TAMPA — He went to Afghanistan to fight for his country. He came back to his country fighting for his life.
Kevin Kammerdiener found out when he arrived at Tampa International Airport on Tuesday just how much extended family he has to fight with him.
About 200 people, many of them veterans or in military service, waved flags, held banners and cheered as he rode in his wheelchair through the airport after flying in from Texas.
They cheered even harder when Kammerdiener, 22, the injured soldier who was never expected to walk or talk again, stood up from his wheelchair and took a few steps.
Offered a cane, he slung it over one shoulder and mugged for the crowd.
"He's not lost his sense of humor," said his mother, Leslie Kammerdiener. "That's the first thing we got back."
Kevin Kammerdiener was an Army private on May 31, 2008, when he was blown off a Humvee during a suicide bomber attack in Afghanistan. He suffered serious burns and injuries to the brain.
Since then, he has had numerous surgeries at a veterans hospital in San Antonio, Texas.
"They didn't think he would live," said his grandmother, Jane Juart.
Though recuperating far better than physicians predicted, the soldier needs round-the-clock care.
His older sister, aunt and maternal grandparents left their jobs and moved from Pennsylvania to Riverview in 2009, hoping to be with him as he started treatment at Tampa's James A. Haley VA Medical Center.
But complications from a skull replacement sent Kammerdiener and his mother back to Texas for 10 months.
When Michael Whitt, a founder of the nonprofit Operation American Pride, learned the Kammerdieners were finally coming home, he and other veterans groups rushed to put together a hero's homecoming that included a motorcycle escort nearly 200 strong.
Most of the motorcyclists had gathered to wait for the honoree in the parking lot of the Ikea store near the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway. Later, after the escort to Riverview, he stood in his driveway at home as he was showered with gifts and cries of "speech!"
"Hi," he said. "Hello."
Asked if he liked the motorcycle brigade, he replied, "Oh, God, wow, yeah."
Kammerdiener recently received a Purple Heart, a promotion and a medical discharge.
His mother, who last year was a panelist in a national conference spotlighting the demands on caregivers of critically wounded veterans, said a long road of surgeries and therapy lies ahead for her son.
She maintains a blog, "Mended Wings," about her son's progress. It's at lesliekamm.blogspot.com.