Fight of his life: State College soldier Hartswick recovering from Afghanistan IED blast that claimed his legs but not his spirit

Sgt. Adam Hartswick grimaces. His upper-arm muscles swell as sweat beads on his forehead.

This exercise, he’s pressing a lot of weight — his own.

Having inched out of his wheelchair and across a therapy table, he pushes himself up onto a small perch of twin yoga cushions, and straightens his torso.

He’s ready for another workout drawing him closer to new legs, ready to squeeze some more strength from his 22-year-old heart.

“There you go, buddy, yeah,” his father, Sean Hartwsick, says.

It’s Thursday afternoon in the Military Advanced Training Center gym within the vast Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. Everyone who is here, grunting and yelling over the pop and country music in the background, was robbed while in uniform. Their limbs, their past lives, are long gone.

Now, with the help of ace physical therapists and state-of-the-art equipment, they’re fighting to regain what explosions and bullets took.

Each person on a mat or machine has a story. Hartswick’s began five weeks ago and thousands of miles from his Pine Grove Mills and State College homes.

An Army combat medic, Hartswick lost his legs above the knees and his right index finger to an improvised explosive device on May 14 in Afghanistan. He either stepped on the IED or it was detonated as he and other soldiers came to the aid of an ambushed foot patrol.

Despite his wounds, he kept his wits, telling a platoon lieutenant how to apply tourniquets and saving his own life.

These days, he’s a decorated Walter Reed patient embarking on what he’s told will be a yearlong stay at the hospital. Each morning brings a new round against new foes: phantom limb pain, weakened muscles. Each evening marks another notch in his new mission: to walk again, the first steps toward an uncertain future.

“They say he has a road ahead of him, and it’s a long road, and it’s the rest of his life,” said his mother, Morgen Hummel. “But it’s all about attitude.”

The blast couldn’t steal that from her son.

Buoyed by his divorced parents taking turns to be by his side around the clock, and by the outpouring of support from home, Hartswick carries on and plunges into a world of skin grafts, medications, motorized chairs and grueling physical therapy.

“My spirits are always high,” he said, sitting in bed in his private room decorated with cards, letters, signed posters and other tokens from his legion of well-wishers.

A bomb shattered his body. It won’t break him. Neither fatigue nor grogginess from medications have dulled his sense of duty.

He owes it to himself to maintain his fortitude.

“Because I’ve seen other people that have negative attitudes, and they just don’t heal,” he said.

‘His warrior ethos’

So far, Hartswick has undergone 16 operations, about half the average number for double amputees.

Surgeons have used skin grafts to close off his stumps. His right leg is done. But his left still needs work. The last procedure, eight days ago, took a skin patch from his thigh.

Through it all, Hartswick perseveres, tethered to a tangle of tubes.

“He’s fighting a different battle now on a different front,” said Sean Hartswick, an Army first sergeant with 33 years in the military. “He’s still living his warrior ethos.”

It’s in Adam Hartswick’s blood.

His great-grandfather served as an Army medic in World War I. Both of his grandfathers fought as Army soldiers during World War II, one landing at Omaha Beach as part of the D-Day invasion and the other surviving several island campaigns in the Pacific.

Last month in remote Zhari province, Hartswick upheld his family’s honor.

With a quick response team, he rushed to his platoon’s firefight. Hartswick began searching for two missing men as an explosive ordnance disposal squad arrived.

The squad set out to clear bodies and paths to casualties. But one specialist stepped on an IED, killing him, wounding a soldier and knocking down Hartswick. He didn’t stay dazed for long. Picking himself up, he treated the wounded man — then made a fateful decision.

An officer, the EOD squad leader, was gone. Soldiers guessed he had been blown into a nearby river. Hartswick and others took off running.

“We thought if he was alive, we didn’t want him to drown, and if he was dead, we wanted to find him,” Hartswick said.

Before anyone reached the water, the IED exploded.

