On June 15, 2011, 1st Infantry Division member and Corporal Kyle Hockenberry was in a medevac military helicopter flying out of Afghanistan to receive medical attention in Germany. His legs were gone and his left arm was missing, but Hockenberry lived.
Today, nearly four years later, he and his wife Ashley, like many couples that include a veteran, still adapt to civilian life together. What makes Hockenberry’s readaptation to his hometown Marietta remarkable is the family’s home, a customized “smart house” designed to accommodate his needs as a triple-amputee.
Hockenberry, 19, was on foot patrol just outside army base Strong Point Haji Rahmuddin when an improvised explosion device detonated, destroying his three limbs. Ever courageous, but justifiably traumatized, the soldier’s initial response was concern about his loved ones.
“When I first woke up and was conscious in the hospital, I wasn’t concerned about what had happened to me, I was concerned with how my family was doing with [the news],” Hockenberry says over the phone.
But Hockenberry’s own concerns soon were overshadowed by public support and proclamations of his bravery—an element the veteran contests.
“I didn’t [join the military] for any kind of attention or anything like that,” Hockenberry says. “Everyone around [Marietta] knows I don’t like to be called a hero, because I was doing a job I wanted to do and love to do. I didn’t even want to get out of the military. I wanted to keep doing my job, but that, obviously, wasn’t possible.”
His community wasn’t about to let Hockenberry disappear from site, however.
For Those I Love, I Will Sacrifice
Between his basic training and tour, the solider made trips home to speak with local school children about the Army. Hockenberry’s dedication can best be described by his personal mantra: “For Those I Love, I Will Sacrifice.” Tattooed on his left rib, those words are not his own but rather those of the hardcore punk group Indecision. They lyrics are from their 1997 track “Hallowed Be Thy Name.”
More than anything else, Hockenberry entered the military with a heart committed to serve and protect. He still speaks highly about the work the Armed Forces do for our country. Such passion and pride can leave an impression.
Similarly striking is the award-winning photo by Laura Rauch showing Hockenberry’s ink as the critically wounded solider lies shirtless and under medical care on the flight out of Afghanistan. The photo was republished in numerous publications, including Stars and Stripes and Time magazine. Rauch’s photo brought Hockenberry’s story and recovery into the public’s interest.
Before this picture could make its national impact, however, Hockenberry traveled from Afghanistan to Germany to San Antonio’s Brooke Army Medical Center (BAMC) in nine days time. He would stay under BAMC’s care for the next five months.
“Initially, he was kind of depressed from the nature of his injuries, but over time he grew stronger,” C.D. Peterson, a BAMC wound care coordinator who worked extensively with Hockenberry, says over the phone. “We joked quite a bit, but it took probably six to eight months for him to get his sense of humor back.”
While Hockenberry describes the pre-physical therapy process towards recovery as “horrible,” he pressed on, despite the challenges. When Peterson checks in from time-to-time, he’s happy to see how well his former patient recovered.
“When it came to Kyle, we had great concerns early on about [his] being able to get back into a good, functional life,” Peterson says. “But when [we] see his pictures on Facebook and hear some of the things that he’s done, the nursing staff over here gets really happy.”
In turn, Hockenberry’s pleased he has so many people by his side.
“I’m thankful for the support this has brought on, because so many soldiers get hurt and they go unnoticed,” Hockenberry says. “And I was lucky enough to have a town, and even a state, and even a whole country eventually because of that picture, that supported me. And I’m grateful for it. But, you know, I don’t think I deserve it any more than anyone else does.”
Among Hockenberry’s multiple supporters is Justin Brannan, guitarist for Indecision, who wrote the words permanently embedded onto Hockenberry’s side. Thanks to the published picture, the former Indecision musician—now Director of Communications and Legislative Affairs for New York Councilman Vincent Gentile—found a withstanding kinship.
“I felt an instant connection with Kyle, and the first thing I wanted to do was find out if he was alive and how I could get in touch with him to thank him for his bravery and courage,” Brannan says. “Lots of people have those words tattooed on them, friends and fans of the band across the world, and I never knew what to say over the years when people would wanna show me their tattoos—it’s very humbling—but to see it like that on Kyle … I was speechless. We [the band] all were.”
“Kyle got the tattoo two weeks before he was deployed,” Brannan adds. “It was just one of those things where words fall short. Kyle is really just cut from a different cloth than the average human being: a true inspiration to us all.”
