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Brothers In Arms Like Jeremiah Homuth, Matt Conley was a high school quarterback who enlisted in the armed services. Unlike Homuth, Conley didn't come back from his tour of duty. Wright Thompson tells Conley's story
The rocket-propelled grenade came from up the hill on the right. Jeremiah never saw it. Never heard it. Just this muffled rush of bone and muscle and burning metal going straight through him. He was down, on the floor behind the driver, ears ringing. His right arm was gone. His left arm was shot all to hell, broken in three places. He'd hit his head hard on the way down, his jaw was broken and he'd taken shrapnel all over his upper body. He heard gunfire from above, his buddies taking care of business. The driver was in his face -- "You're going to be all right. Stay with me." -- tying a tourniquet up near his right shoulder. Jeremiah turned to look. And the first thing he thought, lying there, a hole where his arm used to be, was, "I'll never play football again."
REMEMBRANCES OF THINGS PAST
There's a framed picture on the bookshelf in Sandy Homuth's family room. You've seen pictures like this. Team-photo days. Guy down on his right knee in the grass, ball tucked under his right arm, looking up at the camera, shoulders hunched. In this one, Jeremiah's 10, maybe 11, his cheeks round and red, his nut-brown hair cut in a tight bowl. "Look at him," Sandy says. "Look at that boy. He's trying to scowl and look tough, but he can't quite all the way because that little grin of his comes through. Look at him. God he loved it." He was born in Huntley, an hour northwest of Chicago, in 1985. The Bears' year. Born under a good sign, baptized and blessed by Sweetness, Jim McMahon, Otis Wilson and The Fridge. "All three of my boys are pretty good athletes, but football came natural to Jeremiah," Jeff Homuth says. "He loved to pop kids. Always running full out. Flying around. And even when he was real little, when it was just us in the yard out back, he could always catch and throw. I never felt like I was teaching him anything. It was like he already knew what to do. He was always at home out there, with a ball in his hand." They ran the spread offense at Huntley High School, lots of quick-hit stuff in the flats and slants over the middle, lots of keepers and rollouts. But the deep routes were Jeremiah's favorites. He had this thing, this rhythm, with his friend Brad Kalsow, a 6-foot-4 wide receiver. They'd look at each other on the line and just know it was time, and Jeremiah would take a deep drop, and Brad would run a fly or a hitch-and-go, and they'd go for it. "I'd throw it as hard and far as I could," Jeremiah says. "I wasn't always pretty, but I could let it go, and it seemed like no matter how far I threw it Brad could run up under it." It was a sweet feeling, the ball hanging up there in the Friday night air, something you made and something you were. "I can still see those throws," he says. "Sometimes they just flash on me and I'm back there, chucking it."
"THERE'S BEEN AN INCIDENT"
Jeff got the call. Sandy was cutting hair in her basement shop at the house, and she was headed to the phone when she heard Jeff from upstairs, "I'll get it." He was only home for a minute, stopping off to get something on his way back to work at the Huntley firehouse; five minutes either way and he'd have missed it. But he was there, and he got it, and he heard the voice on the other end of the line: "Mr. Homuth, there's been an incident." He hung up the receiver and walked out to the back yard. He couldn't go down to the basement. Couldn't go tell her. No way. He dug his cell phone out of his pants pocket and called the minister at their church, Joel Popenfoose. "Joel, there's been an incident." Pastor Joel said he'd come right away. Jeff waited in the yard, bent over at the waist, hands on his knees, and threw up on the lawn. When Sandy finished with her client, she came upstairs and was surprised to see her minister in the kitchen with Jeff. "Hi, Joel. What brings you this way?" She walked right past him, maybe to the fridge, maybe to pour herself a glass of water at the sink, maybe just to give her heart enough time to calculate the moment. Then she turned and looked at Jeff, his face sweaty and pale, and she knew something was wrong. When she found out what had happened, the laughs came as fast as the tears, in a flood. "I think I'd been holding my breath since he had shipped out," she says. "And it all just came out of me at once. I was so happy he was alive. And I was so sad and so scared to find out he was hurt. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. I had to do both, I guess."
