‘I lost my legs’: State College High graduate injured in Afghanistan

Adam Hartswick, an Army senior combat medic, knew what to do after a bomb blew up a patch of Afghanistan.

He saved a life — his own.

Hartswick, 22, of Pine Grove Mills, was severely injured Tuesday in Kandahar province when he stepped on an improvised explosive device while trying to tend to wounded soldiers from an ambushed U.S. platoon.

As he lay on the ground, in shock, his legs gone, a platoon leader rushed to his aid. But the officer needed help himself.

Hartswick, still conscious, had the presence of mind to provide it.

“I was able to instruct the lieutenant on how to treat me,” Hartswick, a 2009 State College Area High School graduate, said Thursday from his bed in a military hospital at Bagram air base near Kabul.

“I told him to put the tourniquets high and tight on my legs.”

Hartswick believes the lieutenant’s quick actions kept him alive. The blast took both his legs above the knees, both index fingers and part of one thumb. Three soldiers died in the convoy attack and the aftermath, according to NATO reports.

When Hartswick called his mother in Pine Grove Mills after the initial surgery, he again stayed calm.

It was 1:30 a.m. her time. His calls from Afghanistan had come late in the night before, so Morgen Hummel wasn’t alarmed at first.

He asked her if she had heard the news. Then he told her simply: “I lost my legs.”

“What a strong and resolute way to say it,” Hummel said. “Don’t mince words. He knows how to give it to me straight.”

Her son went on to say: “I’m going to get new legs. I’m going to do rehab, and I’m going to be all right.”

“There’s no beating around the bush,” Hartswick said Thursday. “I just had to tell her, make her feel at ease. ... I know my mom’s a strong woman, so she could handle the news.”

Sean Hartswick, an Army first sergeant, spoke with his son within 45 minutes after the explosion.

Divorced years ago, he has served in the military for 33 years. On Thursday, he was driving back to State College from training in Colorado, both anxious and proud.

From one soldier to another, he called his son “an American hero.”

“He ran to the fight, right into the mix,” Sean Hartswick said.

He and Hummel face months of caring for their boy, a high school wrestler, through prosthetic legs, physical therapy and other adjustments.

They’re ready.

“They’ve got a saying (in Colorado) that you’ve just got to cowboy-up,” Sean Hartswick said. “That is what it is. We’ve got to be strong for Adam.

“You don’t have any choice.”

A family that serves

Adam Hartswick comes from a tradition of military service.

Both of his grandfathers served during World War II. Hummel’s late father, Max Hummel, landed at Omaha Beach two days after the Normandy invasion.

But Hartswick’s first wish was to treat people, not fight them.

At State High, a teacher recruited him into the school’s now-defunct emergency medical treatment training program. He loved it. Eventually, he helped cart away injured football players before he took his interest to another level.

For a year, he volunteered with Centre LifeLink EMS, riding in ambulances with emergency medical technicians to all sorts of calls.

“It never fazed him, so I knew he had found his calling,” Morgen Hummel said.

At 17, he decided he wanted to pursue that path in the military. After graduation, he completed his medical training at Fort Sam Houston in Texas.

In December, he deployed to Afghanistan.

He got plenty of chances to use his skills, including once with an enemy soldier who initially punched him in the head. Hartswick set the man’s broken legs anyway.

On Tuesday, Hartswick was at his combat operating post with Alpha Company in a remote part of Zhari district when the radio squawked. A patrol vehicle about 30 minutes away had hit a roadside bomb.

The Taliban’s spring offensive had claimed more casualties.

Hartswick and the rest of a quick response team rolled out in their vehicles.

At the scene, they were directed down a path. But upon arrival, they found nobody alive to treat.

“We started clearing the area, and another IED went off,” Hartswick said.

An explosive ordnance specialist, going to check a body for booby traps, triggered the bomb and died from the explosion.

Ten yards away, Hartswick was left dazed. He began treating his wounded comrades. One man lay near a river.

Hartswick ran to him.

He never made it to the water.

After the lieutenant quickly stanched the bleeding, soldiers took Hartswick by litter to a medevac helicopter — and the first step in a long journey back home.

“It’s sad that he got injured,” Sean Hartswick said. “But he’s alive and I’ve got to appreciate that. A lot of his buddies weren’t that fortunate.”

In a distant bed Thursday, his son thought of them. Adam Hartswick lived by the medic’s code: “I will always get you.”

This time, he couldn’t.

“They were all my friends,” he said, his voice thickening. “They’re all my brothers.”

'I'm coming back'

At the hospital this week, a three-star general promoted Hartswick to sergeant.

He faces a different life with his new rank.

From Bagram, he’ll go to Germany, then to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., for more treatment and therapy, then perhaps back to Fort Sam Houston for additional rehabilitation. He could return stateside this weekend.

After recently re-upping, he’s determined to complete his enlistment — as he told his commanding officer this week.

“The bad guys should have killed me when they had the chance,” Hartswick recalled saying, “because I’m coming back.”

He can count on his family being by his side the entire way.

“I’m going to stay with him through this whole process,” Sean Hartswick said. “I’ll rent a place wherever he is and work to help him get back to loving life, because he’s got a lot of life to enjoy.”

Morgen Hummel, the Bellefonte Curves gym manager, also said she’ll do whatever it takes to care for her son.

“He’s been my rock for years,” she said. “He’s an inspiration to all of us.”

On Thursday, she wore a T-shirt that read “Proud Mom of a Combat Medic” while fielding a stream of calls from co-workers and friends and struggling not to cry.

When people before would ask her how she coped with her son overseas, she used to say, “I walk the tightrope of pride and fear.”

“Now, the fear is gone,” she said. “He’s coming home. At least he’s out of harm’s way.”

She said her son, despite his injuries, remains upbeat with his sense of humor intact.

“The family’s doing OK,” she said. “We’re all positive, pragmatic people. We’re trying to be positive about this, because he’ll never be the same.”

On the phone, she and her son tried to maintain a sense of normalcy. She told him the big American Association of University Women book sale had come and gone.

The Pittsburgh Penguins were doing well in the playoffs.

But the talk kept doubling back to the only subject that really mattered.

“You’re a hell of a man, Adam,” Hummel said. “You’re my hero.”