On May 1, it will have been 15 years since former Army Sgt. Steven Pyle had a brush with death in Mosul, Iraq, during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Despite brain trauma suffered that day by a mortar attack, the moment is seared in his cognizance, positioning him at times in two places at once. So when neighbors in a sleepy community off Spruce Creek Drive gathered to welcome Pyle and six of his eight children to a home given to him by the non-profit Building Homes for Heroes because of his service and sacrifice, Mosul was ever-present.
“I can’t conceive any words that are good enough to express my thanks and gratitude,” Pyle said from the kitchen of the house. “I’m humbled and very grateful… I’m trying to keep it together.”
This week, as he sat on the living room carpet of his new home, Pyle talked about the long road from Mosul to Port Orange — one physical battlefront not far enough behind him, and a mental battlefront he traverses daily — trying to raise eight children with his now-ex wife, the physical and mental scars that remain and what he is trying to do for himself and others like him.
A world from war
For daily tasks, Pyle’s mind gets cloudy. He sustained a traumatic brain injury, post traumatic stress disorder, injuries to his neck, back, and right foot, deep vein thrombosis, a pulmonary embolism, post-thrombotic syndrome and damage to his ear drum.
But strong memories stick with him.
Pyle had already served eight years as an Army infantryman and had been discharged for nine when re-enlisted in 2001 in the days following the 9/11 attacks, which he watched on television.
“I thought it was a movie,” Pyle said. “I thought, ‘I don’t want to see that,’ and so I changed the channel. But it was on every channel. Then I saw the other plane hit.”
After a few days, Pyle woke up early one morning and told his wife he wanted to re-enlist.
“I’d never been to New York in my life, but I cared about those people. … I wanted to pay them back, I guess,” Pyle recalled. “She said, ‘Steve, you’re 36 years old. Maybe you should go back to sleep.'”
But he went anyway, he said, finding himself moving mostly with the 196th Transportation Company of the Army’s 101st Airborne Air Assault Division.
Pyle recalled the sights, the sounds, the smells of his part in the military’s 2003 “shock and awe” campaign to depose Iraq dictator Saddam Hussein and spread democracy in the Middle East. Pyle hesitates to share those images with his children right now, but said he might one day.
“It was very intense and they’re too young to totally understand,” he said.
A fateful day
On May 1, 2003, U.S. forces had been in control of territory where Pyle was stationed, in Mosul, about 260 miles north of Baghdad, for about a month. That day, President George W. Bush, standing aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln under a banner declaring MISSION ACCOMPLISHED, announced major fighting in Iraq was done.
That very day, a blast from a mortar round threw Pyle into a nearby vehicle.
“When I came to, I couldn’t get up. I was bleeding,” Pyle said in a 2005 interview with The News-Journal while he recovered at his then-home in DeLand. “I saw a couple of guys running toward me.”
They were enemy soldiers.
“We struggled and fought. They beat the hell out of me,” he said at the time.
Pyle fought off both men, then hid among the remaining rubble of the mortar attack for six hours until U.S. forces found him and airlifted him to safety.
He was sent home to DeLand to heal in 2005 after two years of hospitalization and attempted to become re-deployable, he said, but was medically retired in 2007.
“I tried to stay,” Pyle said this week from his new home. “But the doc said I had to go.”
He received a Purple Heart among other awards for his heroism.
On the floor of his new home, Pyle recalled the first three years after he was released from duty.
“I barricaded myself inside the house,” Pyle said, holding out cupped hands and adding, “They had me so jacked up on pills.”
He said he tried to stop the meds altogether, but that was a severe mistake. “That almost killed me,” he said.
Then one day, he said he decided to go fishing and the decision transformed the way he thought about his recovery.
“It wasn’t about catching fish,” he said. “It was about being out on the water.”
Since then, Pyle has been trying to lead a normal life. While his injuries keep him from working full time, he is heavily involved in many veterans service groups such as Operation Outdoor Freedom, Fairways for Warriors and has just recently become a mentor with The Wounded Warrior Project.
He is also working on gaining non-profit status for his own project, Battle Buddy Fishing, so he can share the quiet of the water with others who are recovering from war wounds. He said he has a small boat, but eventually wants to invite soldiers who are confined to wheelchairs, like he was once.
“I had to learn to walk again. I had to learn to do a lot of things again,” Pyle said.
After many years raising eight children, now ranging from 10 to college age, he and his wife recently divorced. Pyle admits the remnants of the warfront played a part.
“She says that I changed. I did change. I know I did,” Pyle said. “War is exactly what it is. It’s war. … I changed with that experience.”
He said the gift of the mortgage-free home will help him start over. Since the split, he had been renting a home in Port Orange.
“It was costing me a fortune and I was just going to continue renting,” Pyle said. “Now that I’ve got this house, I can focus on myself again.”
1st Volusia home
Emotion at the welcome-home event last week was shared by a crowd of well-wishers, as Pyle and his children saw their home for the first time. Knowing what Pyle went through overseas, a state senator said she was affected by the moment.
“Oh my gosh, I tear up just thinking about it,” Sen. Dorothy Hukill said, describing the surprise of Pyle’s children and the warmth of strangers celebrating with them.
Pyle is one of more than 32,000 American servicemen and women who were wounded in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan after 9/11, according to the Department of Defense. The Homes for Heroes program builds or remodels homes for those veterans in an effort to eliminate at least some of the stress of daily life for those who served.
“We average gifting one home every 11 days,” said Kim Valdyke, director of construction for Building Homes for Heroes.
Pyle’s refurbished home is the program’s first in Volusia County, according to Cody Brannon, the program’s construction and events manager. Three have been gifted to veterans in Flagler County and two more in Brevard.
In all, the program has provided close to 140 homes since 2013.
JP Morgan Chase Co. helps that effort by redirecting foreclosures to the program and has donated more than 950 homes since 2011 through partnerships with Building Homes for Heroes and other nonprofits, according to a press release. Of those, 228 of those homes were donated to families in Florida, while Advance Auto Parts has donated more than $6.8 million toward renovations.
According to its website, the Homes for Heroes organization has also started programs that include financial planning, family services and emergency support for veterans.
Hukill, at a legislative breakfast last week, said she was proud that part of the funding will be coming from Florida taxpayers as well.
The Florida Legislature approved two annual grants through the Department of Economic Opportunity that will supply $2 million through 2019 so that the program can help renovate homes in the state of Florida.
“To give a family a home and watch these kids’ faces light up in a nice, big, back yard was just so heartwarming,” Hukill said.
“You could see that they were genuinely happy for their dad,” said Port Orange Councilman Scott Stiltner, who also was there. Stiltner said it was such a wonderful experience to witness that he hopes Port Orange can find a way to be more proactive in identifying homes in the city that can be used this way, to perpetuate more feel-good events for war vets like this one.
“We’re at a time in our country where we could really use more of these,” he said.
Pyle said he felt like that day was one of the greatest days of his life, one of surprise and gratitude at the outpouring of support.
His post-9/11 sacrifice amounted to doing something he loved and something he felt was important, being a soldier in the Army when he was needed, he said in his new driveway, beneath an Army flag and the Stars and Stripes.
“I feel like I really don’t deserve the home,” he said. “I was just doing my job.”
To find out more about the program, find out how to help or to learn how to apply to be a recipient of a home, go to buildinghomesforheroes.org.
© 2018 The News-Journal, Daytona Beach, Fla.
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