Albany-- South Georgia was awash with yellow ribbons and red, white, and blue flags as hundreds of National Guard troops convoyed home after a year in Iraq and thousands of cheering friends and relatives and total strangers welcomed those heroes home.
A week after those emotional homecomings, a lone soldier gingerly got off a plane, returning to Albany for the first time in a year. Staff Sgt. Clarence Eady's homecoming was met with much less fanfare but no less love.
Clarence can't do anything quickly anymore. Everything is a chore. Something as simple as getting out of a car and taking a few steps takes patience and care. "Just getting around from place to place is the hardest part," he said.
Three days a week now this soldier shuffles past the entrance to Albany's Army recruiting office, gets in his chair, and wheels next door for physical therapy. "It's coming along good. I feel good about it," Clarence said optimistically.
He's home for only 30-days, on leave from Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington where he has undergone intensive physical therapy for more than eight months. As he strained to lift his right leg strapped with weights, Clarence said "seem like every time I get used to a certain weight, they go up."
Clarence needs this therapy because of what happened one fall day southwest of Baghdad. "When I was in Iraq, I was a team leader for a recovery team," he said. He recovered broken down or blown up heavy equipment. Normally, his team would just tow a disabled vehicle back to camp, but last September 17th, that wouldn't work. "All the tires and stuff was blown out, so we couldn't just hook it up and drag it back. We had to load it up on a low boy."
That took a while, and it gave insurgents enough time to set up a roadside bomb on the only road out of the village, a bomb that exploded right next to the armored personnel carrier Clarence was driving. "I said to myself I've got to get out this vehicle," he recalled. "So somehow or another I was able to hoist myself out of that vehicle. I remember the guys dragging me back behind that vehicle, and from that point I don't remember much more."
Back home in Albany that night, Kay, Clarence's wife of 20-years, got a call from the Army that every military family dreads. "I was really just in shock. I was scared. Actually, I was thankful when I found out he was alive," she said.
Doctors amputated Clarence's left leg below the knee, and yet he says "I call this my good leg." That's because the explosion burned and mangled his right leg. He's had more surgeries than he can remember. "I can't count them all. At least a half a dozen or more." And he must wear a cylindrical metal contraption called a fixator around his leg for nine months. "It's to hold the bones in place because there was multiple fractures in the bones," Clarence explained.
Despite all that . . . the life-changing injury, the surgeries, and the seemingly endless rehab . . . you won't hear Clarence complain. "If that's what it takes to save my leg then that's what I got to do," he said cheerfully.
He's had that positive attitude since the first time he called home right after he was wounded. "He says honey I'm doing fine don't worry about me I'm doing eat, so his spirits were always good from the very beginning," Kay recalled. And his family has been there every painful step of the way, making multiple trips to Washington. "I love him so much that I'm always there for him no matter what. He knows that, and he's there for me no matter what," Kay said.
Now that her Dad is home, 18-year old Amber is glad to have more of a chance to help him recover. "Whatever I can do to help, I'm happy to do," Amber said. A milestone for Amber and her twin brother Ashley is what brought their father home. "I had promised to them that if at all possible I would work towards getting here for their graduation," Clarence said. And despite obstacles most of us can't imagine, Staff Sgt. Clarence Eady completed that mission and kept that promise.
"Is that her right there?" has asked sitting in his wheelchair inside the Albany Civic Center last Saturday as Amber and her Westover High School classmates marched in to the strains of "Pomp and Circumstance." He couldn't stand with the rest of the parents, but his heart was filled with just as much pride and maybe more thankfulness that he was here to see this. "That's one moment I don't want to miss," he said.
This husband and father who came so close to death on a battlefield so far away will be around for many more priceless moments. "My wife and my kids they keep me going. They're very supportive, and I don't know what I'd do without them. They've really been there for me, and I thank them and love them for it."
And they'll continue to face every challenge together. Kay said, "whatever comes, we just take it. One step, one step at a time." One determined step at a time from a soldier, home from war, and still fighting.