Home from war, wounded soldiers received a Derby embrace

Army 1st Lt. Nathan Rimpf on patrol in Afghanistan. — Photo courtesy of Nathan Rimpf

Less than three months ago, Army 1st Lt. Nathan Rimpf was patrolling the dry hardscrabble hills and deep valleys of Afghanistan. Last week, thousands of miles and a world away from the realities of a war that many Americans only recognize as a brief news broadcast, he searched the clear blue waters surrounding Martha’s Vineyard for bluefish and striped bass.

For five days, Lieutenant Rimpf and nine other soldiers wounded in the service of their country enjoyed all the Martha’s Vineyard hospitality that grateful Islanders could offer.

“I always knew I was going to be a soldier,” Lieutenant Rimpf, 25, said during a brief conversation over lunch in the Beach Plum Inn dining room in Menemsha. What he could not anticipate is that leading a patrol on July 8, he would step on an improvised explosive device — an IED in the deadly shorthand of modern war — and lose both his legs, an event that would forever alter his future.

On September 23, ten soldiers, eight men and two women who ranged in age from 19 to 55, now recuperating at Fort Belvoir Community Hospital in Virginia and Walter Reed Medical Center in Maryland, arrived by plane to fish the Vineyard at the invitation of the Nixon family of Chilmark, owners of the Beach Plum Inn, Menemsha Inn, and Home Port restaurant. Including family members and sweethearts who accompanied some of the soldiers, there were 25 people in the group.

Four years ago, Bob and Sarah Nixon originated the American Heroes Saltwater Challenge, a fishing tournament for wounded soldiers, and enlisted the help of the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby committee, Menemsha charter boat captains and the community at large. The Island responded.

In the weeks leading up to their arrival, Sarah Nixon reached out to those soldiers she learned would most benefit from a break in the hospital routine, cajoling those who were hesitant to make the trip. Faced with transporting 25 people, she contacted the Veterans Airlift Command (veteransairlift.org), a volunteer organization of private pilots that provides free transportation to wounded veterans and their families “for medical and other compassionate purposes.” The group provided six planes to fly the group from and to Washington.

At a welcome reception dinner held Sunday night on the Beach Plum Inn patio overlooking Menemsha Harbor and Vineyard Sound, Bob Nixon, a documentary filmmaker, summed up the purpose of the event without elaboration: “We want to thank you for your service.”

Call of service

Lieutenant Rimpf grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina. As a young boy he collected G.I. Joe figures and read military history. “I just kind of figured out that that was what I was supposed to do,” he said of his decision to enter the Army.

He is clean cut and has a smile that regularly creased his face in conversation. The wheelchair he uses as he gets accustomed to his new legs does not affect the first impression that he is tall.

His mother insisted that he graduate from college before he entered the military, so he joined the ROTC program on a scholarship at East Carolina University in Greenville. “I did pretty well there and was commissioned the day I graduated,” he said. “I was a lieutenant in the Army.”

He trained for approximately one year as an infantry platoon leader, knowing that his unit would be sent to Afghanistan. Set on a career as a professional soldier, he welcomed the opportunity to serve in a war zone. Early last spring he and his unit flew into Bagram Air Base in Kabul, Afghanistan. From there they traveled to a forward operating base (FOB) in Andar, an eastern district of Ghazni Province.

“When we first got there we had a good view of the area around us. There’s nothing there,” he said of his first impression after he arrived. “It’s just orange brown dirt as far as you can see. There are these huge mountains that are the same color and there is a river, more like a creek, running through the valley, and all of a sudden there is a settlement there…and it is very vast, it is huge, it feels like Afghanistan is endless.”

The FOB was located at an elevation of 7,000 feet. “Completely flat and arid, no water, only wells,” he said.

The entire company assigned to the FOB consisted of approximately 80 men. Lieutenant Rimpf was responsible for a platoon — 17 men, including himself.

“I started patrolling the day I got there,” he said. “I went on every patrol for the first week with the unit we were replacing just checking out the area.”

His arrival at the base appeared to be the culmination of events in his life. “I’d been training for a year, I got my platoon, and now I’m in Afghanistan. This is it. Now I’m going to do it. This is where I’m supposed to be,” he said. “They said I was only going to be there nine months, so I was going to make the most of it.”

The platoon traveled in four vehicles. When they entered a village, the elders would ask to see the patrol leader. The lieutenant would step forward. Reflecting on his experience, he acknowledged it was a great deal of responsibility for a 24-year-old, but one he welcomed.

On a dusty plain in Afghanistan he did not think about larger geo-political concerns or the big picture. “My concern was the mission and my men, that was it,” he said. “Am I accomplishing the mission, am I taking care of my men, that’s all I really had to worry about.”

For the most part, he said it was a quiet area with just a “few scary moments.” If there was stress it came from knowing that the enemy could not be readily identified until he started shooting at you. It was a sobering experience.

Lieutenant Rimpf said he did not realize how good his training was until he arrived. But no amount of training could prepare him for everything he encountered.

“We had been on patrol for about five hours and I could hear my headquarters but they could not hear me, so I was trying to get my radio up to where they could hear me. At some point, I stepped on something and went for a little ride through the air,” he said with a smile. “By the time I figured out what had happened I knew what needed to be done.”

His men responded immediately. “They slapped some tourniquets on just like they’re trained; they put me on a litter just like they’re trained; they called a helicopter just like they’re trained and the medivac team that came in, I don’t know if it was textbook, but it was pretty smooth.”

