By Mike De Felice
Special to Kitsap Daily News
With a full moon overhead, the night was hot and sticky in Afghanistan as Explosive Specialist Staff Sgt. Keith Sekora was teamed up with a special forces unit. That night’s mission in 2010 was to meet a group of Afghans, pick up explosives they had found and bring them back to base where they could safely be disarmed.
After inspecting the hazardous items to ensure they were not booby-trapped, Air Force Staff Sgt. Sekora was carrying an old 80-pound tank round back to the team’s vehicle. As he placed the munition in the armored vehicle, he was suddenly hit in the back. It felt like someone slammed him with a baseball bat. The force sent him into the sand.
The medic in the group rushed over and thrust a gloved hand under Sekora’s armored vest. The doc withdrew his hand. No blood. A good sign — at the time.
Sekora was “dazed and confused” from the hit but he continued working. The next day he still felt “out of it” so he swallowed a bunch of aspirin, ate a Snickers bar and drank a Mountain Dew. The aspirin may have saved his life, he would later learn.
Soon, the sergeant’s life would dramatically change.
“I sat down and touched my face, but I couldn’t feel my face. I knew something was up,” Sekora told the Port Orchard Independent. “I was taken to the hospital. By the time I got there, I couldn’t walk. Within 24 hours, I had a major stroke and three mini-strokes.”
Soon, he was transported back to the United States for medical attention and to start years of arduous rehabilitation.
Today, the 50-year-old veteran contends with partial paralysis of the limbs on his left side. He is unable to feel touch or temperature over a good portion of his 6-foot-6 frame. In the future, he faces an increased loss of mobility due to inactive muscle use. Exposure to wartime conditions also brought on systems related to post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
Sekora continues to undergo extensive rehab work to deal with the injuries he suffered that night in the Middle East. This week, however, his mind got a welcome break from his rehab regimen. Last Thursday, the cement foundation was poured for a unique home being built for him and his family in South Kitsap.
Homes for Our Troops, a national nonprofit organization, awarded Sekora a specially adapted home containing features to accommodate his needs. The home, provided at no cost to him, is slated to be completed this fall.
Currently, the retired soldier lives with his wife, Andrea, and her 12-year-old daughter, Olivia Hassler, in Lake Stevens. His son, Kyle, 26, is a King County deputy sheriff.
The veteran met his wife on e-Harmony two months after his injury.
“He was open about the fact he was injured,” Andrea said. “I’ve been in three car accidents so I didn’t want to judge him based on his condition. Just because he had injuries didn’t mean he was broken.”
Andrea was attracted to his personality. “He is a positive, happy person despite what he has been through. He’s really just a big teddy bear.” The couple married in 2014.
The custom home is a game-changer for the Sekora family.
What the house means
“It is going to give me and my family peace of mind,” the sergeant said. “There will be no stairs. I’m horrible on stairs. Everything is wide enough so if I have to be in the wheelchair, I don’t have to worry about smacking into walls or not being able to get through a door.
“I’ll be able to help around the house. There will be pulldown cabinets so I can bring them down to my level. I’ll be able to unload the dishwasher.”
The house will also feature a digital shower. “If I just jump into a shower, before I know it, I can be burning myself because a lot of my left side is numb. I don’t know how hot it is. This shower has a computer so you can program the temperature,” he said.
Automatic doors will enable hands-free accessibility. Floors will be carpet-free to enable easy use of a wheelchair.
Eventually, he will be unable to walk due to muscle deterioration. This home, however, will address that issue. Tracks will run along the ceiling that will have wires that can be attached to him. A lift system will be able to hoist him out of bed and then carry him by wires throughout the residence.
The family believes they will never have to move again once they settle into the residence.
The road to recovery
It was never determined what hit Sekora in Afghanistan. It may have been a bullet or a “frag” (fragment) from an explosive device. Doctors told him the impact severed an artery, which sent blood clots coursing through his brain and torso. The clots caused blockages that resulted in at least one major stroke and several TIAs, or mini-strokes, which continued for two years.
“I had to learn how to walk and talk and how to use my left arm again,” he said. “I spent two hours a day for a year in a hyperbaric tank [which provided him pure oxygen in a pressurized tube]. They hoped the pure oxygen would promote healing.”
