Posted in Articles

The ultimate gift: Injured veteran returns home

Interview and photo by Tedd Lupella

Written by: Christine Lupella

Jeremy’s arrival was a long time coming, but the timing was just right. After spending nearly a year in out-of-state hospitals and rehabilitation centers, Lance Corporal (LCPL) Jeremy Stengel, 22, came home to Waterford, Wis. on Dec. 8 – an early Christmas gift for the family and friends who visited him, stayed with him, and prayed for him.

Stengel, a Marine from the 2/3 Weapons Co. Map 1 Unit 44065, was on a mine sweep mission on Jan. 31 with several other soldiers in the Al Anbar Province in Iraq near Haditha, when their Humvee hit a roadside bomb. Two other soldiers who were in the Humvee died in the attack and Stengel was critically injured. The driver was also injured.

Stengel was flown to a hospital in Iraq, then to a hospital in Germany on Feb. 2. His family received word that he was on a ventilator and sedated. His injuries ranged from internal lacerations to a fractured lumbar – lower spine, extensive fractures to both legs, ankles and feet, and multiple wounds on his legs and heel.

Two days later, he was flown to Bethesda Naval Hospital in Washington D.C., where he would remain for a number of months undergoing multiple surgeries, experiencing fevers and infections, and slowly rehabilitating his body.

His parents, Greg and Gayle, took turns staying with him in the hospital, encouraging him on the bad days and celebrating the good. Other family members filled in at home in Waterford, caring for Jeremy’s younger siblings, Ethan and Jackie, or updating the Web site that kept friends, family and community members informed about Jeremy’s progress.

Ethan, 10, is especially delighted that Jeremy is home. The best part, he said, is “hanging out” with his older brother.

Their dad takes Jeremy to an area health club to work out.

“Things are coming along slowly,” Greg said of Jeremy’s progress.

Jeremy is still technically an active duty Marine, and still feels a special bond with his military family.

His platoon is back in the states for now, but will be de-ploying to Iraq again in January for another seven to nine months.

“I miss going out in the field with the guys, but it’s a nice break,” Jeremy said about being home in Waterford.

Both his family and his military family are Jeremy’s inspirations. Jeremy first became interested in serving when he saw the HBO Television series, “Band of Brothers.”

“Band of Brothers” is the story of Easy Company of the US Army 101st Airborne Di-vision and their mission in World War II.

Jeremy chose the Marines because “I had uncles and other family members that were in the Air Force and the Army, and I thought, why not the Marines? Then all the branches will be covered.”

Jeremy is not yet sure of his future plans. He knows he will be returning to Washington D.C. in early January for more therapy. He walks with a cane right now and hopes to continue building his strength.

“I’ll see how therapy goes,” he said. “The main thing is, I want to be able to do what I used to do.”

That includes golf and pickup games of basketball – and eventually, college.

Jeremy said people can help other soldiers by sending cards and letters and letting the soldiers know they are not forgotten. He received mail almost every day from his family, and he appreciated that, he said.

Stengel honored with Meritorious Service Medal

American Legion Post 20 of Waterford, Wis. presented Lance Corporal Jeremy Stengel of Waterford with a special award Dec. 17.

A welcome home and award ceremony was held in Stengel’s honor at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church and school. A standing-room only crowd filled the school gymnasium to honor Stengel, who was injured while serving Iraq in January this year.

Legion Commander Jon McCourt presented Stengel with a Meritorious Service Medal and certificate. McCourt said this is the only American Legion award for active service members.

Stengel accepted the award and quietly said, “Everyone who prayed for me and my family, thank you for your support.”

Posted in Articles

60 years later: WWII veteran receives Bronze Star

It was supposed to be a little family get-together in honor of family birthdays.

84-year-old Leonard Susalla never expected to see a congressman walk into his daughter’s Wind Lake, Wis., dining room.

He also never expected to receive the military medals he earned more than 60 years ago, when he served in the U.S. Army Infantry during World War II.

He knew he had earned most of the medals, but life got busy and, until recently, he did not think about them a lot.

He did not know he had earned the Bronze Star, which is awarded to any person who, while serving in any capacity in or with the military of the United States after Dec. 6, 1941, distinguished himself or herself by heroic or meritorious achievement or service, not involving participation in aerial flight, while engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States.

U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan presented Susalla with the medals.

A houseful of family and friends looked on as Susalla’s bright blue eyes filled with tears.

“We simply want to say thank you for your service to our country,” Ryan said.

“I didn’t know anything was going to happen like this,” Susalla said. “I never expected anything.”

Susalla was 20 years old when he entered the Army on Dec. 9, 1942. He was a private first class (PFC) when he was discharged nearly three years later.

“I turned down a sergeant (position) because I wasn’t a kind of guy to give out orders,” he said.

Susalla participated in the Rhineland and Central Europe campaigns, and earned the Combat Infantryman Badge.

His other awards and honors include the Good Conduct Medal, American Campaign Medal, European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with two bronze service stars, World War II Victory Medal, Sharpshooter Badge with Carbine bar, and the Honorable Service Lapel Button – WWII.