A step at a time

Lieutenant Rimpf said the fact that the helicopter could land where it did saved his life. He was brought to Bagram and transferred to a hospital in Germany. From there he went to Walter Reed.

Lieutenant Rimpf credits the quality of care and technology available with the fact that he was out of the hospital so quickly. “I get my legs blown off and five weeks later I’m out of the hospital,” he said.

His rehabilitation began in a ward that specializes in amputees. “The physical therapists, the occupational therapists, they have dealt with guys like me before. I was nothing new, so they knew exactly what needed to be done.”

Motioning to his prosthetic limbs, he said, “I’ve had my legs for three weeks now. I can walk around — not well, but I can do it. You just get up every day, work out, go to rehab, and learn how to walk again.”

Asked to reflect on his experience in Afghanistan, Lieutenant Rimpf said everything in his life had led him to be an infantry platoon leader. “And I get there and within two months, I get blown up, so it was sort of like a 90-degree turn.

“So what was the point of me going to Afghanistan? Well, this was the point. There’s something else I am supposed to be doing. I am not going to be an infantry platoon leader.”

He expects to be in rehab about one more year. “I’ve got to learn how to run before I leave,” he said. “That’s my goal.”

It will be up to a medical board to decide whether he remains in the Army, but he sees his injury, whether destiny or just poor luck, as a sign that he should set his sights on new horizons. For now, he will take his time and explore all his opportunities.

For Lieutenant Rimpf, every glass is half-full. He speaks in positive terms — a trait, he said, that comes from his mother.

His first reaction when he awoke in Bagram was that he was thankful he had as much of his legs left as he did. He sees a silver lining wherever he looks. But for his injuries, he said he would still be in Afghanistan. He might not have reconnected with his “dream girl,” Leslie Lavictoire, whom he met in college.

The hospital provides day trips, but the opportunity to travel to the Island was special. “It never crossed my mind to go fishing on Martha’s Vineyard,” he said.

Asked about his parents, he said they are handling his injuries well. Hs mother is “thankful for what she has rather than what she lost.” His father has remodeled the house so he can maneuver in his wheelchair.

Sitting in the Beach Plum Inn lounge, he said he misses his fellow platoon leaders and the men in his platoon. Since he left, three were injured. But the same medic that kept him alive saved them, he said. “He isn’t going to let anybody go that can be saved. Specialist Ryan Kidd, he was the senior medic in our company.”

Asked about his platoon, Lieutenant Rimpf said, “I pray for them every night.”

The real story

Salvatore “Sal” Caragliano is familiar with prayers for soldiers. Last week, he and his wife, Wendy, traveled with their daughter Gina, grandson Peyton, 18 months, and son-in-law, Captain Benjamin Harrow, a West Point graduate and special forces commander who lost both his legs and two fingers in an explosion on May 15.

“I’m Ben’s fishing buddy,” said Mr. Caragliano, who is originally from Great Neck, Long Island, but now lives with his wife in Boca Raton, Florida.

In a conversation on their last day on Martha’s Vineyard, Mr. Caragliano spoke frankly about the pride he has in Captain Harrow, his gratitude to the Nixons and people of Martha’s Vineyard for their generosity, and his family’s anguish, bitterness, and pain.

“This war is so ridiculous to begin with,” he said. “It’s a thousand-year-old war and we are never going to accomplish anything by being there. We are not going to change the hearts and minds of those people and I don’t understand why America’s best have to come back wounded like this. It’s just awful.”

Mr. Caragliano said his son-in-law, a member of the elite Green Berets and winner of two Bronze Stars, is more like a son. They are that close. “Just a spectacular kid. I can’t say enough about him. It just devastates me to see him,” he said. “But his mental attitude is just spectacular. The way he conducts himself.”

Mr. Caragliano said that Captain Harrow, 31, graduated with honors from West Point and despite his injuries he continues to display the professionalism that has marked his career.

Captain Harrow stepped on a mine, losing both legs and nearly his arm. Gina, Mr. Caragliano’s daughter, and Captain Harrow, both from Great Neck, had been married almost four years when he was wounded in Afghanistan.

The family was at home. His daughter received the telephone call. “I heard her say, ‘What?’ in a voice that you just knew something was wrong,” Mr. Caragliano said. It was raining and she ran outside. His wife ran outside and became hysterical.

“The next 72 hours were the most amazing 72 hours of my life,” Mr. Caragliano said. “My daughter went through an array of emotions… the pain that you feel and the emotion that you feel for your child, and you are so helpless to do anything about it.”

Within 72 hours of stepping on a mine, Captain Harrow was in a hospital in Washington with his wife. The Caraglianos cared for their grandson for the next four months.

Asked how his daughter is holding up, Mr. Caragliano said, “She has her moments. I think she’s pretty angry about the whole thing… rightfully so. She is going through a plethora of emotions, but she is dealing with it very well. She is incredibly supportive of her husband. Their lives are changed forever.”

Mr. Caragliano said professional military people know what they sign up for and the risks of service. Family members must find and chart their own path.

“Being here has been great,” Mr. Caragliano said of the trip to the Vineyard. “Everybody has embraced us.”

“But,” he said standing in the dining room of the Home Port surrounded by well wishers and soldiers, “after this is all over, they are going back to their lives popping in and out of wheelchairs and walking around in prosthetics. And as wonderful as this is for five days, and it gets them away, how do they survive and how do they go on with the rest of their lives? I think that is the real story.”