A FAMILY PEOPLE COULD COUNT ON
Young Jeremiah played at war, like most boys do. He built guns out of LEGOs -- big, elaborate, multicolored models for imaginary firefights and skirmishes with his brothers, Jake (three years younger) and Josh (three years older). Sandy hated them. No guns for her boys. No violence. When she found them around the house, she'd sit down and take them apart, brick by tiny brick, and put the pieces away in a box on a shelf. The next day, the guns would be rebuilt, sometimes bigger than before. Jeremiah's grandpa, Wellons B. Homuth, flew 33 combat missions during World War II. He was shot down over Europe near the end of his tour and survived the jump. As a kid, Jeremiah would sit at his knee and listen to the stories. He pictured himself in the old man's B-25 Liberator, somewhere high over the field of battle. He fingered Wellons' one souvenir, his parachute rip-cord, an amulet, the thin line that brought him through, brought him home. Growing up, Jeremiah watched his father suit up for danger every day as a firefighter. He watched him start up a pee-wee football league when there was none in Huntley. He watched him, time and again, drop what he was doing and drive over to help a friend building a fence, or fixing a car, or just needing to talk. "My dad has always been that guy," he says. "People count on him." The day the towers went down in New York, Jeremiah felt as though someone was counting on him. He was in class, just a sophomore in high school, 16 years old. He sat at his desk in first period, watching the concrete clouds billow on a TV screen at the front of the room, and he knew. College football had always been the dream, but it could wait. When he finished school, he would sign up. He'd been called. He'd be a quarterback when he got back home.
PUTTING JEREMIAH BACK TOGETHER
Coming home broken is the story you never hear about, the outcome you never imagine. You picture your boy walking back through the door safe, all in one piece; you wrap your arms around him and cry, because your prayers have been answered. You sometimes can't help but imagine a flag-draped box arriving at O'Hare, too; you fall to your knees and cry because your worst fears have been realized. But his coming home injured, forever changed ... you never see that coming.
Jeff has been a firefighter in Huntley for more than 20 years. He has seen folks in a real bad way, but nothing could have prepared him for pulling back the curtain to look at his sleeping son's wounds that first day at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in D.C. The stump where doctors had cut a clean line up above Jeremiah's right elbow was still raw, swollen and red. The blast hole in his left arm was open to the air, like some anatomy-class model, for regular rinsing to fight infection. "I didn't want him to see me react. I wanted him to know he was still Jeremiah to me and I still loved him, no matter what," he says. "But it buckled my knees, looking at him. I just knew he had such a long road ahead of him." The surgeons took a vein and an artery out of his right leg to help reconstruct his left arm. Sandy calls it a "work of art." The day they took the staples out, 30 of them, Jeremiah wore his Bears cap and every time they pulled a staple, blood dripping on his patchwork skin, pain shooting through his tender nerves, he lifted his arm and forced the cap down just a little bit lower over his eyes. "You ask me about Jeremiah, about who he is, and that's the first thing that comes to me," says his occupational therapist at Walter Reed, Maj. Katie Yancosek. "He never winced. No tears. We brought him down in a modified gurney that day. This was the very beginning, the first time he was really using that arm at all. And he just kept pushing at that cap." There were 26 surgeries in all, every one a setback, a painful return to what felt like square one. There's a saying in rehab, a black-humor Zen koan: "Time takes time." No shortcuts. All kinds of heavy lifting. Jeremiah was at it for almost 13 months, first at Walter Reed and then at nearby Fisher House, a residential rehabilitation facility for injured veterans and their families. He had to relearn how to wiggle the fingers on his left hand. He had to spend five hours a day in the first weeks with his left arm in a mechanical device called a continuous passive motion machine that would bend the arm at the elbow, over and over again, breaking through resistant bone calluses at the joint, loosening traumatized muscle and tendon. He had to train himself to work a prosthetic arm on his right side, flexing muscle fragments in his stump by isolating muscle groups between his shoulder blades; biceps clench to close the fingers on the prosthetic, triceps clench to open them. Katie had him write, left-handed, early and often: "We had to confront what was lost in a very concrete way." He practiced putting clothes on and taking them off. He carried trays to work on balance and strength. He prepared food -- first simple recipes and eventually four-course meals -- trial-and-erroring with kitchen utensils and gadgets until he could work them one-handed. He cleaned rifles. "Just to feel something normal again," Sandy says. And he threw a football, too. Played catch. Short tosses to Sandy or Jeff or another resident at Fisher House. It was only a Nerf and he struggled to get a grip on it at first, but after a while, if he let it go just right, a little side-arm with a big shoulder turn, he could put a spiral on it. Bittersweet stuff. "It was good to throw a football again, and I got to where I could throw it pretty well, pretty hard, but I used to throw these tight 15-yard outs, hit my guy in stride, in a game," Jeremiah says. "So now every throw, it was like I was feeling what it was, and what it wasn't, wasn't ever going to be, you know?"
TRYING TO IMAGINE A FUTURE
He'd sometimes go dark. Pretend to be asleep when the therapists came around. He'd sometimes get nasty. Lash out. Bark at Sandy, who had come to live with him at Fisher House.
It felt personal, what happened. Mean. God took his throwing arm. Took away football. Took away being a soldier. Now what? Now he needed help to bathe and feed himself and tie his shoes. Now his body creaked like an old man and he was helpless as a baby. What was he supposed to do? Who was he? Who was he going to be? "The nature of his injuries, the damage to form and function in both his upper limbs meant that every single thing he tried to do was not only incredibly hard work but was also a reminder that things are not as they should be," Katie says. "Someone with a leg injury gets to a certain performance level in a wheelchair and is relatively comfortable with it. Someone with a double-arm injury pattern ... it's much more devastating."
