Brandyn Preston was 19, still figuring out life, when he decided he couldn't move forward without looking into his past.
He told the man who had raised him that he wanted to learn more about his biological father.
Donovan Wood, 40, retired Army sergeant at MacDill Air Force Base and Brandyn's stepfather, understood. He urged Brandyn and his brother to head out on their quest.
"My brothers always said they wanted to see their daddy and get some questions answered," said their sister Brittany Lee. "But most of all they wanted to know him."
Brandyn drove from South Tampa to Iowa, where he found a half brother he had never met who loved sports and football just as much as he did. He was so excited he called his sister back home. He met a paternal grandmother and lived with her while he reconnected to this new side of his family. He saw his birth father for the first time in years.
On May 8, Brandyn attended a high school graduation party for one of his family members in Fort Dodge, Iowa. He was wrapping up his trip, celebrating one final time with this side of his family at a bonfire.
They filled a hole for him, Wood said, and now he could move ahead with firm plans for the future. He would complete his diploma, enroll in a community college and transfer to a university where he hoped to walk on to the basketball team.
Then, at the graduation party, someone fired a gun. That's when Brandyn's search for his past turned into a fight for his future.
• • •
It was 6 a.m. when the phone call destroyed Mother's Day for Kimberly Wood. Within hours, the 41-year-old was on a plane and at her son's side.
Brandyn had been shot in the back of the neck. One of his half sisters drove him to a hospital before he was flown to Iowa Methodist Medical Center.
The bullet struck Brandyn's spinal cord, paralyzing him from the neck down. Fort Dodge police and the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation do not have a suspect and continue to investigate. Few details have been released about the shooting, but Brandyn's family thinks he was an innocent bystander.
Brandyn's health has slowly improved since the shooting, but he still relies on a ventilator. He is conscious and can speak in a hoarse whisper, his family said.
He cannot sit up, which frustrates the 6-foot-7-inch man whom a video once captured jumping over two standing teenagers for a trick dunk. He never knew a game he didn't want to jump into, his family said, and was always upbeat and joking around. They called him "B."
"We had to make sure that we had plenty for Brandyn to do," said Wood. "He was like a jackrabbit. You'd have to take the batteries out of him. He was always on the go."
When a YouTube clip featuring one of his high school basketball games was posted, he wrote "Thats Me! =)." Just hours before the shooting, he had been watching the NBA playoffs. "How Bout Them Mavericks. Bout To Sweep L.A.," he wrote on Facebook.
His mother raised him primarily alone until the age of 9, when she met Wood while he was stationed at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.
Both had children of their own and together their blended family included seven children, including two young boys the couple have together. The family moved with Wood's transfers, from Missouri to Washington, D.C., to Tampa, where they arrived in 2007.
Brandyn bounced around, too. He attended East Bay High School, then moved back to Missouri to live with his mother's family where he wore No. 44 for Waynesville High School. He moved back to Tampa and attended Robinson High School last year.
He was a grade behind when he turned 18, and the school told Brandyn it would take more than a year to catch up. Instead, he chose to take adult classes to earn a diploma, but he never finished.
It's too early to know what the future holds, but since the shooting he has whispered two things.
"I want to live."
"I want to come home."
The family needs help to make it happen.
• • •
A day before Brandyn was shot, Wood and his family had moved into a Port Tampa rental home. He and the children didn't have time to unpack before loading into a van and driving 20 hours to Iowa to join Wood's wife at Brandyn's side.
Cardboard boxes remained scattered around their home last week while a printer sat on the dining room floor and poster frames stacked against a wall.
The Army had prepared Wood for much. He earned a Bronze Star while in combat in Iraq and saw permanently maimed soldiers come back from war. But he never saw a paraplegic and doesn't know what it will take to emotionally and financially care for Brandyn.
"I know we're not the only ones who've experienced it, but you never think it's going to happen to your child," he said. "Normally when this happens to you, you're not 1,000 miles away."
The first step is to fly Brandyn home. The family is unsure how much that would cost or if Wood's insurance will pay a portion of the expense.
Wood now works as a financial analyst at MacDill, while Brandyn's mother is a patient service representative at CVS-Caremark. Wood's insurance covers many of Brandyn's medical bills, so far. However, the family anticipates additional expenses for retrofitting a room to accommodate Brandyn, as well as providing future around-the-clock care.
First Brandyn will have to undergo months of rehabilitation, and the family is hoping to admit him to Kindred Hospital in Tampa.
When Brandyn awoke days after the shooting, he had no idea what happened to him. He turned to his family and asked, "Where am I?"
The family hopes that next time, their answer will be "home."
Information from the Messenger News of Fort Dodge, Iowa, and the Des Moines Register contributed to this report. Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or email@example.com.