wounded soldier

Sgt. Brad Gruetzner, 24, of Palestine, shown in this May 2004 file photo, was critically wounded Wednesday while on patrol in Iraq. Gruetzner currently is being treated at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio.

A 24-year-old Slocum High School graduate serving in the U.S. Army became the first reported casualty from Anderson County in Iraq late last week.

Sgt. Bradley Gruetzner, 24, was critically injured Wednesday in Baquba, located in the Diyala province north of Baghdad, when an improvised explosive device, or IED, exploded near a Humvee carrying Gruetzner and three other soldiers from 1st Battalion, 12th Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division deployed from Fort Hood.

Two — Sgt. 1st Class Schuyler B. Haynes, 40, of New York, and Spc. Mitchel T. Mutz, 23, of Falls City, Texas — were killed and Gruetzner and one other were wounded by the blast, which is under Army investigation, according to family members.

Gruetzner initially was treated in Iraq before being flown to Germany and then on to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, where he currently is being treated.

According to family members, Gruetzner suffered numerous serious injuries from the blast, including burns over 15 percent of his body, head trauma, a broken collarbone and ribs, punctured lungs and internal injuries. As of Monday afternoon, Gruetzner remained in a coma, his mother said.

“Bradley is critical but he is stable. He does have head trauma and burns,” Debbie Gruetzner said Monday afternoon, adding that the family was thankful to have him at Brooke. “From what we’ve been told, this is the best hospital in the country for this.”

Gruetzner’s wife, Rachel, said she was notified by a phone call from an Army official to the home of her husband’s parents, Burl and Debbie Gruetzner of Palestine, that her husband had been injured.

“He told me Brad had been involved in an accident,” Rachel Gruetzner said. “He wasn’t sure how bad.”

After more phone calls from Army officials, the Gruetzners were told that their son would be flown to Lundstahl Hospital in Germany and that they should fly to Washington, D.C. as quickly as possible to get their passports in order to possibly join him in Germany if his condition was not stable enough to fly to the United States.

Rachel’s step-father, Jerry Karriker, drove the three to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport for a flight to Washington, where they received word that Brad Gruetzner had stabilized enough to be flown back to the U.S. They were able to join him on the medi-evac flight from Andrews Air Force Base to San Antonio, where they arrived Sunday night.

He received a skin graft Monday, with a good report afterward from his attending medical staff, according to Rachel Gruetzner.

“They did a skin graft surgery this morning,” Rachel Gruetzner said by phone Monday afternoon. “They said it went real good.”

Another positive sign, according to Debbie Gruetzner, came when doctors examined his neck Monday.

“They got to take his collar off his neck,” Debbie Gruetzner said, “because he’s not got neck fractures.”

Gruetzner’s current tour of duty in Iraq, which began this fall, isn’t his first. He deployed the first time to Iraq in January 2004 for 14 months as part of a tank crew with the 1st Cavalry, and was awarded the Medal of Valor for his efforts in helping to rescue 25 soldiers and civilians from a convoy ambushed in April 2004.

After his initial enlistment period ended, Gruetzner signed up for another four years, this time training to be a scout.

Ironically, Gruetzner had told a reporter during a May 2005 interview at the Texas State Railroad’s Armed Forces Weekend that seeing the show of support at the railroad park for the military had touched him, especially after recent combat experience in Iraq.

“When they say ‘thank you,’ it means a lot, especially when you are in a combat zone,” Gruetzner had said. “Knowing that people are here for you and supporting you really means a lot.”

Now the support has become more than just pats on the back and hand shakes.

News of his injuries spread quickly throughout family and friends in the community.

Slocum High School Principal Cliff Lassiter said Monday that the school had fielded many phone calls from people wanting to know what had happened to one of its own, a young man described as a “good student” who had qualified for the 2000 Class A state track meet in the 3200-meter run as a senior and had played basketball and baseball, and whose sister Julie Gruetzner just graduated.

Lassiter, who had coached Gruetzner in cross country and track, said he was saddened to hear the news about a student he remembered as “a great kid at school.

“He was the type of kid you could take anywhere and not have to worry about him,” Lassiter said. “A lot of people have sent up a lot of prayers for him. He’s definitely in our prayers.”

According to Rachel Gruetzner’s mother, Kaye Karriker, and Debbie Gruetzner, several area churches have placed Gruetzner on their prayer lists.

Karriker’s co-workers have established a fund at Capital One Bank to help with expenses.

The Karrikers are watching their 2-year-old granddaughter, Brayden, to allow her mother to remain in San Antonio at her husband’s hospital room. Other family members are watching homes and picking up mail, Debbie Gruetzner said.

“We have tons of family that are helping,” Debbie Gruetzner said.

In the meantime, they plan to be at Gruetzner’s side.

“It’s going to be a long process,” his mother said. “Everything’s a wait-and-see. It’s very hard.”

When asked about her husband’s outlook, Rachel Gruetzner said it was too early to tell.

“I’m not sure yet,” she said. “I just keep thinking baby steps first.”

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Anyone wishing to send cards and letters of support may mail them to Debbie and Burl Gruetzner, 3707 ACR 1231, Palestine, Texas 75801.

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Beth Foley may be contacted via e-mail at bfoley@palestineherald.com

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