By Gregg Zoroya
The best gifts for Army Sgt. Joseph Grabianowski this Christmas aren’t tied up with ribbons and bows.
Independence in a new home he’s made for himself this holiday season can’t be gift-wrapped. Transcendence over wounds that turned his body into a medical battlefield doesn’t fit under a tree.
Much of Joe has been cut away.
This quiet, contemplative soldier carries the distinction of being one of the worst surviving U.S. combat casualties since 9/11. His stirring comeback, in the mind of his family and medical team, is little short of miraculous.
“Joe, for me, was the most challenging case I had in a decade of war,” says Navy Cmdr. Jonathan Forsberg, a surgeon at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.
As Joe acclimates to a new apartment and life outside the hospital, his family counts their Christmas blessings.
Dennis Grabianowski says he panicked briefly over the idea of his son living alone.
“But then,” the dad says, “I thought, you know what? Because it is the holiday season, the Christmas season and what that is all about for me, it seemed like it was a very positive sign.”
Joe’s medical situation was beyond dire. Beyond the shattering roadside bomb that tore through Joe’s lower body, things living in the soil of Afghanistan — bacteria and fungus with unpronounceable names — blasted deep into his wounds.
It was on a foot patrol May 29, 2012. Joe was 24.
In the hellish landscape of Kandahar Province, where a buried explosive is the wager of every step, Joe was leading a stretcher bearing then-Pfc. Dalton Clemons, who had lost both legs to an improvised explosive device just minutes before. As Joe led the stretcher down a slope, he was himself hit by a second, even larger buried explosive.
“I know it launched me,” Joe recalls, “because I can remember a cloud of dust. And I was out of the dust. And then I was back in the dust. So I knew I was flying.”
In the weeks that followed, medical teams from Kandahar to Germany to Walter Reed cut, amputated and cut some more, but they could not get ahead of fungus spreading in dark patches throughout Joe’s body, killing tissue in its path.
Both of his legs were removed entirely, as was most of Joe’s pelvis. Doctors even amputated a portion of his sacrum, a triangular bone connecting Joe’s lower spine to his pelvic remains.
“Joe had the highest-level amputation of anybody at Walter Reed,” Forsberg says.
Still the fungus spread higher.
All that could keep him alive, doctors told Joe, was a radical, rarely employed procedure where he would literally be cut in half, his body below the waist removed entirely.
Amputees have become emblematic of the post-9/11 wars, but this would be more than any servicemember had endured, doctors say.
“You start to question, ‘Wow, if I was in Joe’s situation, what would I do?’ “ says Patricia Driscoll, president and executive director of the Armed Forces Foundation, which assists the wounded and their families at Walter Reed, and who grew to know Joe well.
Unable to voice a response because of a ventilation tube down his throat, Joe carefully penned in block letters on a grease-board his terms for what lay ahead: “No more surgeries please ... I’ll die comfortably here ... Let me pass if heart stop.”
Exhausted family members and medical workers embraced one another in a nearby waiting room and wept.
“Joe is probably the first and probably the only person that has said, ‘Enough,’ “ says Navy Cmdr. Carlos Rodriguez, another lead surgeon.
So the cutting stopped. Estimates were that Joe might live another few weeks before the fungus killed him.
But in the hours and days that followed, something very nearly a miracle unfolded, says Joe’s sister, Maria Grabianowski, 28.
“It’s a blessing that he’s here,” she says now. “It really is.”