Another person humbled by Hockenberry’s story is Gary Sinise, the CSI: NY actor who created The Gary Sinise Foundation (GSF) inspired by his Forrest Gump character, double-amputee Lt. Dan Taylor. GSF helps war amputees adjust to life as independently as possible. Upon hearing Hockenberry’s story, Sinise immediately reached out and visited the wounded veteran at BAMC.
“He’s very hands-on,” Hockenberry says. “Even being a famous movie star, he’s pretty down-to-Earth. [GSF doesn’t] just build the house and cut all ties with the veteran. They try to help us in any other way they can.”
Sinise worked with Hockenberry and his family to begin the steps towards readjusting to life, beyond his recent handicaps, and GSF continues to work with the Hockenberrys to this day.
The veteran also received strength from Ashley, who met the army amputee when he was on leave in Ohio in October 2012.
“When I met my wife, it got a lot easier, because she was there every step of the way and gave me the motivation,” Hockenberry says. “When I met her, it all changed.”
The Smart House
For the next two years, the Hockenberrys discussed the plans with GSF to get their own smart house in Marietta, funded and paid for entirely by Sinise’s organization. The amputee’s long-term hospital stay and eventual discharge from BAMC in 2012, official un-enlistment from the Army—who disapproves their members receiving gifts of a high price—and deciding details for the house like a location to paint colors kept the immediacy of the house in check.
During that time, Hockenberry lived in Texas with Ashley in a small bunker of an apartment. The non-handicap accessible location was “a challenge” for Hockenberry and Ashley. So when he officially retired from the Army, they moved back to Ohio in a house that attempted to fit the amputee’s living situation. That also was not what he needed it to be, so they still struggled for years after his injuries. The smart house was most definitely an improvement.
Hockenberry describes the smart house as having “a rustic look.” At six to eight thousand square feet, the two-story house is specifically customized to help the veteran be as independent as possible.
The floor adjustments and hallways are wider. The doors automatically open and shut, and there are elevators to the different floors. Also included are lower shelves, taller ceilings, a full-length porch in the front, a half-length patio in the back and other special household appliances. All of those improvements, in addition a downstairs “man cave,” Kyle’s favorite room, make the new home a serviceable and fitting lodge for the couple.
“I’m more than grateful for what they have done,” Hockenberry affectionately says. “It’s almost too much.”
The couple moved into the smart house on June 18, 2014. Their welcome-home commencement was a big service. Sinise was there to welcome the crowd with a performance from his band, Gary Sinise and the Lt. Dan Band, and other entertainment and services were available. That was also provided by GSF, in conjunction with the Tunnel for Towers Foundation, which supports those first responders and most severely injured service members.
“We like to be there for all the different stages—the good ones and the bad ones—but hopefully most of the good ones,” executive director of GSF Judy Otter says over the phone. “This is just the beginning. We are still working with Kyle and his wife and helping them through their various stages. We continue to stay in communication with them and make sure they are adjusting to their new living quarters.”
Those services can include getting Kyle in contact with other veterans to help and service members like him to provide assistance with their business or school plans. It can also be activities such as calling to make sure everything is going well with the house and fixing problems, should they arrive.
Work on the house, however, is not completely done, since Ashley is currently pregnant with their first child due this July. They will need to make sure the smart house is family-safe. Like many new parents, Hockenberry is excited and nervous at the prospect of fatherhood.
“It’s a new thing,” he says. “It’s going to take me awhile to get used to.”
With this new addition to the family, GSF plans to be around for anything the couple needs during that positive adjustment in their lives. Sinise even calls every now and again to make sure they are well.
“We are a full service group,” Otter says. “We continue to give to those who have given so much already, who have given the ultimate sacrifice. The Hockenberrys are pretty special folk, and we’re there to make sure we provide our mantra: serving honor and need. We want to give what everyone in life wants: family, success [and] careers. We want to help them, and they deserve it.”
In addition to being a new father, Hockenberry continues to plan for the future. He hopes to open a gun shop either near his house or in downtown Marietta. Guns have been a hobby and interest for him even before his Army days, and he is still very passionate about them. The details on the veteran’s upcoming business are still in early development.
Meanwhile, Ashley recently took her husband’s passion and surprised him last year with the opportunity to appear on the CMT reality series Guntucky. There, Hockenberry went to a local gun range to try some high-gear firearms on national TV.
With these exciting prospects, this injured war veteran’s future looks quite hopeful.
“I mean, it bothers me, not having legs or an arm,” Hockenberry says. “But life goes on, and you have to get through it.”