Land of 10,000 Stories: Town has the back of its wounded warrior

10:04 PM, May 30, 2011   |    comments
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CLEVELAND, Minn. -- No Golden Gate crosses Cherry Creek in Cleveland, Minnesota. Just a main street with scores of yellow ribbons bridging the miles between Cleveland and Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas.

Pfc. Jack Zimmerman has been at BAMC for nearly three months. Today he sits facing Chris Ebner, an occupational therapist who takes measurements and notes about Zimmerman's badly wounded arms. 

"Palm up as best as you can," Ebner tells his patient.

Zimmerman no longer has feeling in the rebuilt and skin-grafted right arm that served him so well just five seasons ago as captain of the Cleveland High School football team. His hand has no movement at all.

Zimmerman's left hand is doing better. Though injured, the strength is coming back. That's going to be important now that Zimmerman's arms must help do the work of his missing legs.

Two years ago, Zimmerman said goodbye to Cleveland and his girlfriend Megan Wolfe, and hello to the Army and eventually Afghanistan. He was there on patrol on Wednesday, March 9th, when his foot came down on an improvised explosive device.

"I kind of had an idea that I stepped on it. Just the way it unfolded. My biggest fear was that I hurt someone else," said Zimmerman.

Zimmerman was the only one in his platoon seriously hurt -- but it was bad.

Jack's father, Mark Zimmerman, was at work when he found out. "A captain from Fort Campbell called my cell phone."

Soon everyone in Cleveland knew. "It was definitely the worst couple days of my life," recalled Wolfe, who spend most of the first few hours with Zimmerman's parents.

"I almost cried as soon as I heard," said Libby Ehlers, Zimmerman's high school classmate and neighbor.

Chris Thomas remembers Zimmerman babysitting for her kids. "People took it like it was one of our own. It could have been my son," she said.

Then Cleveland got busy.

Two days after Zimmerman was wounded, as he lay in a medically induced coma in a military hospital in Germany, hundreds of people marched by candle-light to his parent's home, then stood in the driveway wrapping their arms around his parents and his girlfriend.

"Yeah, those people back there are incredible people," said Zimmerman from a rehab gym at BAMC's Center for the Intrepid. He glances at Wolfe, who has been at his side since he arrived in Texas. "I look at her some nights, I'm like what's going on, you know. I was just doing my job and something bad happened."

Zimmerman is smiling. He almost always is. "Pretty hard to not find him smiling," says his dad. It's the same Jack everyone in Cleveland watched grow up.

"He just warms your heart when you see him. He's just an awesome kid," says Thomas.

Wolfe says the BAMC nurses expressed concern that Zimmerman wasn't grieving more over the loss of his legs. "I'm just like he lost his legs, he's dealt with it and that's it," she says as Zimmerman nods in agreement.

With small-town-resolve Zimmerman just started setting new goals. His therapist reads from a list of activities Zimmerman might choose to pursue. He responds to each.

"Wheelchair sports?"

"Yes."

"Basketball?"

"Yes."

"How about paintball?"

"Yeah, I'd definitely try paint ball."

"Sky diving?"

"Yes. definitely," says Zimmerman with added resolve.

Goal setting is nothing new to Zimmerman. Just ask Wolfe. "He's been chasing me around since I was in 8th grade."

Zimmerman's date for the Cleveland High School prom became his fiancé while he was home on leave three weeks before he was wounded. She has not wavered since. "At the end of the day anybody can ask me how hard this is. It's hard but, I have him sitting right next to me. And that is all that matters to me."

BAMC's Center for the Intrepid provides the world's most advanced techniques and equipment for helping amputees adapt to life without arms and legs. In a few weeks, Zimmerman's prosthetic legs will be built at the center.

San Antonio is where Zimmerman and Wolfe need to be for a rehab regiment that will likely last two years. But they want everyone back in Minnesota to know, their home is still Cleveland.

"Oh yeah, I plan on being there," says Zimmerman.

Those yellow ribbons on main street may be faded when they get there, but Cleveland wants Zimmerman to know it will always have his back.

"We can't wait for them to come back," says Lathea Sargent, who runs the town's gas station with her husband Mike. Nearby on the counter sits a collection bucket decorated with a yellow ribbon and a picture of a smiling Zimmerman.

The Sargents are among a group of people working on a benefit for Zimmerman to be held at the Shoreland Golf Club in St. Peter on June 26th.

Zimmerman's cousin Dan Lloyd stops by the gas station each day after school to check on the stash of t-shirts, buttons and can cozies he sells to raise money for Zimmerman.  He estimates he's deposited close to $5,000 in a special fund at Hometown Bank in Cleveland.

Lloyd points to the saying on the back of the t-shirts as particularly appropriate: "The task ahead of you is never as great as the power behind you."

People in small towns talk - and not a day goes by when somone in Cleveland doesn't ask Jack's parents the question: "Yep," says Jack's dad, "'How's Jack doing?'"  One after the other, Mark and Lori Zimmerman give their answer.  "He's doing good.  He's doing good."

Zimmerman and Wolfe still have a long road ahead.  But it helps to know the finish line is Cherry Creek and the destination is home.

Jack Zimmerman's Caringbridge site

(Copyright 2011 by KARE. All Rights Reserved.)

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