Andrew went Rhea was right there:  a shorter shadow saddled to his side, his partner. All over town they were now known as the new "odd couple," never one without the other. The lab was a fast learner - able to perform a variety of tasks upon command. She was also quite agile despite her condition.

One day while getting groceries at the local A&P, Andrew struck a conversation with Carol McGruder, the check-out clerk. She had always had a thing for Andrew going all the way back to her days in junior high. He was a few years older but Carol really didn't care because he had a great dog. There was something to be said for a good-looking man with a great dog.

"You know, Andrew, I'm a candy-striper at the Easttown General Hospital. You and Rhea ought to be 'therapy assistants.' I know the children would be delighted with a visit from Rhea. She could bring a smile to anyone's face - especially when she dances."

Andrew had taught Rhea to stand on her rear legs and to jump in time with the music, thus giving the appearance that she was dancing.

To Andrew she was his dancing angel, a companion and a friend like no other. He lived for her, and she lived to be at this side.

For the next several months Andrew and Rhea made the rounds at EGH as therapy workers. Their jobs were to visit the sick and to impart a feeling of hope and encouragement to all those whose lives they touched.

For part 2 please click here:


A Cats Purr

"Cats make one of the most satisfying sounds in the world: they purr ...

A purring cat is a form of high praise, like a gold star on a test paper. It is reinforcement of something we would all like to believe about ourselves - that we are nice."

Roger A Caras

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