Susalla grew up on the south side of Milwaukee. He now lives in the Kenosha area.

His daughters, Beverly Weber and Janet Wernette, live in Wind Lake and Waterford, respectively.

Weber started the search for her dad’s medals a couple of years ago. She said he never said much about his time in the service, but that she and her sister knew it was an important part of his life.

“He’s patriotic and it rubbed off on us,” Weber said.

She discovered that Susalla’s military records were among those destroyed in a huge warehouse fire in St. Louis in 1973.

Then she enlisted the help of the Congressman.

“The ball got rolling because your daughter called us. You have a family that loves you very, very much,” Ryan said.

Susalla said not a day has gone by that he does not think about his experiences in World War II.

“I see people being shot out from under me, across the road from me,” he said.

His grandson, Dustin, a 15-year-old Union Grove Union High School student, recently interviewed Susalla for a class project.

Weber said she learned more about her dad from Dustin’s paper than she had in a lifetime.

Susalla said he remembered his final trip home from the European front on Nov. 15, 1945.

The ship entered New York Harbor – and all the soldiers hurried to one side of the ship, to catch their first glimpse of the Statue of Liberty.

The ship began listing to one side because of the unequal weight distribution. Susalla said the men in charge told the men to spread out – people would wonder about the military if the ship came into the harbor leaning so far to one side.

Susalla was quiet for a while, taking in the moment and the memories.

“My tears say it all,” he said. “Every time I look at (the medals) I’m going to cry…I’ll never stop doing that,” he said.

“I’m proud to be an American. I’m proud that I served,” he said.


Posted in Columns

Thank you. It’s not enough.

What do you say to someone who gives up his life so you can keep yours?

“Thank you?”

Those words hardly seem adequate to describe the ultimate sacrifice. Yet those words are all we have.

This week, our community buried a young man who made that ultimate sacrifice. U.S. Army Capt. Rhett Schiller was serving in Iraq with his unit of the 82nd Airborne Division when he died of injuries he suffered in combat.

He was 26 years old.

Schiller obviously believed in something bigger than himself, demonstrating this by his dedication to our military.

For your service, Capt. Schiller, we say, “thank you.”

To his parents, brother and sister, fiancé, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and fellow soldiers – we extend our comfort.

As a community, as a country, we grieve over your loss. We are here to put an arm over your tired shoulders, to weep with you, to say goodbye.

Tuesday, the gray November skies wept over Capt. Schiller’s funeral, a reflection, perhaps, of the weeping in our souls.

The U.S. flags in Waterford and around the state hung at half-staff in his honor, a silent salute to the fallen soldier.

Once again, we say “thank you,” Capt. Schiller.

May you always and forever rest in peace.

Posted in Columns

Morning always comes

A little family stands in front of the cold, metallic gates that separate airline passengers from family and friends. They hold each other close, hearts melting together and dissolving in a pool of tears, their newborn daughter crying between them – an island of emotion among the hordes of people hurrying past. Moments later, the daddy, clad in Army fatigues, breaks away, heading through security and back to the desert that is thousands of miles away.

The mommy watched, holding their daughter close, until he disappeared into the crowd.

It may have been a scene from a movie – but last week, it was a scene from my daughter’s life. By virtue of having her stay with us during her husband’s deployment, it became a scene from her parents’ lives as well. We weren’t there when our son-in-law left for Iraq in August, since they are stationed 700 miles away in up-state New York.

But this time was different. We were there for it all. And it hurt.

The day before he left, we watched them turn inward, simply sharing their space, breathing the same air, exchanging few words – absorbed in the moment they seemed to want to freeze forever. My daughter said she desperately wanted to stay up all night, to talk or not talk as they felt like it. But the baby’s bi-hourly feedings and diaper changes fed into both of their exhaustion, and sleep inevitably took over, though not for long.

And though they hoped morning would never come, it did, and they were caught up in the flurry of last-minute details, packing his bag and checking for tickets and military orders while their dog trembled in a corner, knowing something wasn’t quite right but unable to express himself.

I felt just like the dog, watching and waiting and wondering what was next. We walked out to the car and I hugged my son-in-law, wishing him well, holding my breath and hoping this was all a dream. I held my breath more, walling the tears behind my eyelids and inside my throat until the car backed out of the driveway and headed down the road.

Then I cried – for my son-in-law, for my daughter, for their baby – for the dog. I cried for the thousands and thousands of other families who would repeat similar scenes all over the country as their soldiers headed out, either for their initial tour or to return from leave.

I wondered if I, as a 20-something-year-old new mom, could have been so brave. How is it possible that her father and I were responsible for raising a young woman who so quickly learned to be independent, to make major decisions, manage her family, be a mom and make sure her husband feels included in the process?

We have since dried our tears and begun to carry on, making sure the new daddy has a continuous flow of pictures and stories about his baby girl. Our daughter is making plans to return to their home in New York in a month or so, to get everything ready for his return in a couple of months. Soon, their separation will be over and they will be a family again.

How thankful I am for the brave men and women of the military. I am also thankful for their brave and wonderful families who say goodbye so often and “hold down the fort” at home, until the morning comes when their soldier returns.