To regain the use of his left arm, he underwent mirror box therapy. “I put my left arm in a triangle box. I played with stuff with my right hand but watched this in a mirror. This tricked my brain into thinking I was using my left hand. After a while, my left arm started to move.”
Sekora was wheelchair-bound for six months after the incident. Following intensive in-patient rehab, he graduated to using a walker and, eventually, a cane. While he still has paralysis on the left side, he is able to walk. Still, he keeps the cane nearby since he continues to experience falls.
The incident left him without the use of his left leg. “I didn’t lose the limb, but lost use of it,” he explained. A prosthetic provides some support and keeps his left foot at a 90-degree angle to prevent it from dragging.
“I still have good and bad days. Some days I can’t get out of bed. If I do too much one day, I pay for it the next day. My body can’t keep up.”
At Sekora’s side is his service dog Pintler, an 8-year-old black lab.
“He picks things up for me. If I fall, he can help me get up. If I get up late at night, I can tell him to turn on the light and he does it.”
Pintler, named after the Montana mountain range where he was trained to be a service animal, also helps his owner deal with PTSD.
“In Afghanistan, there are large crowds everywhere and people don’t have the same personal boundaries as here. They can be right up on you.”
“Over there, I was always looking for electrical cords or bulges under clothes, trying to spot suicide bombers. My brain is always looking for danger. I can’t control it. Here, if there are a lot of people around — like when I’m in line at Costco — Pintler will stand behind me so no one can get right behind me.”
Bow and arrow therapy
During his continuing journey to recovery, Sekora went to an adaptive sports camp with the idea of taking up a sport to provide him a break. He decided to look into air rifle and air pistol shooting.
“I figured that sport was right up my alley,” he said of the activity.
He got on a bus to the rifle range — but it was headed to another sports activity. He ended up the archery range.
“I thought, ‘What am I doing here?’ I’ve never shot a bow in my life,” he said. But, since he was there, he figured he would give it a try.
“I stood out of my wheelchair. First shot, I fell over and shot the arrow into a deer head hanging on the wall,” he chuckled.
It turned out archery was quite therapeutic. “It helped keep me calm and relaxed. It was recreational therapy to help heal my brain.”
Following the rough start, Sekora ended up excelling at the sport. He honed his skills at the Air Force Warrior games, then joined the U.S. para-national archery team. In April, he will try out for the U.S. paralympic archery team, which is scheduled to compete at the 2020 Summer Paralympics in Tokyo.
The sergeant’s stint with the Air Force in Afghanistan was not his first in the military. Previously, he joined the Army in 1989 and served for 10 years. He was part of Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm. He also put in deployments to Panama and Honduras and assisted with relief efforts to help victims of Hurricane Andrew. After leaving the Army, he became a police officer in North Carolina, then a deputy at the King County Sheriff’s Office.
When 9/11 took place, Sekora felt compelled to return to the military, this time joining the Air Force Reserve, where he was soon activated and sent to Afghanistan. He worked in EOD — explosive ordinance disposal — working to frequently disarm roadside bombs.
He has no second thoughts about reenlisting and ending up in Afghanistan.
“I would do it again in a heartbeat. I don’t regret anything I did. During the 9/11 attacks, my mom was working in the Pentagon when it was hit. I couldn’t reach her for days because cell phone service was out. They attacked us and I wanted to help out.”
Homes for Our Troops
Homes for Our Troops has built 293 homes for severely injured veterans nationwide. A veteran pays no fee toward the cost of the home and there is no mortgage to be paid. Qualifying criteria for a veteran to be eligible for a home include being injured in the Iraq-Afghanistan war theater, post-9/11.
The organization was started in 2004 by a Massachusetts general contractor who offered to build an Army National Guard soldier a specially adapted custom home. The soldier, who had been injured in Iraq, agreed to have the contractor build the home on the condition that he do the same for other injured veterans.
The nonprofit is publicly funded, with approximately 65 percent of its revenue coming from individual donors. The remaining 35 percent of income is generated from corporate sources.
Those wishing to donate or seek additional information on Homes for Our Troops can visit the group’s website: www.hfotusa.org.