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Hero welcomed home Honor guard, kin greet soldier who lost legs in Iraq

Surrounded by an honor guard of bikers holding American flags in the main concourse of Buffalo Niagara International Airport, a Collins soldier who lost his legs in Iraq quietly watched Friday afternoon as his father pinned a Purple Heart to his chest.

There was no need for words as a teary-eyed John Hackemer made sure the medal was secured to the left breast pocket on the green fatigues worn by his 26-year-old son James.

But the father, in a whisper, managed to utter what his son already knew: "I love you."

Nancy Hackemer, his mother, also embraced him as he sat in his wheelchair, overwhelmed by a flood of goodwill.

"A new life," his mom promised, "a new life for you, James. It's going to be good."

Tears flowed freely among the 100 or so loved ones and friends who had come to the airport to welcome him with homemade posters, repeated applause and cheers. Even the long lines of airline passengers waiting to pass through security checkpoints broke out into applause.

It is Army Sgt. James T. Hackemer's first trip home since losing his legs March 14 when insurgents ignited a roadside bomb beside his heavily armored vehicle as it headed into Baghdad. Two other soldiers also lost their legs in the incident.

"Oh man, you have no idea," Hackemer said when asked how it felt to be back in Western New York. "It's been so long. I haven't been able to move for so long. It's a miracle."

Hackemer said he is making progress at a Boston rehabilitation facility.

"I started getting my legs. I'll be walking shortly," the husband and father of two young daughters said.

He spoke much more fluidly than just a few months ago because of an injury to his brain in the attack. In fact, for two months after the explosion, he could not speak at all.

So far, he has tried on one of his artificial legs, and the other is still being built. When asked how it felt the first time he put on the limb, he said, "Tall, I felt tall."

But at this hero's homecoming, there was no way to measure the young man's spirit. Simply put, it soared.

When the jet carrying him and his older brother, John, touched down, Hackemer turned on his cell phone and called his sister, Jody, from the runway. "He said, 'Eagle has landed,' " Jody related, and that made her weep with joy, as she repeated her brother's first words on hometown soil.

The first thing Hackemer planned to do at his parents' Collins home was sleep and spend time with friends. He should have time for both. He's in town until Tuesday.

But before he could put his head to the pillow or hug another friend, there was the special ride home.

Hackemer was given a seat of honor in a convoy of three Humvees that was escorted by an Erie County sheriff's patrol car and 40 motorcyclists from the Patriot Guard Riders of New York.

e-mail: lmichel@buffnews.com

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