As American flags fluttered gently behind him in Pine Hall Cemetery, Army Sgt. Adam Hartswick dedicated the moment to friends.
Hartswick, 23, of Pine Grove Mills, spoke Sunday at a Memorial Day service in Pine Hall Cemetery organized by the State College American Legion Post 245. He walked to the microphone on two high-tech prosthetic legs, the replacements for the limbs blown off by an improvised explosive device a year ago in Afghanistan.
Before anything else, Hartswick noted that people often confuse Memorial Day with Veterans Day, forgetting the true meaning of the weekend.
Memorial Day, he said, is “to remember those who fell in combat, and the ones who are no longer with us.”
“To me, it is a very special day, having lost four friends in combat in two hours and being part of an ambush that had 13 total casualties,” said Hartswick, who celebrated his first “alive day” on May 14, the anniversary of the blast from which he’s still recovering at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
“This weekend is truly an emotional weekend for me.”
He’ll remember Sgt. 1st Class Jeff Baker, killed in front of him by an IED. He’ll memorialize Spc. Cody Towse, a fellow medic who died in a Taliban ambush, and Spc. Mitch Daehling and Spc. William Gilbert, also slain in the attack.
“Sorry, I’m getting a little choked up,” Hartswick said to the audience, pausing to compose himself.
Beside him, his mother, Morgen Hummel, sat on a stool and watched intently, an acoustic guitar in her lap. She led the singing of the national anthem, “America the Beautiful,” “Abide by Me” and other songs.
But before she could strum a chord, Post 245 members and audience volunteers conducted an annual ritual.
To start the service, they hoisted American flags around the cemetery when trumpeter Dave Strouse, a post honor guard member, began playing “To the Colors.”
Mary McGhee participated for the first time in remembrance of her husband, Donald, an Army veteran who died seven years ago and was buried in the cemetery.
“He was always so proud that he was able to serve in the military,” she said.
In his remarks, Hartswick recalled joining the Army in 2009 straight out of State College Area High School. He did a tour in Iraq with the 1st Armored Division and then, after a period stateside, deployed with his old unit to Afghanistan in the fall of 2012.
“I didn’t see a whole lot (of combat) until May came around because the Taliban don’t like to fight when it’s cold,” he said.
On the day he was wounded, he pulled guard duty on base, despite the fact that he was his platoon’s senior medic. Meanwhile, his platoon went out on patrol.
When the platoon was hit, Hartswick grabbed his medical gear and rushed out with a rapid response team. At the scene, he tried to find Spc. Towse, the medic under his supervision who had been with the patrol, but all he could see were three unidentifiable American corpses.
“I gathered my thoughts and swallowed the emotions and kept moving,” Hartswick said. “I had to do a job.”
Hartswick set up a remains collection post, then Sgt. 1st Class Baker, his friend, arrived with the explosive ordnance disposal squad.
“He came up to me and patted me on the back and said, ‘Don’t worry, Adam. We’re going to save some soldiers. We’re going to find these guys. And we’re going to get them back to their families,’ ” Hartswick said.
Baker went to defuse an IED.
“That one bit him,” Hartswick said. “He just went up in a cloud of smoke about 15 feet in front of me.”
The explosion knocked down Hartswick and wounded others around him. Getting up, he treated soldiers, then ran toward a river where he thought Baker might have been.
An IED stopped him.
Hartswick, still conscious, tied a tourniquet to one of his stumps, then guided a lieutenant tying off the other, likely saving his own life before being evacuated.
Seventeen surgeries in six weeks followed. He lost a finger and suffered traumatic brain injury, among other injuries. At Walter Reed, he learned to walk again on prosthetic limbs.
It’s been an uphill climb, but Hartswick now has a pair of cutting-edge, computerized Ottobock X3 legs. He takes part in Wounded Warrior Project events such as the four-day Soldier Ride, during which he rode a recumbent bicycle.
His goal remains to be a medic instructor, either in the Army or as a civilian contractor.
After Sunday’s service, friends and well-wishers lined up to shake his hand, give him a hug and offer words of encouragement. One was Thomas Roush, an 89-year-old World War II infantry veteran hit by a sniper in Italy.
“I said, ‘As one combat veteran to another, one Purple Heart to another, I thank you,’ ” Roush said.
During the service, Hartswick recalled giving a buddy a thumbs-up while en route to a helicopter, only to realize he was missing a finger.
“And the rest is history, and now I’m standing here in front of you, a year later, standing. Which is still crazy for me,” he said.
The audience then gave him a standing ovation.
“But that’s my story,” Hartswick said when the applause ended. “That’s why Memorial Day means a lot to me. I have four friends who aren’t here, and they died so I could live.”
Another ovation erupted. Afterward, a woman’s voice punctuated the silence.
“Thank you,” she said, and Hartswick replied softly.