Then-Staff Sgt. Joseph Kapacziewski is shown gearing up as a Ranger squad leader for a mission in Afghanistan. Kapacziewski, who lost his right leg after an October 2005 blast in northern Iraq, has deployed four times to Afghanistan as a below-the-knee amputee. Photo: US Army.Army Times:
When Sgt. 1st Class Joseph Kapacziewski decided to have his right leg amputated, he had one goal in mind: to return to the line and serve alongside his fellow Rangers.
It took months of hard work and painful rehabilitation, but Kapacziewski achieved his goal and has deployed four times to Afghanistan as a below-the-knee amputee.
He was presented with the No Greater Sacrifice Freedom Award on May 24 in Washington, D.C.
Honored alongside Army Chief of Staff nominee Gen. Ray Odierno, the commander of Joint Forces Command and former commander of U.S. troops in Iraq, Kapacziewski is the first noncommissioned officer to receive the award, which recognizes individuals who epitomize selfless service to the nation.
“It’s a little embarrassing,” Kapacziewski said about being singled out for the honor. “Everyone here in the regiment is a team player, so being recognized as an individual is a little awkward.”
Kapacziewski, 28, joined the Army more than nine years ago and has served with the 75th Ranger Regiment since May 2002.
On Oct. 3, 2005, Kapacziewski and his soldiers were coming to the end of their deployment to northern Iraq when their convoy was attacked by enemy fighters.
A grenade fell through the gunner’s hatch and rolled into the Stryker carrying Kapacziewski and 10 other soldiers.
The explosion shattered Kapacziewski’s right leg below the knee, inflicted soft tissue damage to his right hip, and severed the median nerve and brachial artery in his right arm.
But Kapacziewski, a squad leader at the time, continued to fight, making radio calls, coordinating his vehicle’s movements and treating the other wounded soldiers in his vehicle.
It wasn’t until his vehicle was out of harm’s way that Kapacziewski began to receive treatment for his own wounds.
In the first days and weeks after he was wounded, Kapacziewski recovered at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. Doctors had to use part of the femoral artery from his left leg to repair the brachial artery in his wounded right arm. Today, he has regained about 80 percent of motion and about 50 percent of feeling in that arm.
His damaged right leg, along with his shattered ankle, posed problems, too.
After being discharged from the hospital, Kapacziewski returned to the Ranger Regiment and was assigned to the Ranger Operations Company as an instructor at Fort Benning, Ga.
For seven months, Kapacziewski tried to rehabilitate his leg and worked to regain his physical abilities.
He had endured more than 40 surgeries, but 16 months after he was wounded, his right leg still wasn’t healing as he had hoped, Kapacziewski said.
In March 2007, Kapacziewski chose to have his leg amputated.
“It was more about quality of life at that point,” he said. “I was having a lot of pain and my range of motion was very small. It was thinking about the future and getting back to doing the things I wanted to be able to do.”
The first couple months after the amputation were rough, Kapacziewski said.
“I had a lot of phantom pains and I was second-guessing my decision,” he said. “It took a little bit of getting used to, just looking down and not seeing a foot there.”
But when he healed enough to start rehabilitation at the Center for the Intrepid in San Antonio, Kapacziewski said things began to turn around.
“They put me in a prosthetic socket and I was able to start walking and start getting back in shape, and that’s when I realized it was the right decision,” he said.
Less than five months after his surgery, Kapacziewski began running again.
“It felt good, really good,” he said.
After six months at the Center for the Intrepid, Kapacziewski returned to Fort Benning, again as an instructor with the Ranger Operations Company.
Kapacziewski continued to train.
“I had a lot of motivation, working with the best group of NCOs that the regiment has to offer,” he said. “A lot of the guys up there are hand-selected from the different battalions. A lot of them are [physical training] studs and … they helped me out and kept me motivated.”
Ten months after his amputation, Kapacziewski completed an Army PT test, a five-mile run and a 12-mile road march while carrying 40 pounds of gear.
In March 2008, one year after his surgery, Kapacziewski accomplished his goal. He was put back on the line, as a squad leader in A Company, 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment.
He has deployed four times to Afghanistan since he was wounded in 2005; he came home in mid-May from his most recent four-month tour.
In between all of that, he completed the Maneuver Senior Leader Course, and Ranger Assessment and Selection Program II.
He is now a platoon sergeant in 3rd Battalion’s C Company.
Deploying again was “a dream come true,” Kapacziewski said, but he also admits that, at first, he was nervous about deploying with a prosthetic.
“I did worry about it a little bit, sort of being so far away from anyone who could help me with my prosthetic if I started having issues with it,” he said. “But it just meant taking care of my residual limb and taking care of the prosthetic.”
Kapacziewski has three identical prosthetics for everyday use and one for running.
“My prosthetist does a real good job fitting me and lining everything up perfectly,” he said. “We were able to find one that was very universal where I can run, skip and jump out of airplanes.”
Kapacziewski said his fellow soldiers don’t even notice anymore that he wears a prosthetic.
“The first few months walking around, a lot of people would do double takes,” he said. “I had a lot of pressure on my shoulders, wanting to prove I could do anything everyone else could. Over the years, nobody gives it a second thought anymore.”
Kapacziewski said he hopes that more wounded soldiers like him, who want to continue serving, will be given the chance to do so.
“When you put your mind to something, you can accomplish it,” he said. “For the guys who are getting hurt, just because they get hurt, they can still have a huge impact on not only their soldiers but the Army in general. A lot of the guys who get injured have a lot of combat experience that can be passed on to other people. A lot of it is giving them the time to do the rehab to get better so they can go back to doing what they want to do.”
Kapacziewski said he has a simple answer when people ask him why he stayed in uniform and continues to deploy.
“It’s all about the guys you work with,” he said. “I feel like I have the privilege to come to work with my 600 best friends every day, and they have the strongest desire to close in and destroy the enemy. And that makes it all worthwhile.”