No one predicted Adam Hartswick’s homecoming could have come so soon.
It was just in May that the 22-year-old Army medic lost both of his legs to an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan.
He’s spent the past weeks away from his Pine Grove Mills home and State College family and friends, recovering and beginning the arduous rehabilitation process at Walter Reed Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.
And while he woke up at the hospital like any other day early Thursday, by 2 p.m. Hartswick was receiving standing ovations from the throngs who lined South Allen Street, East College Avenue and the rest of the 4th Fest Parade of Heroes route.
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“I’m nervous, honestly,” a candid Hartswick said moments before the second annual parade was set to begin.
This year, the Parade of Heroes honored 14 local individuals, including Hartswick and Sgt. Vincent Reynolds, a 2006 Bellefonte graduate who also lost a leg to an IED in Afghanistan, who were selected for their service to the community and the country.
“I’ve never done something like this before,” Hartswick said. “I’ve never been in the public’s eye. I’m sure every other soldier in the military would vouch for me; you don’t ever consider yourself the hero. It’s always your brothers who are the heroes. The guys over there fighting now are the heroes.”
But try telling that to his family or to the hundreds who turned out Thursday to celebrate the heroism of Hartswick and the others.
“Go Adam,” shouted 7-year-old Malcolm Hummel as the military vehicle carrying Hartswick rumbled past from South Allen Street to East College Avenue.
Malcolm’s father, Kenny Hummel, is Hartswick’s cousin. The father and son were among more than a dozen family and friends gathered at the corner, wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the words “Adam’s Brigade.”
“It’s surprised even him the support he’s received,” Hummel said of his cousin. “For him to be well enough to come today, for people to be able to recognize the sacrifice he made, it really does mean a lot to all of us here.”
But just getting to State College on Thursday was a challenge for Hartswick and his family.
His father, Sean Hartswick, an Army first sergeant, said the family left Walter Reed around 3 a.m., drove straight to State College for the parade and were driving right back to Maryland as soon as the parade ended on the Penn State campus.
“This is his first day out of the hospital on a day pass where he could leave the hospital in almost two months,” Sean Hartswick said. “He’s still got some pretty bad injuries that are healing. He’s in some pain. But he wouldn’t take no for an answer. He said ‘Dad, get me up there.’”
Sean Hartswick said his son and the family have been touched by “overwhelming” support from the community.
Parade organizers said early indications are that the parade saw an attendance spike this year over the first event in 2012. In addition to marching bands and fire trucks, the parade this year featured large helium balloons, including one that was 55 feet tall, that drew excited reactions from spectators.
But, judging by the crowd’s reaction, Hartswick and his fellow heroes stole the show.
Seeing many faces for the first time since his combat injuries evoked strong emotions, Adam Hartswick said.
“It’s odd to be home this fast,” he said. “I thought it was going to take a long time at first, but then I realized I’m healthy, I’m strong and I can recover quickly.”
Reynolds, a 2006 Bellefonte Area School District graduate, who rode in the parade Thursday with his young daughter and family, is also at Walter Reed and has reached out to offer Hartswick support in his recovery.
“I told him if he needs anything, or if he needs me to show him the ropes, I’ll be glad to walk him through and show him everything down there,” Reynolds said. “I’ve been there for awhile.”
Reynolds is also rehabilitating from an IED-caused injury he suffered in September. For him, helping others has become second nature.
“To me it’s a duty,” Reynolds said. “I’ve always taken care of soldiers, or anyone for that matter, who is in that kind of need. It’s really just instinct anymore. So seeing another soldier in need, I’d be sure to have his back through thick and thin.”
It’s a feeling to which Hartswick can relate. The soldier said Thursday he would like to return to Afghanistan after completing his rehabilitation.
“I need to either go back, or if the war is over by then, keep helping soldiers somehow,” Hartswick said. “It’s my job.”