Saturday, November 18, 2017
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Fallen comrade's family helps wounded Iraq War veteran reconnect

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They took his leg. In the context of saving his life while a ruptured femoral artery spewed blood across the ceiling of the Walter Reed Medical Center, it seemed a small price to pay. But how do you explain that to a broken soldier? A pep talk and a prosthesis just don't seem like enough.

So began Brian Taylor Urruela's journey to the rest of his life. He hobbled away from the Army. From his hometown, too. He said goodbye to his family and every thought resembling emotion. The past felt like nothing but pain, and he was hellbent on leaving it all behind. That included the little boy. The one who looked just like the friend he'd been trying to forget.

What Urruela failed to realize during all of this was that the past doesn't always have to hurt. Sometimes it can heal.

Here is your Memorial Day picture: A mother, a child and an ex-infantryman walking side by side to a neighborhood park in South Tampa. As the holiday implies, the image is significant for the one who is missing.

Maj. David G. Taylor was killed by a roadside bomb outside Baghdad in 2006. He left behind a wife, Michelle, and an infant son, Jake, whom he'd forever kissed goodbye at 2 weeks old. He also left the four men who were riding with him on patrol that hot October afternoon. Another major whose arm was nearly destroyed, and a bodyguard who lost a leg. A gunner who lost both legs. And Cpl. Urruela.

Urruela had not yet met Jake Taylor, but he knew all about him. As they drove the streets of Baghdad on 12-hour patrols, Taylor would routinely talk of the son who had yet to be born. Later, there would be no end to the parade of baby photos.

"He was so excited and so proud to be a dad,'' Urruela said. "Those were crazy times on the streets, but he was always so even keel. Always talking about life. We were all comrades. We were friends. We were brothers.''

At the time, Urruela was convinced he was in the military for life. He was 20 and glad to have escaped a troubled home in St. Louis.

That's why, later on, the psychiatrists couldn't help him. The bomb didn't just take his leg, it took the only future he had imagined. If he couldn't be a soldier, if he couldn't be a cop, if he couldn't be an athlete, what could he do?

The brutality of war had taught him to turn off his emotions, and he struggled to reconnect with the real world. His heart had stopped twice during the 14-hour surgery he had after his artery ruptured in the hospital, and he was terrified of having it happen again whenever he slept. He began to drift. He moved from town to town. From school to school. He drank too much and felt too little.

Finally, by chance, Urruela found himself living here and enrolled at the University of Tampa in 2011. That's where Michelle rediscovered him while browsing through his Facebook page.

Since her husband's death, Michelle had returned to work as a lawyer and begun what seemed like the inconceivable challenge of raising Jake alone. She had met Urruela — as well as the other four men in the vehicle — at a dinner honoring her husband in 2007.

Thrilled that one of Dave's friends was now living blocks away, she began inviting Urruela to family gatherings and Jake's Little League games.

"At that point, I just couldn't handle it. I would look at Jake and want to bawl,'' Urruela said. "I couldn't really talk to Michelle and didn't want to see her because I didn't know how to deal with it. But she's a sweetheart, and she knew I was struggling.''

One night, Urruela emailed Michelle explaining why he couldn't come around anymore. She wrote back, telling him she understood.

"Her email was cordial, but I could see there was a little bit of pain in it, and it instantly struck me,'' Urruela said. "I was like 'Oh my gosh, she lost her husband.' Screw your own issues, screw the fact that he was your friend, and you watched him die.

"She has to live with this the rest of her life. I felt terrible. Absolutely terrible. She probably doesn't even remember it, but for me it was life-changing because it made me see it from her eyes and realize the strength she has. I had been numb for a very long time. That allowed me to begin feeling again.''

Urruela began showing up more often. First, it felt like an obligation. Later, it felt like fate. He plays baseball with Jake, now 7. Shoots Nerf guns. They sang carols at Christmas, which was so far removed from Urruela's previous life that he still laughs about it today.

Jake does not often ask Urruela about his father, but Michelle, 40, knows the questions are hidden in there somewhere. It's something she has dealt with since he was a preschooler.

"I can remember the words he used. He said, 'Did daddy get dead fighting the bad guys?' '' Michelle said. "I was like, 'Wowwww.' I was totally not prepared for that. He knew his dad was a soldier, and he knew he was in heaven but I had never explained to him how his dad had died. So, I just said, 'Yes.' And then he asked, 'All the way dead?' It just shows that at that age he still wasn't quite sure. So I said, 'All the way to heaven.' ''

There will come a day, Michelle realizes, when Jake will want to know more. When she will let him read the journals Dave wrote for his son while in Iraq. When he will want to hear more stories and, perhaps, ask about the attack that killed his father. For that, she is grateful to know Urruela is nearby.

They have come to lean on each other, but still live their separate lives. Jake is finishing up first grade and getting ready for his first Little League postseason, while Urruela, who goes by the middle name Taylor among his friends, just finished his junior year at UT.

He is also a founder and vice president of VETSports, a rapidly growing national organization dedicated to helping veterans transition and heal through the power of athletics. At a Wounded Warriors football game against retired NFL players at Plant High last week, Urruela, 28, was dashing around the field with the exuberance of child.

By game's end, he had sneaked Jake into the huddle and got him the ball for a long touchdown run to the cheers of the crowd.

"My dad and my brother are wonderful, wonderful people, and so are Jake's coaches and all the other people and male role models in our lives,'' Michelle said. "But the thing that Taylor can bring to us that nobody else can, is that connection to Dave. That knowledge of what it was like to be a soldier with Dave.

"So that sense of bravery and courage and all of those traits that Dave had, Jake can see them now in Taylor as well. And I love that.

"I love that.''

     
       
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