‘Real-life hero’ Adam Hartswick shares story of survival, resolve

Sgt. Adam Hartswick stepped over to the seventh-grader and introduced himself.

Hartswick only crossed a yard or two of the Mount Nittany Middle School classroom Friday, but it was a significant journey for both.

Six months after an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan blew off his legs, Hartswick walked again with training prosthetic legs and a cane.

Nyron Elliott met a role model, someone who truly understands what it’s like to be in his shoes. He lives life with two artificial legs decorated with Baltimore Ravens logos.

“How’s it going?” Hartswick said, shaking Nyron’s hand. “Nice to meet you, man.”

Hartswick, 22, who grew up in State College and Pine Grove Mills, visited the seventh-grade students to discuss his experiences serving as an Army combat medic, being wounded by the IED blast while treating injured soldiers and recovering at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.

He continues to reside at Walter Reed, undergoing physical and occupational therapy and post-traumatic stress counseling during the week and coming home to Pine Grove Mills on the weekends.

Friday, though, was far from relaxing.

After his Mount Nittany visit, Hartswick spoke about his military service and recovery to students at the Our Lady of Victory Catholic School as part of State College Area High School senior Andrew Montler’s community service project.

“I have a great respect for veterans, and I thought maybe I could teach the younger generation about the importance of honoring our veterans and the importance of Veterans Day,” Montler said.

Hours later, Hartswick and his family attended a dinner in his honor. Eight local auto dealerships, organized by Joel Confer, gave more than $35,000 to help with Hartswick’s medical and living expenses.

But on his latest trip back, Hartswick had more than a benefit meal on his plate.

The day before, he chatted on Penn State football coach Bill O’Brien’s weekly radio show. On Saturday, for Military Appreciation Day at Beaver Stadium, he’ll walk to midfield and toss the coin before the football game between Penn State and Purdue, likely to the roar of thousands.

His Mount Nittany appearance prompted quieter but no less heartfelt applause from a few teachers and about a dozen students.

He spoke at the invitation of teacher Rosemary Hagen, his former middle school learning support teacher and a friend of his mother, Morgen Hummel.

“She said, ‘We have this kid who needs a pep talk,’ ” Hummel said. “That’s why we’re here.”

Hartswick arrived wearing shorts that showed off his shiny, metallic legs: practice limbs called “shorties” that reduce his normal 5-foot-10 height by 2 inches but allow him to work up to full-size, high-tech models with robotic sensors. On his artificial feet he wore new green running shoes.

Before his talk, he took Nyron out into the hallway for a private conversation.

“We talked about how it doesn’t matter who stares at you,” Nyron said. “Just go along and be yourself.”

While fielding questions from the class, Hartswick took his own advice, mixing candid recollections of his deployment with humorous tales of moments such as when he offered his autograph to President Barack Obama during a visit to his hospital room.

He recalled the events of May 14, when he and members of his platoon came to the aid of an ambushed foot patrol. An IED blast knocked him down, killing an explosive ordnance disposal squad leader and wounding three soldiers.

After he treated the wounded, someone shouted that the EOD squad leader, his friend, lay in a nearby river. Not knowing his friend was dead, Hartswick rushed to him.

A second IED exploded.

“The second it happened, I wished I could have gone back in time for five seconds,” he said. “That’s it. I wish I could have stepped back five feet, stopped and zigged instead of zagged.”

Hartswick told the class he tried to stand up, only to fall and discover his legs were gone. He immediately pulled one of the four tourniquets looped to his vest.

“It’s what you do. You don’t quit,” he said. “You keep going. If you’re alive and you have the means to do it, you keep moving.

“That applies to everything. You can persevere through the pain and fight through the pain, because you have to survive.”

He remembers lying on the ground for what “just felt like an eternity” before his resolve kicked in.

“I had a choice to live or die,” he said. “And knowing the things I know, the skills I have, I wasn’t going to let myself die.”

Calmly directed by Hartswick, a lieutenant tied two tourniquets “high and tight.” A medevac helicopter, its windshield blown out by shrapnel from the second IED blast, whisked Hartswick to a hospital.

“It was landing as I got blown up,” he said. “All the events that happened that day, just, I was lucky or somebody was watching over me.”

One student asked him what being a combat medic is like.

“It’s stressful,” Hartswick said. “You can’t save everyone. I’ve watched my friends die, but I’ve helped a lot more people.”

They include a wounded Taliban fighter who had attacked him minutes before.

“I saved his life anyway,” Hartswick said. “It was my job.”

Even though sometimes their best isn’t enough, he said, combat medics give their all to every wounded soldier.

“There’s 10 percent of the people you treat who depend on your skill as a medic to live,” he said. “That’s why you practice hard. You train to fight, and you fight to win.

“It’s not practice that makes perfect. It’s perfect practice that makes perfect. So if you do it right every time you practice, you’re going to do it right in real life.”

These days, he’s applying that concentration to his therapy sessions at Walter Reed, hoping to recover enough to go skiing in Colorado this winter. The IED also robbed him of his right index finger, fractured a hip socket and caused a severe concussion.

Asked about his therapy, he called it “very hard” and “exhausting.” To walk now, he said, requires three times the energy it did before.

“And I have to eat three times the amount of calories now. Lots of bacon,” he said to laughs all around.

On a sober note, he mentioned celebrating the six-month anniversary of his “alive day” on Wednesday. Veterans use the phrase for the day they cheated death, akin to a second birthday.

“That’s when I thought about the friends I lost,” he said. “I lost four friends that day.”

He wears memorial bracelets with his friends’ names on them.

“Once they’re on, you can never take them off,” he said. “That’s the way I remember my friends. I have to live for them. I have to honor them. I have to keep moving for them — and for myself.”

At OLV, Hartswick noted the same camaraderie when asked if he made friends in the Army.

Everybody in his company, he replied to the dozens of students in the gym.

“Imagine knowing everybody in this room personally and loving them as your brothers and sisters,” he said. “You make a lot of brothers and sisters, and they’re friends for life.”

Hagen, the Mount Nittany teacher, said her former student is a “real-life hero” — the type of person today’s generation, soaked in a celebrity culture, could stand to meet more.

“They need to hear their stories,” she said. “They need to know that struggle is part of life.

“The words that Adam spoke, if the kids were listening, should give them hope for whatever struggles they have. He’s an amazing young man, wise beyond his years.”

Nyron Elliott said he came away inspired.

“Don’t be afraid to do anything. Just do it,” he said.

He told Hartswick that he climbed Mount Nittany.

“I haven’t done that yet,” Hartswick said. “You have one up on me now. We’ll have to hike together. We’ll go do Everest in 10 years.”