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On furlough from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center this summer, 21-year-old Nick Staback lounges on his parents' back porch in Scranton, Pa., taking potshots at sparrows with a replica sniper rifle. The long plastic gun fires pellets that mostly just scare the birds away.
It's been a tough year for Staback since his last foot patrol in Afghanistan.
"We [were] just channeling down a beaten trail, of course, you just don't know what's on it," he says. "We had the mine sweepers out front and everything like that."
The area was littered with homemade bombs and everyone knew it.
"I was kind of looking where I was going to step, make sure I was going to step in my buddy's footprint kind of thing," he says. "But I guess it was just the wrong time, the wrong place."
The bomb threw Staback high in the air; he landed on his back in a state of shock.
"That's when I looked and saw probably a good couple inches of my femur on my right side sticking out. I couldn't tell that my left leg was completely gone but I did see that it was all mangled up and shredded," he says.
Staback's right forearm had a chop of flesh missing as well. A swarm of Afghan hornets, stirred by the blast, began stinging his buddies as they struggled to control the bleeding and carry Staback to a medevac helicopter.
Thousands of miles away in Scranton, Staback's mother, Maria, had just arrived at the state liquor store where she worked as a manager.
"The gentleman [on the phone] said, 'Are you sitting down?' " she says. "And he said, 'I need you to go somewhere — in a lunchroom, a break room, somewhere — and sit down.' "
The call was from Kandahar, where her son was in critical condition.
"I couldn't talk, I couldn't breathe," she recalls. "Then he started going on and telling me everything that happened. Then I had to call my district manager. I said Nicholas was injured, they blew my baby up."
Learning To Walk Again
The next year would transform both their lives, as Maria took a leave of absence to move into an apartment with her son at Walter Reed. She quickly found her niche there. Maria says Nick and her husband started calling her the "Gestapo" because of her relentless oversight of Nick's therapy and medicine. She was a tough coach as he learned to walk on two prosthetic legs.
"People think I'm horrible!" she says. "For some reason his knee gave out and he spun around and fell to the ground, and these two other Army guys they come running over — 'Are you OK?' — and I'm standing there and I'm laughing. And I said, 'Oh, yeah, he's fine. Let him go. Don't help him,' I told them. 'He can get up on his own.' He said, 'Oh, yeah, I'm OK.' Both of us were laughing like idiots."
She calls Nick her comic relief. He's not above making jokes about his prosthetic legs — like screaming when his buddies pretend to kick him in the shins or complaining about twisting an ankle.
He discovered exactly how many cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon fit in the hollow of his high-tech legs, and then passed them around the local bar in Scranton for everyone to take a swig.
Nick says he doesn't mind falling.
"You get up," he says. "You don't fall, you don't learn anything."
The Stabacks have four purple hearts hanging in the house — Nick's brother Ryan did two tours to Iraq and one to Afghanistan. Uncles served in World War II and Korea.
Nick still wants some sort of job that involves carrying a rifle. He says he's not going to let anyone tell him what he can't do. But like many 21-year-olds, he's not sure what exactly what he wants.
"If it comes to it where they just can't allow me to do it, whatever," he says. "Just play the cards you're dealt; I'll go on to the next thing."
Nick says he does get down sometimes, but tries to shrug it off and just get on with his life. As for his mother, she's been relentlessly upbeat since he got back from Afghanistan — at least when she's around him.
"I can never tell if she's having a rough day or not. She always had a smile on her face when she saw me," Nick says.
Maria says the hard part for her is wrapping up her time at Walter Reed and going back to work at the end of this month. Nick is moving into an apartment with a friend near the hospital in Bethesda, Md.
"He's going to miss me," she says, and Nick admits that he will.
"He's a strong boy. We're a strong family," Maria says. "It's already normal. This is the new normal, so I'm used to it already."