Detroit News 06/30/06
Born to be a soldier
Survivor becomes symbol of hope for Mich. unit that lost 6; Guardsman's spirit inspires Bush
Edward L. Cardenas / The Detroit News
Sgt. Duane Dreasky of Novi never expected a bedside visit from his commander in chief, but even swaddled in bandages, his response was immediate.
"He tried to salute, and the president said, 'You don't need to salute, I need to salute you,' " his wife, Mandeline Dreasky, recalled of the five-minute visit her husband shared with George W. Bush at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. "He was so proud and I was emotional for him. Bush is his hero."
As the only survivor of a blast in Iraq that killed four of his comrades, Dreasky has become something of a symbol of hope for a Michigan National Guard unit that has lost six citizen soldiers -- more than any other unit in the state.
He also is an example of how advances in evacuation techniques -- and new, cutting-edge care at U.S. military hospitals -- are allowing more soldiers to survive injuries that might have killed them in previous conflicts.
For Mandeline Dreasky, the drama of her husband's condition began on a day in November, when she arrived at her in-laws' Novi home, knowing Army officers were waiting inside with potentially devastating news about her husband.
When she realized they were wearing their basic-duty uniforms instead of dress blues, her fear gave way to hope.
"I knew we had a fighting chance," she recalled. "I went straight in and asked where is he and when could I get to him."
The nearly eight months since that day have been a daily battle for survival for Duane Dreasky, 31, who is in critical condition.
The former Walled Lake high school football player and martial arts enthusiast suffered third-degree burns over 75 percent of his body when a bomb exploded near his Humvee on Nov. 2.
Dreasky is one of more than 18,000 U.S. soldiers who have been injured in Iraq, according to the Department of Defense, and one of an estimated 472 from Michigan. So far, 2,529 have died nationally, 86 of them from Michigan.
In Dreasky's case, he is benefiting from a new Army burn center whose medical staff has made 51 flights in a specially equipped jet to an Army base in Germany to take 233 patients to San Antonio. It is the only military burn center of its kind in the country.
Maj. Elizabeth Mann, a clinical nurse specialist for the burn center, said the prompt evacuation and access to immediate care is giving soldiers like Dreasky a fighting chance.
"There has been some research where we have taken civilian traumas, and soldiers who have come from overseas, and their outcomes are the same," she said.
Blast hit Humvee
The biggest threat to Dreasky's health now is a bacterial attack on his heart valve, family and medical staff say. Because he is a burn victim, surgery is impossible, so he has to fight a condition called endocarditis, inflammation of the heart, through antibiotics.
"He keeps fighting and overcoming. It is a testimony to his fortitude," said Mandeline, known as "Mandy," his wife of six years. "We rely on each other. His eyes light up when he sees me and he responds quite well. He always responds to me."
Dreasky was on patrol near al-Habbaniyah, Iraq, with four other Michigan soldiers from Company B, 125th Infantry, when their Humvee was hit by an improvised explosive device. Pfc. John W. Dearing, 21, of Hazel Park, was killed instantly.
Sgt. Spencer Akers, Sgt. Matthew Webber and Sgt. Joshua Youmans all suffered severe burns and were airlifted to Landstuhl, Germany, and ultimately to the burn unit at the hospital at Fort Sam Houston in Texas.
Complications from the burns and their injuries slowly claimed the men who rode with Dreasky. Akers, 35, of Traverse City was in command of the Humvee and died Dec. 8. Youmans, 26, of Flushing died March 1. Webber, 23, of Kalamazoo died April 27.
News of their deaths has been kept from Dreasky, who asks about them daily.
Capt. Anthony Dennis of Otisville, commander of Dreasky's National Guard unit, was riding in the same Humvee patrol when the remote control bomb exploded. The patrol was to go through al-Habbaniyah and report on the "atmosphere" of the town and observations to his commanders, Dennis said.
