October 29, 2011 in City

‘We’re not home yet’

Coeur d’Alene soldier and his family on the road to recovery from bomb attack in Iraq
By The Spokesman-Review
Kathy Plonka photoBuy this photo

Sgt. Jason Rzepa is pictured Friday with his wife Cassandra and son Collin, 6 months. Rzepa, who lost both legs in an IED explosion in Iraq earlier this year, was awarded the Purple Heart in a ceremony at Red Lion Templin’s Hotel in Post Falls.
(Full-size photo)

A military rehabilitation center in Texas has lent Staff Sgt. Jason Rzepa some perspective.

As he continues to recover from injuries he sustained in a roadside bomb attack in Iraq last July, Rzepa, of Coeur d’Alene, said he sees fellow soldiers missing entire legs and arms. Soldiers scarred by severe burns. Soldiers who go home to an

empty apartment and spend evenings alone watching television.

“I’m blessed, really,” Rzepa said Friday afternoon. “I have both knees and a wife and son with me down there. … That in itself makes all the difference.”

This week marks the first time Rzepa has been back to the Inland Northwest since he was severely injured while deployed with the Idaho Army National Guard, based in Post Falls. It was Rzepa’s first deployment to Iraq, and the company’s mission was to escort convoys along the roads of Baghdad. On July 7, 10 months into the deployment, Rzepa was the last gunner in a three-vehicle convoy between the Green Zone and Camp Victory when an improvised explosive device hidden in a pile of trash exploded. The two other soldiers in the vehicle, Sgt. Nathan R. Beyers and Spc. Nicholas W. Newby, both of Coeur d’Alene, were killed in the blast.

With months of rehab left at the Brooke Army Medical Center near San Antonio, Rzepa said he, his wife, Cassandra, and 6-month-old son Collin, still face a long road back to North Idaho. In the best-case scenario, Rzepa will be able to come back for good next June.

“We’re not home yet,” he said while cradling Collin in his arms Friday.

Still, Cassandra said, her husband refuses to be the subject of sympathy.

“We could take this situation and be very somber and sulk in the moment. … You see that,” she said. “He has not been that person. It’s not been the end of the world for him. We try to make this as minimal as possible.”

Rzepa was honored for his sacrifice Friday during a ceremony at the Red Lion Templin’s in Post Falls, where he received the Purple Heart medal, awarded to service men and women injured in combat.

It was actually the second time he was pinned with the medal. The first time he received the honor, he was drifting in and out of consciousness in a hospital in Iraq.

But this was the ceremony that mattered to him, Rzepa said.

His National Guard unit has been with him “the whole way,” Rzepa said, and he felt they should be the ones to decorate him. On Friday night, the members of Bravo Company, 145th Brigade Support Battalion, 116th Cavalry Brigade Combat Team, and other service members filled a large banquet hall for the ceremony. Also in attendance was Rzepa’s 7-year-old son, Kohl.

Also honored Friday night were Staff Sgt. Ryan Rogers and Sgt. Gregory Wilson, who each received the Army Commendation Medal for their actions to save Rzepa’s life.

After the blast, Rzepa said he was knocked out briefly, then tried to call for support only to find the radio was destroyed.

“They did everything they could,” he said. “The only thing they could have done was make sure security was called and keep me alive. And that’s what they did.”

Since the attack, Rzepa has received an outpouring of support from North Idaho residents. He said he has a duffle bag full of cards from well-wishers. One woman, who only signs her cards “little old lady,” writes regularly.

“You can’t ask for more than that,” he said.

Rzepa doesn’t have definite plans for when he returns to Idaho. He will be on 100 percent disability, and he said he wants to find something he loves to do. Having grown up in a military family and lived in Scotland from ages 2 to 12, he had a passion for soccer. Now he hopes to coach others in the sport.

He is learning to use prosthetics. He recently stood up on his right leg. When he returns to Texas on Wednesday, he said, he will receive his left prosthetic.

As it happens, Wednesday is his 31st birthday.

“That’s my birthday present,” he said.

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