Sandy would sit there next to him for hours at a time, touching his shoulder, reading to him, looking for some game on the TV, wanting to fix him, hoping he felt her loving him. She was scared. She tried to soak up all his hurt. "I'm here, Jeremiah. I love you." She took long walks outside, crying. "I had all this aching for him, for all those boys in there, their broken bodies and broken hearts," she says. "I'd have to unpeel all that so I could get myself somehow ready to go back in and be with him again." Be with him. That's all there was. She couldn't tell him everything was going to be all right. "Don't bulls -- me, Mom." She couldn't go back and fight him harder on his decision to enlist, though God knows she thought about it. "It's what I wanted to do, Mom." She couldn't somehow speed up his recovery, though God knows she prayed for it. "Wishing doesn't help, Mom." She could only be with him. Be real with him. "It was all I knew to do. Sit there," she says. "I just knew I couldn't quit my son."
"BROTHERS FOR LIFE"
You don't get "injured" or "wounded." You get "blown up." One body. One potent explosive device. One rocket-type accelerator. Blown up. Facts on the ground. As his buddies were getting ready to put him on a medevac chopper for a flight to a field hospital in Afghanistan, his body a stew of dirt and blood, one of them said, "It ain't so bad, man. You've still got one good arm for j---ing off." God, he missed them. Misses them still. You want to know how he got through the rehab days, what he thought about when they were pulling out those staples one by one? His unit. He stayed connected. He pictured them, up at 5 a.m. on patrol, working the sectors. He remembered them together, the work they did in basic, the sweating and crying and hurling they did, side by side. "I got blown up and I had to come home, but those guys are my brothers for life," he says. "Maybe I'm not a soldier anymore, maybe I'm just a gimp, but I'm with them every day." Gripping a pencil, cutting cheese with a knife, rubbing an oil rag over a gun barrel and trying to perfect that southpaw spiral, that was Jeremiah's job, his duty to First Platoon-Alpha Company. "He hated the weekends at the hospital," Katie remembers. "There was no scheduled rehab those days. He wanted the routine. He wanted to work. He knew his unit was out there, and he knew they weren't taking weekends off." He's got his Purple Heart in a box in his room, but he won't tell you about it unless you ask. "It happened fast. It was a surprise. It was about a month after I got to the hospital. I hadn't thought about it," he says. "I was coming back from rehab one morning, and these Secret Service guys frisked me. That's how I knew the President was on the ward." Weeks later, he passed on an invitation to come to the White House. Don't separate him. Don't single him out. He's not special. He's only talking about it now because he wants you to know there are guys, so many guys, worse off than he is. "There's a lot of hard work going on out there, guys who are healthy and guys who are hurt," he says. "I'm not the story. The story is all of us."
TRUE LOVES, LOST AND FOUND
He loved that moment just before kickoff. Butterflies floating up out of him with every breath. The stands full. The national anthem playing over the P.A. He and his teammates standing shoulder to shoulder, shifting their weight from foot to foot, poised. "You feel all full up right then," he says. "There's this good chill that comes over you and you feel like your head is about to explode. And you look at the guy next to you and you know he's feeling it too." He loved that moment just as the unit was leaving camp, locked and loaded for bear. It was the end of thinking, worrying, imagining. It was no time for planning or remembering. It was what was and nothing more. He relied on his training, worked on instinct and reflex. "You're so alert," he says. "Everything matters and none of it is under your complete control, and you're counting on muscle memory, and after that all you have is this absolute trust in the man next to you, and all he has is you." Jeremiah came home to Huntley on June 29, 2007, one year and three weeks from the day he was blown up on that goat trail in Afghanistan. He and his family, including his brother Josh, home from his own tour of duty in the Air Force, were greeted at the Des Plaines Oasis, a truckstop just minutes west of O'Hare, by the Patriot Guard Riders, a local motorcycle-riding veterans group. Leader Joe Alger, of nearby Crystal Lake, organized the reception, more than 100 bikers ready to escort the town hero home alongside the limousine they'd rented for him. The caravan moved west along Interstate 90, joined by local police cars and fire engines. Fire trucks with their lights on and residents waving flags saluted him from every overpass along the way. When the parade turned north on Route 47 into Huntley, both sides of the road were crowded with friends and neighbors holding homemade "Welcome Home" signs and lifting American flags over their heads. The guys at the local tavern, the Parkside Pub, had held a four-pig-roast fundraiser earlier that spring to help defray the family's expenses. Ladies in a Huntley sewing circle auctioned off a homemade quilt in Jeremiah's honor. And soon after he came home, the town council voted to rename the street where the family has lived since before Jeremiah was born. The blue sign at the corner of Davey and Woodcreek now reads, "Honorary Homuth Family Drive." It's hard to explain what they felt in those days, back together again, shown such grace and kindness. Sandy just says Huntley is the best place in the world to live. Jeff says home never felt so much like home. Jeremiah pulls the lid of his cap down just a bit, smiles a shy smile and shakes his head. Words don't quite go there.