After the bomb exploded near Dreasky's Humvee, Dennis ran to help. He recalls closing the door on the vehicle as Dreasky was evacuated to a nearby medical center.
"He was last the guy evacuated," Dennis said. "He gave me a look that said, 'I'll be back.' "
He taught martial arts
Throughout his life, Dreasky has never shied away from a challenge, or his desire to become a soldier. His loved ones said "he was born to be a soldier" and wore fatigues to school.
He enjoyed studying military history and was athletic, playing high school football at Walled Lake Western.
That athleticism also delayed his entry into the military because he had some knee problems. Despite those injuries, he continued to get in shape for the day he would be able to enlist.
He scuba dived, sky dived, ran track and wrestled. He also became a marital arts instructor, working out of Michigan Martial Arts in Farmington Hills.
He met Mandy in 1994 when they both worked at Guardian Armored Security in Highland Park. Coincidentally, she was in the military -- the 1775th Military Police Company out of Pontiac.
The couple married in March 2000, and Mandy Dreasky was deployed to Iraq in 2003 to provide convoy escort. Back at home, Duane Dreasky helped support the unit by transporting members to training in Wisconsin and helping them communicate with loved ones overseas. Still, he was unable to join the military himself because of his health problems.
After several letters to local elected officials, Duane Dreasky was finally able to realize his dream of joining the Michigan Army National Guard in June 2003. After he completed boot camp, he was deployed to Cuba, where he was stationed for a year.
When Duane Dreasky returned to Michigan from Cuba in November 2004, he became a full-time National Guard recruiter. His time at home with his wife and family was short because he volunteered to be deployed to Iraq.
"They needed him, and he felt like he should go," Mandy Dreasky said. "Duane is a proud soldier and believes in this county and what it stands for."
She first learned of his injuries on Nov. 21 while helping her mother redecorate her house. She got a call from her mother-in-law to come to her house before heading home.
A paralegal, Mandy Dreasky was preparing to go to law school when the bomb literally shook her world. She dropped everything at that moment to be next to her husband.
"It was easy. Duane is everything to me," she said. "We are best friends who just happened to get married."
Quick care is lifesaver
Mann, the burn center nurse, said more soldiers like Dreasky are surviving their injuries because of an evacuation program that gets them care quickly.
Badly burned soldiers overseas are transported to Landstuhl, Germany, where they are taken by a specially equipped Air Force C-17 that is like a "flying intensive care unit" back to the United States.
As their 12 1/2 -hour flight crosses the Atlantic, requiring a midair refueling, doctors and nurses treat their patients.
Upon arrival into San Antonio International Airport, they are transported by ambulance on the nearly 15-minute trip to the hospital.
Once at the hospital, work begins to remove the burned skin, which is "just a medium for infection, bacteria and fungus," Mann said.
While patients are receiving treatment to remove the burned skin, occupational and physical therapy is started to help them relearn daily tasks such as how to brush their teeth, walk or use their hands.
"The rehabilitation is key to the long-term outcome. Once they survive a burn, they have to live their life," said Mann. "It is a long, long road."
Meanwhile, Mandy is working to set up a foundation for Duane when he is finally released from the hospital, although doctors say it's too early to know when that might be.
The foundation will fund scholarships for Walled Lake Western students who want to pursue a career in medicine in addition to helping special-needs children attend Special Olympics events, she said.
"I want to have a job for him when he gets out, so he doesn't have to search for a job," she said referring to work he could do for the foundation.
In December and April, Gen. Thomas Cutler, adjutant general of the Michigan National Guard, and his wife, Chris, visited the soldiers in the burn unit.
"I was taken by the situation and how strong (Mandeline Dreasky) was," Chris Cutler said, adding she has kept in contact with her by phone, letters and through prayer.
"There is a special bond in the 125th," she said. "I am glad to be part of it."
You can reach Edward L. Cardenas at (586) 468-0529 or firstname.lastname@example.org.