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Spring Hill soldier is back home, but war's echoes remain

BROOKSVILLE -- Before he became a warrior, Ryan Proscia was much like any other young guy in America.

He was an average student in high school, his mom said, good in the classes he liked; in others, not so much. He joined a JROTC program not because he was a super-patriot, but because he liked the military. And he liked to shoot guns.

When a job fell through after he graduated from Nature Coast Technical High School in 2007, he looked at the various branches of the military before settling on the Army in 2009.

Last January, he landed in Afghanistan to begin a year of 16-hour guard tower shifts and endless miles of foot patrols in nondescript dusty towns.

One night in February, Proscia was standing sentry when the bullets and bombs found his post. He alerted his buddies, then opened fire with his heavy machine gun.

His mother said he told her he killed seven of the eight attackers; Proscia, adhering to the Army code of keeping such details to himself, just said he "gained fire superiority.''

Now at his parents' Spring Hill home recovering after an enemy bullet shattered his left arm in five places in another firefight, he reflected recently on the events of the past four months.

He still sports a baby face even after months on the front line, but his calm, matter-of-fact tone belies the grim horror of what he has experienced in a short time.

Like most people his age, the 23-year-old is a gadget guy. He keeps images of the X-rays of his wounded arm on his smartphone. His hand-eye coordination was honed by years of flicking game controllers.

"It's the modern age. We've got video games and I'm a big video gamer,'' he said. "I didn't look at it like I'm killing people. These people were going to kill me and I've got a good shot.''

In many ways, Proscia represents a generation of young Americans who have come of age since Sept. 11, 2001. They've left their small towns to fight a distant war, not so much to avenge terror attacks that took place when they were kids but because it was something to do in a recession-wracked nation.

As heroic and honorable as his service has been, it is strikingly similar to that of thousands of returning veterans. Together, it has become the quiet fabric of life knitted in America over the past decade.

His tale is remarkable precisely because his experiences — as horrific as they are — have become so commonplace in a country that continues to slog through the longest war in its history.

• • •

Destiny had tagged April 1 as a memorable point in time for Proscia.

He was supposed to get a promotion that day to Army corporal. Instead, while on patrol, he caught a bullet.

"They got me,'' he said, nonchalantly.

"I didn't even know I got shot,'' he added. "I just felt pressure.''

Proscia tried to lift his machine gun but his left arm wouldn't cooperate.

"I tried to reach for my medi-pack … I was (ticked), thinking, "Why does everything take two hands?''

A buddy raced to him and, grabbing a strap, pulled Proscia out of the line of fire. "I said, "What are you doing?' He said, 'Hey, you're really heavy.' ''

Proscia took his life-altering wound in stride, like pretty much everything else he encountered after arriving in Miri, Afghanistan — northeast of Kandahar near the Pakistan border — with the First Infantry, 3rd Brigade Combat Team.

No running water and limited electricity from a generator, showers once every two to three weeks? No big deal.

Driving through a minefield, living in a compound where explosives are underfoot? Proscia was happy just to have a building to call home.

"I pictured us sleeping in the dirt,'' he said of his expectations before being deployed. "We got real lucky. We got to have a structure. That's better than sleeping in a tent.''

He saw the people of Afghanistan living on next to nothing and improvising inventions to survive. Hoping the gesture would somehow help his buddies, Proscia tried to befriend some Afghans.

Sometimes, though, he had to kill them.

• • •

Sitting in his mother's Spring Hill home last week, all of that nastiness was a world away.

His wife, Jennifer, their 18-month-old daughter Evalyn, his younger sister Maygan and his mother, Valerie Doyle, listened as he quietly unrolled his story. And he listened to theirs.

When her son went off to war in January, Doyle raised an American flag outside her house. The stars and stripes would fly until he was home and safe, she vowed.

"I was scared as a mom. I didn't want him going over there,'' she said.

Doyle played a game with herself and friends and family to ease the tension she felt, using the euphemism "summer camp'' to describe where Proscia was. People would ask her how summer camp was going, and she would say, "Oh, Ryan is horseback riding this week.''

Then came April 1, and the phone call she considered "every mother's nightmare.'' Her son had been shot and was in a military hospital in Germany.

A few days later, a severe thunderstorm boiled across Hernando County and the high winds flattened her flag pole. As she ran outside to scoop up the tattered flag, she realized he was out of Afghanistan. "I could take the flag in,'' she said.

Proscia was soon headed back to the states for more treatment of his wounds, and a reunion with his anxious family.

For weeks, Doyle talked about how she couldn't wait to see her son. She helped plan the visit to Fort Knox, Ky., with her daughter-in-law and granddaughter, both of whom had been living with her while Proscia was overseas.

As they neared the base, Proscia told her on the phone that he was shopping in a Kohl's department store. They just happened to be passing one, so they went inside, hoping to surprise him.

Doyle searched the aisles, telling herself over and over that she wouldn't cry if she saw her son. She walked right past a thin young man in a baseball cap.

Then she noticed the sling holding his left arm.

"The first thing she did was cry,'' Proscia said.

Doyle said that as she visited with him and helped him set up his housing at the base, she noticed that her son seemed different.

"My son is normally very, very funny,'' she said. "That was not there. I know that something like what has happened to him changes you.''

• • •

Proscia had been in line for a sharpshooter's job, but the enemy bullet killed that dream. His arm is held together with a series of metal plates and screws. He received his Purple Heart at a military air base in Afghanistan.

"God has a different plan for him,'' Doyle said.

Proscia acknowledges that he has changed in some ways as a result of his time overseas.

When he arrived in Afghanistan, he said he suddenly realized a love for his country he'd never known before.

"After we got there I was like, "God, I want to go back to America.' I hated it there,'' Proscia said.

"I have a lot more appreciation just for being in America,'' he said. "I'd rather be the poorest man in America than the richest man in Afghanistan.''

After Proscia returns to Fort Knox later this month, he and his wife and daughter will live in base housing while he undergoes therapy and rest and recovery for the next few months.

He said he's not sure what he will do then. He knows that because of his injury, it's virtually impossible for him to be sent back to the same unit with his buddies.

But like so many of his generation's warriors, he's become infused with the spirit and camaraderie of being part of a band of brothers. If he is prevented from returning to the front lines, he wants no part of being a cook or driver.

"The infantry is where it's at,'' he said.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1434.

Spring Hill soldier is back home, but war's echoes remain 05/21/11 [Last modified: Saturday, May 21, 2011 1:21pm]

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