Hartswick’s injuries, which included a fractured hip socket, perforated eardrums and a concussion, earned him a Purple Heart — and also a visit at Walter Reed from Gen. Sean MacFarland. He brought a Combat Medical Badge award given for medical support to an infantry unit under fire.

But the two-star general wasn’t Hartswick’s highest-ranking visitor.

President Barack Obama took the prize.

Earlier this month, Obama stopped by, chatted with the nervous family and posed for photos. He shook Sean Hartswick’s hand but told Morgen Hummel: “You’re the mom. Moms get hugs.”

“He just walked in and treated us like we were old friends,” Adam Hartswick said.

Hartswick felt comfortable enough to carry out an unorthodox plan. Beforehand, he promised to offer his autograph if the president came into his room.

“And the next day, he showed up and I was like, ‘I can’t back down. I have to actually do it,’ ” Hartswick said.

Obama readily agreed to the deal. They swapped signatures before the president called Hartswick an “American hero.”

“It was really cool,” Hartswick said.

‘Share the pain’

On the way to physical therapy, Hartswick shares an elevator with a friend and fellow survivor.

Spc. Dane DeGrace, an EOD soldier from Tupper Lake, N.Y., also was running to the river when the IED detonated. Severely wounded, he lived on Hartswick’s floor before moving recently to Tranquility Hall, an outpatient barracks on the hospital grounds for wounded warriors as they continue their recoveries.

Both in motorized chairs, they chat until the elevator reaches the ground floor. As the door opens, DeGrace bumps fists with his pal and wishes him luck.

More support has come from Facebook and emails. But Hartswick’s real crutches have been his parents.

They alternate shifts serving as their son’s caregiver — or non-medical attendant, in military parlance. Whoever has night duty sleeps in a fold-out chair.

It’s been the routine ever since their son arrived.

“For the first moment I saw him, I prepared him. I said, ‘You know I’m going to cry when I see you,’ ” Hummel said. “And I did. I held him and I sobbed, and he cried, too, I think.”

Coming together as a family again brought emotional moments, too, at first. Those led to a small sign on a wall of Hartswick’s room. Surrounded by cards, it lays out ground rules: “No complaining. No political discussions. No discussion of personal finances. If you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything.”

After that, life became smoother, to Hartswick’s relief. He grew up in two households. He needs both pillars.

“It helps a lot,” he said. “My parents are divorced, so we had some issues with that sometimes, but for the most part they’ve been able to come together and set aside their differences just to help me — because, as a lot of the doctors and nurses have said, it’s all about me now. I’ve just got to focus on me and not let anything else stress me.”

Until recently, Hartswick took ketamine, a strong painkiller. But as a nasty side effect, the drug also triggers vivid dreams.

“And when associated with memories of the incident, of the attack, it created some bad experiences for me,” Hartswick said.

“Just having my dad here, who is a veteran himself, who wears the same T-shirt as me, in a sense, he helps me through those nightmares, especially the waking-up process. Because when you wake up sometimes, you don’t realize you’re in reality again.”

Their military backgrounds, Sean Hartswick said, make his son and him “tight companions in this.”

“We can share the pain and take it together,” he said, standing by his son’s bed. “I’ll be his legs for a little while until we can get those good prosthetics on there.”

‘I just get overwhelmed’

Hummel took a leave from her job as a gym manager in Bellefonte. Later this summer, if all goes well, she’ll live with her son in a Tranquility Hall apartment as his first caregiver after he leaves in-patient care.

Staying strong for Adam has taken its toll. She’s grateful that he’s alive, out of harm’s way, receiving top-notch care. She’s inspired by his progress.

“By all accounts — nurses, doctors and physical therapists — he is ahead of the curve, way ahead of the curve,” she said. “He’s the poster child of success.”

But when she watches his struggles, pain stabs her deep inside.

“As the mother, I think my tendency is to be more emotional about these things, but I try not to let him see it,” she said. “And it’s been hard. I’ve been able to share my emotions with him, to some degree, but he doesn’t see it all.”

Hartswick has seen plenty of love from his community.

