At the bottom of the 6th inning of a July 4 baseball game between the Atlanta Braves and the Miami Marlins, Army Ranger Joe Kapacziewski walked onto the field.
“Sgt. First Class Joseph Kapacziewski is one of the most decorated soldiers we have had the pleasure of having at Turner Field,” said Mackenzie Anderson, spokeswoman for the Atlanta Braves.
Every week, the Braves host “Hometown Heroes” to honor local soldiers. The game is paused as the soldiers walk onto the field and the crowd honors them.
It had been a long journey for Kapacziewski: from the fields of Durham, Conn., to the mountains of Afghanistan to a bed at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. When he walked out onto Turner Field that night in July, Kapacziewski stood among a rare kind of solider. He is one of the few soldiers in history to lose a limb and return to war.
Kapacziewski, born in Durham, lived in town for most of his childhood. “Growing up in Durham was awesome,” he said. He lived on a small farm near the Guilford town line where he lived a country childhood. His family tended two large gardens every year and raised goats, chickens, rabbits and horses. His extended family lived all around. He lived on a road that “was all family, in one way or the other.”
“It was a great place to grow up,” he said.
When he was 11, his father died in a car accident and he went to live with his grandparents in Bristol, Conn.
In senior year of high school, Kapacziewski “signed the dotted line.” He was tired of sitting in a classroom and was looking for an adventure. It was days before Sept. 11, 2001.
When he heard of the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Kapacziewski — like most — was shocked and angry. Unlike many, he was in basic training at Fort Benning, Ga., a mere week after the attack.
The Army deployed Kapacziewski, June 2002, to Afghanistan.
“It was the wild, wild west,” Kapacziewski said. Mountains were stacked on top of mountains. The land was shades of brown and gray — except for the areas where patches of green showed water was nearby. Children ran around without shoes in the dirt roads and the architecture was different— most doors were half the size of American doors.
The first taste of combat was “really just another day,” he said He wasn’t emotional about it one way or the other. The training he went through had prepared him for the moment.
Fast forward to October 2005. Kapacziewski was finishing his fifth deployment, just days away from flying back to the states. He was on a routine call to capture or kill a high-value target, when the Rangers were ambushed from an overpass above. The enemy was lobbing grenades down on the soldiers when one landed in the striker vehicle next to Kapacziewski. It “beat up the right side of my body pretty bad,” he said.
At the beginning, Kapacziewski focused on the best possible outcome — to eventually lead Rangers into combat. But it took three months before he experienced feeling in his right hand. His arm was healing faster than his leg, embedded with 18 pin. He was able to wiggle his fingers, but there still was chronic pain with his foot. Eighteen months later, he told the doctors to amputate.
For Kapacziewski, it was a matter of quality of life. He could go through life with two feet and experience pain, or he could amputate.
With a bum leg out of the way, Kapacziewski started the process of returning to the Rangers wearing his prosthetic limb. His goal was controversial in the Army. Some supported him. Others were “very skeptical.”
The decision came down to the Ranger Physical fitness test. Kapacziewski completed the minimum of six pull-ups, and scored 80 percent or higher with the test’s push-up requirement, the two-mile run, the five-mile run in under 40 minutes, the 12-mile march with 45 pounds of gear and the fast-rope out of a helicopter with 65 pounds of equipment.
Kapacziewski faced a challenge with the fast-rope. Usually, soldiers with slow themselves with their feet as well as their hands. He used two sets of leather work gloves to provide enough friction and cushioning for his hands.
Kapacziewski was reinstated to the Rangers as a platoon sergeant and would lead Rangers into combat for five additional tours.
“It’s not a big deal,” he said. “I enjoy what I do. It’s really all I’ve ever known.”
He said there have been about two dozen soldiers who have lost limbs and have returned to serve, but only a handful have returned to direct combat.
In 2011, USA Today published a feature about Kapacziewski. An employee at St. Martin’s Press found the article and suggested his story would make a good book. St. Martin’s asked Kapacziewski. At first, Kapacziewski “respectfully declined,” but then his wife, Kimberly, found out about the book offer.
“At that point, I really didn’t have an option,” Kapacziewski said.
“Back in the Fight, the Explosive Memoir of a Special Operator Who Never Gave Up,” was published by St. Martin’s Press earlier this year.
St. Martin’s asked author Charles Sasser to help write the book. Sasser did the background research, reading military after-action reports, traveling several times to Fort Benning to meet with Kapacziewski.
Sasser found that returning to war after losing a limb is rare. One Roman soldier lost a hand and returned, another French soldier lost a foot, “but not like this,” Sasser said. “They were treated a lot differently.”
Sasser, who writes about military history, compares Kapacziewski to other notable, modern soldiers such as Vietnam sniper Carlos Hathcock and Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle. These kind of soldiers are humble, Sasser said, adding that he hears the “great soldiers of our time” often saying “I was just doing my job.”
Sasser said soldiers in the Rangers, in the special forces often possess frontier qualities like courage, commitment to duty and patriotism. “They are the epitome of man, of what men should be,” he said. Sasser admires Kapacziewski for his perseverance, adding that he is a quiet man, coming to the point when he speaks.
When asked what experience in Durham made him the person he is today, Kapacziewski points to his father, William Kapacziewski Jr.
“He was the hardest worker that I met in my life,” he said.
Kapacziewski’s father forced him to do chores, taught him the value of the dollar and forged a never-quit attitude in his son.
William Kapacziewski Jr. died in a vehicle accident when Joe Kapacziewski was 11 and is was buried in Durham, in the little cemetery on Mica Hill. The values he imparted to his son clearly have a part in this story. Joe Kapacziewski never quit. He became the first soldier to return to active combat while wearing a modern prosthetic limb, proving doubters wrong and joining the ranks of notable soldiers who emerged from the War on Terror.
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