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INJURED ARMY RANGER GETS HERO'S WELCOME

A motorcycle caravan brings him home.

One year ago this week, the job that Romulo "Romy" Camargo loves nearly cost him his life.

On a mission to destroy a damaged piece of equipment near Kandahar, Afghanistan, the Army Ranger and his unit were ambushed. Fighting their way out of the attack, Camargo was shot in the neck.

Since then, the 33-year-old soldier has fought a different fight, one that at first was a fight just to live. Now Camargo, who is paralyzed from the neck down, fights to be independent, to walk again and to return to that which he loves - service to his country.

Recovering and undergoing rehabilitation at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa, Camargo once mentioned to his patient advocate how he'd love to go home and along the way, he'd love to have a few motorcycles accompany him.

On Saturday, he got his wish and in a huge way.

With more than 200 bikes as his escorts through four counties past business signs proclaiming him a hero and welcoming him home, Camargo returned to the place he grew up, Crystal River. As Camargo's van and the bikers streamed into the Crystal River Harley-Davidson shop through a cloud of mist and barbecue smoke, a crowd waved hands and flags greeted him.

In the crowd, Dorothy Kretkowski gripped an American flag as the group passed. She has been writing Camargo since she first heard about his story several months ago and said she had to come meet him. "That smile of his just makes my day and pulls me through," said Kretkowski a part-time Inverness resident.

George Bacon teared up as Camargo came by. He too had to be there. Former military himself, Bacon taught Camargo at Crystal River High School and owed him the visit.

Bacon said he was sure that if Camargo said he'd be back on his feet again, "he'll do it."

A booming rendition of Born to Be Wild blasted from the band as the motorcycles thundered into the lot. Moments later, friends and relatives surrounded the wheelchair-bound soldier. At the microphone, Camargo thanked everyone profusely.

"It's good to be back home in Crystal River," he said. "It's so good to see everyone."

Another caravan of bikes, and Camargo was on his way to the exclusive gated community of Black Diamond in central Citrus County. As spectators gazed skyward, four Army Special Operations paratroopers exited their plane with red smoke trailing behind them. They each spiraled downward to their landing site, the flapping sound of the flags they carried descending with them.

Back inside the country club, there was a sold-out audience of 340 people - a mix of party dresses and dress uniforms, camouflage and leather vests.

Camargo got the key to the city of Crystal River from Mayor Ron Kitchen, the day named in his honor, a resolution from Congress from Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite and multiple standing ovations from a crowd eager to thank Camargo for his service and sacrifice.

At the microphone, Camargo said he was overwhelmed and speechless, but he found his voice, telling about his days on the soccer field, the wrestling mat and the swim team. He told of jumping from airplanes, of the words he heard from unit members after he was shot and the feeling when his wife kissed him on the forehead in the hospital and told him she loved him no matter what.

The incident, he said, made him "born again, smarter and harder."

Through the day, Camargo was surrounded by relatives gathered from as far away as Denmark and Venezuela.

Barbara Mills, a military mom who makes welcome home baskets for returning local service men and women, organized Saturday's events.

"This kid is remarkable. He's got an attitude that just won't quit," she said.

"Truly, this is the kind of guy that you thank God that this county produces," said Hiram Ortiz, Camargo's patient advocate.

On his third tour in Afghanistan when he was injured, the 14-year soldier said the injury "just happened when I was doing something I loved."

After the day's events, Camargo returned to Tampa to continue rituals of therapy and treatment. His wife, Gabriela, and their 2-year-old son, Andress, stay nearby.

"This has been a blessing," he said. "I got to spend the last months of his life with my father, who passed away in April. And for the last year, I've had every day with my wife and my son."

Camargo's teenage daughter Alina also visits from Orlando.

While his prognosis is uncertain, he talks about the day his current "vacation" ends, and he'll be back doing the job of a soldier, even if that means a desk job somewhere.

"I have a skill set I can share," he said. "I can still make a difference."

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

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