An account for him raised $5,000 by its first weekend. A golf tournament in his honor collected $4,000. Over Memorial Day weekend, relatives set up a fundraising table at the Boalsburg Fire Company carnival.

At State College Area High School, his alma mater, students raised money for him and signed four patriotic posters, two of which hang in his hospital room. There have been chicken barbecues, among other charity events, and a State College benefit concert reportedly is in the works. He has been nominated to be in the Parade of Heroes during this year’s Central PA 4th Fest.

Add his daily Facebook barrage, many of the notes coming from strangers, and sometimes it’s a lot to take in.

“I just get overwhelmed by how many messages I get on Facebook, and how many cards I get, just from people who want to say how much they’re inspired by my story and how much they’re thankful for my service, stuff like that,” he said.

“I think a lot of people were disconnected from the war, and a lot of people don’t know soldiers personally or are affiliated with the military at all, so they just forget. But when someone is local, a neighbor of theirs, in a sense, is hurt, they’re like, ‘Oh wow, there’s still something going on over there.’ ”

His father nodded.

“There still is a war going on,” he said, “and people are getting hurt.”

‘We’ll help you’

In mid-conversation, Hartswick stops and winces.

“I get random phantom pains at times,” he says.

They just pop up, short shocks usually, but sometimes longer and more crippling. In a small camouflage bag, he carries two nerve blocks, which send painkilling medication into him through clear tubes.

For now, the bag accompanies him everywhere. The phantom sensations remain strong.

“Like, I know my calves are still there and my feet are still there,” he said. “I still have a presence where they’re at, even if it’s not realistic. Like right now, my calves and my feet are dangling through the bed.”

About two weeks ago, he began his physical therapy on the floor below his room — hard sessions, tough love with little mercy.

“Down there, it was just like, ‘Do as much as you can and then we’ll help you,’ ” he said.

These days, he travels daily across the hospital to the MATC gym for more advanced therapy, strengthening the core and buttocks muscles he’ll need to control sophisticated prosthetic legs. He’s also stretching out his hip flexor muscles, another key to his future walking.

Once he’s strong and limber enough, he’ll start with “shorties,” scaled-down practice legs low to the ground.

“So if they fall, it’s not a catastrophe,” said Bunnie Wyckoff, one of Hartswick’s physical therapists.

Next come manually-locking knees, then high-tech computerized knees with such features as stumble recovery programs, and even special knees for running and sports. All can be adjusted for hip flexor tightness so wearers maintain correct posture.

Legs of all kinds, many attached to flashy sneakers, fill a MATC room. Some have custom thigh sockets, decorated with pro sports team logos.

Hartswick wants a “Terminator” motif on his socket some day.

Already, he has encountered an unstoppable figure.

In the MATC, he met a Marine, a double amputee like himself, fluidly walking around the track while carrying 30 pounds. They talked, and the Marine advised Hartswick to work out daily while at Walter Reed and stay active.

Here was a model for Hartswick. He took the Marine’s words to heart.

A triangular trapeze hangs over his bed, meant for convenience.

“It’s just to help me move around,” he said. “But occasionally, I jump up there and do pull-ups.”

‘You Are My Sunshine’

Hartswick, sitting on his yoga mats, runs through balance and core exercises. The strain is getting to him.

“Let’s do five straight ahead, and we’ll do five to the side,” Wyckoff says as Hartswick raises his hands and prepares to move his extended arms.

She gives Hartswick, now shaking slightly, a black exercise ball. He swings it in a small arc before him.

“One, nice job,” Wyckoff says. “That’s 8 pounds there, Adam.”

After a few more exercises, including batting a balloon with his parents, Hartswick is exhausted. He rests his head against his mother. She runs her fingers through his moist hair.

Softly, she sings to him, a tune from his childhood. A barely audible “You Are My Sunshine” passes between them.

“I love you, Adam,” she says as he’s about to return to his room, pushed by his father.

He raises his chin from his chest.

“I love you, Mom.”

Related stories from Centre Daily Times