By Elizabeth Fazzini
BLAIRSVILLE — On April 3, 2003, Jeremy Feldbusch was near a dam on the Euphrates River approximately 120 miles northwest of Baghdad, Iraq, serving in special operations in the U.S. Army.
The last thing he remembers was eating chicken teriyaki.
It was also the last thing he saw.
Two rounds of enemy artillery landed within 10 meters of his squad. Jeremy was hit in the face and head with shrapnel, resulting in blindness in both eyes and traumatic brain injury. He was 23 years old. The other eight members of his squad were unharmed.
Medical professionals expected him to die. The best case scenario was, if he lived, he would never speak or understand again.
Yet Jeremy defied the odds, and he continues to amaze and inspire people.
"The fact that he is walking and talking and is as articulate and intelligent as he is, is truly a miracle," said Elaine Scherer, pastoral associate at SS. Simon and Jude Parish, Blairsville.
"Jeremy is a walking miracle."
Jeremy, 30, is the only candidate in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) process at SS. Simon and Jude Parish. He will enter the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil at the parish April 3, seven years to the day after his accident. He doesn’t think the dates are coincidental. He said that just as he was injured on the third day of the month, he will take one step closer to God on the third day of the same month, making reference to the Holy Trinity. Seven is the number of spiritual perfection.
He has chosen the confirmation name of Philip, after the patron saint of special forces, St. Philip Neri.
Jeremy lives with his parents, Brace and Charlene Feldbusch, and his dog, Maggie, in Blairsville. He has two brothers, Shaun, 31, and Brian, 23. He graduated from Derry Area High School in 1997 and received a bachelor of science degree in biology from the University of Pittsburgh in 2001 before enlisting in the U.S. Army. He served one tour in Iraq.
Within 10 days of his injury, Jeremy was transported to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, where family members and a friend met him.
To minimize the swelling of his brain, Jeremy was in an induced coma for six weeks, kept alive with a ventilator. He dropped from 225 pounds to 150.
"I went and prayed all the time in the hospital chapel," Charlene said, noting the tremendous support she received from family, friends and hospital priests.
Hospital staff unsuccessfully tried to remove Jeremy’s ventilator five times; each time he died and was resuscitated. On the sixth attempt, Jeremy awoke, but the prognosis was grim.
One evening when Charlene was leaving his hospital room, Brace called her to Jeremy’s bedside, where she softly heard the words, "I love you, Mom."
"We knew he was back," Charlene said, emotionally recalling the glorious moment.
But the journey back was dark.
"Why did God take my eyesight?" Jeremy asked his father from the intensive care unit, Charlene said.
His father encouraged him to ask a different question: "Why did God let you live?"
Jeremy said his mind was weakened, and he needed time to recover; but what eventually evolved was a shift in his purpose — and a belief that things happened for a reason.
"The pen is mightier than the sword," Jeremy said. "I put down that sword, and I was supposed to go do things another way, with the graces God gives me."
He resolved to find a way to spend his life helping other wounded service members.
He returned to Blairsville in June 2003 and spent nine months in daily rehabilitation and several months in a wheelchair. He has 10 percent damage to his right frontal lobe and 30 percent to the left frontal lobe. He continues to learn Braille and how to walk with a cane. Since his injury, he has had a total of seven surgeries on his eyes and sinuses, two on his left knee and one on his brain. A neurosurgeon told Jeremy that the foreign material he removed was the largest he’d ever removed from a brain.
According to his mother, Jeremy has been enveloped with prayer, love and support from a countless number of family and community members, friends and military personnel. She is quick to note that there are many wounded veterans who have it worse.
Jeremy and his parents are three of the 26 co-founders of the Wounded Warriors project, which raises awareness and enlists public aid for the needs of severely injured service men and women. Jeremy does speaking engagements, makes hospital visits and provides emotional support for veterans and their families. In March 2004, he became the national spokesman for the project.
"He’s extraordinarily active in veterans’ issues," Scherer said. "He just really feels that he’s been given a gift to do good with his injuries and to assist other wounded veterans out there. That’s his gift."
Although Jeremy was baptized in the Methodist faith in 1980, he said that, over the years, he attended Mass at SS. Simon and Jude Parish with aunts, uncles and cousins more frequently than he attended the Methodist church.
"I’ve felt more as one at Saints Simon and Jude," he said.
Although there was a period in his teenage years when he felt disbelief and separation from God, Jeremy said he’s been thinking about coming into the church for 20 years.
He began the RCIA process at the parish in September 2009. He has been meeting on Thursday evenings with his girlfriend, parishioner Cardin Uncapher, Scherer and other parishioners who gather to learn about the faith. He is the only individual in the RCIA process at the parish.
Nick Dorsch, a parishioner of Mother of Sorrows Parish, Murrysville, is Jeremy’s sponsor. Jeremy was 9 when he met Dorsch, who once served as his wrestling coach. They have maintained a close friendship over the years, and they hunt together. Dorsch said he was pleasantly surprised and honored when Jeremy asked him to be his sponsor.
"Jeremy helped teach me a lot of different things without even knowing it," Dorsch said, noting that Jeremy never takes life, friendships or what he has for granted, the way people sometimes do.
He said Jeremy inspires him by the fullness with which he observes and takes everything in.
"He does everything in life that way," Dorsch said. "Converting to Catholicism has been the same way with him; he’s done this with fullness."
Jeremy said he’s looking forward to becoming a confirmed Catholic, continuing to learn about the faith and "being able to participate with every Mass in the holy meal — that just being the essence of what was given to us by Christ."
Jeremy exudes optimism, a healthy sense of humor and zest for his passions. He hunts deer and elk with a laser sight attached to his gun, with the assistance of his father. "It’s always with somebody else’s eyes," he said with a smile.
He speared a wild boar a couple of years ago. He fishes for flounder on Long Island, N.Y., and salmon on Kodiak Island, Alaska. He bowls, kayaks, goes golfing, plays Nintendo and rides a bicycle.
When asked where he enjoys riding his bicycle, he said with a laugh, "major highways." He then clarified his answer with "rails to trails." He’s also learning to play the guitar.
"My vision has gotten so much more perfect than it ever was when I could see," Jeremy said. "It’s not about what you see on the outside. It’s what’s on the inside."
He sees his journey into the Catholic Church as part of God’s providence, forever being formed in the Creator’s hands.
"It was already written a long time ago, Jeremy said. "It was supposed to happen this way."
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