SCARS THAT NEVER HEAL
Back in the day, he liked to come out to the field early in the morning and sit on the bleachers, scan the reach from goal line to goal line, get a feel for what he wanted to do that night. He sat there the night before he was deployed, too, imagining what was to come once he left this field for another. On this night, in a cold January drizzle, he walks you by those bleachers and notices how the rim of the field is different now, surrounded by new houses built in the short time since he played here. He walks you through the halls of Huntley High. His picture is on the wall in the front entryway, one of eight or 10 dress-uniform portraits of Huntley alums who've served in recent wars. He's one of only two Army men in the group. "Everyone wanted to be a Marine. I wanted to do something different." He takes you to the gym where, not so long ago, he played varsity basketball, and the kids practicing inside look like pale, featherless fledglings. They don't notice him standing there, watching. He moves on. He points out the room where he took English as a senior, and he takes you by his locker. "I can't remember the combination," he says. "I didn't think I'd ever forget that." He shows you the room where he took home ec, "because it was easy, and girls like a guy who can cook." He walks slowly, looking up and down the halls, as if taking the place in for the first time. He tells you about boot camp kicking his butt when he left here, about thinking about coming home early, giving it up. "But I couldn't do it," he says. "I owed people more than that. I couldn't come home a failure." Later, over beers at a nearby bar and grill, he shows you shrapnel scars on his upper left arm. At impact, hot metal from a rocket-propelled grenade scatters like buckshot. There are pieces all over Jeremiah's body, pink pearl tattoos at the surface. "Feels like a million of them," he says. And he continues to feel them. Like splinters of wood, tiny shell fragments make their way to the skin's surface over time, and eventually break through. Soldiers who've taken shrapnel often pinch pieces of metal from their arms and legs decades later. "The scars don't ever really heal," he says. "You're always carrying it around." He lay there that day in the field, in a pasture in the valley below the goat path, waiting for the medevac, and tried to keep his eyes open. He wanted to close them, but he thought if he did, he might not wake up. Part of him wanted to close them anyway. Maybe the pain would subside. Maybe the ringing in his ears would go away. Maybe he couldn't handle coming back from this. Screw that. Keep your eyes open. Don't give in. Look around. Look up. Look at the wounds again if you have to. But look. This is all you have. This. Right now. These lids, open and not shut. Close them and yesterday is gone. Close them and there is no tomorrow.
THE ETERNAL NOW
Sandy cherishes the little things. She cuts his hair. She drives around town with him. They watch movies and talk. She makes dinner, he makes cheesecake for dessert. "I don't want to hear about theology. I don't need some grand plan. People say to hope and dream, but I don't want to hope and dream anymore," she says. That grenade hit her, too. Knocked her off her moorings. Made her into a kind of heartland Eastern philosopher. "I want what we have today, what we can do today. Now is all we have. And we're good right now. We just want to love our kids."
Jeff tears up while showing you a CBS "Sunday Morning" clip of Jeremiah at Fisher House, trying to catch a football. He remembers when his boy was tree-trunk strong and bull-headed. But he doesn't have to remember. He sees it every day. "What he's doing, just getting up and living his life every day, it inspires me," he says. Jeremiah's back in school these days, a freshman at Western Illinois University in Macomb, about three hours downstate from home. He shares a house with his best friend, Adam (Pastor Joel's son, and a fellow vet). "I've got a mortgage and everything," he says. "Trying to play catch up on life." He's taking a full load of general-education classes. He likes psychology. He thinks about maybe coaching. There's a long road between here and there. A lot can happen. But that's all right: He has learned how to wiggle his fingers and write his name. He has kept his eyes open. He's not afraid. It's late February on a cold winter night in Macomb and he takes you for a ride in his cherry-red Ford F150, his pride and joy. He doesn't wear a seatbelt -- the warning bell rings softly from the console every minute or so -- leaning in over the wheel, cuffing the top of it with his left arm. Country music plays on the radio. Streetlamps spotlight the falling snow outside. He drives you through the streets of Macomb for a nighttime tour of his new world. A stiff wind out of the north polishes white lawns and the hoods of parked cars. "I think I'm waiting for my calling now," he says. "Maybe, even after all this, it is football. I hope it is. I just don't know for sure. Not yet." Eric Neel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine.
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