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Faith puts injured soldier at ease Surviving a bombing in Iraq teaches Collins man a new way to look at life

Sgt. James Hackemer woke up Saturday morning in his boyhood home on his family's farm in Collins and felt -- for the first time in so long -- refreshed.

There were no machines blipping, no nurses checking in, no fellow patients screaming out in the middle of the night.

Just the sweet silence of life in the country.

"There was no noise whatsoever," Hackemer said. "I had to leave the TV on."

Hackemer is back home.

It is only for five days, but he is savoring every moment of it.

He says he knows to do that now after having survived a roadside bomb explosion near Baghdad in March.

"I lived a blind life," he said, reflecting on his life before he was wounded at war. "I didn't know what life was about."

Hackemer lost both of his legs in the blast. He also suffered brain damage from the blood loss. The 26-year-old soldier lay in a coma for six weeks while his family wondered whether he would ever wake up.

After recuperating in National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., he was transferred to Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston, Mass., where he has been receiving intensive physical therapy ever since.

Friday night, Hackemer was allowed to come home for a brief visit -- and he was treated to a hero's welcome.

More than a hundred family members and friends gathered at Buffalo Niagara International Airport to greet him when he got off the plane. The entire airport seemed to join in the revelry, with passengers and airline workers applauding and cheering.

"It was awesome," Hackemer said with a wide grin.

He was driven home in a convoy of three Humvees, trailed by 40 motorcyclists with the Patriot Guard Riders.

The country road leading to his family's blue farmhouse was lined with tiny American flags over the weekend.

The giant oak in front of the house was wrapped with a giant ribbon in red, white and blue.

Handmade signs adorned the house and property.

"Welcome home, James," read a long banner made of construction paper and dotted with hundreds of star-shaped stickers.

"There's strong and then there's Hackemer strong," read one sign.

"Quick! Somebody get this man a beer!" read another.

"It looked like the president was coming," said a beaming Hackemer. "No, it was better than for the president."

A crush of family members, neighbors and friends from Gowanda High School filled the Hackemer house Friday night and throughout the weekend. They hugged Hackemer hard, snapped photos with him and marveled at his progress.

There had been a time when many worried he wouldn't survive the bombing.

On March 14, Hackemer was headed to Baghdad in an armed security vehicle -- "basically, a tank on wheels," he explained.

Hackemer was keeping a keen eye on the ground in front of the vehicle. Just a day earlier he had spotted what looked like an improvised explosive device, a type of bomb, that turned out to be a hoax..

"They were testing us."

But on March 14, the IED was well hidden in the ground, and it was no hoax.

Hackemer said he did not see it. But he remembers hearing a thud.

"I remember saying: 'What the hell was that?' "

He has pulses of memory about what happened next.

"I remember getting pulled out of the vehicle," he said.

"Hang in there," he recalls someone telling him. He then remembers being carried to the helicopter.

And then nothing until he woke up in the hospital.

He later learned that he almost didn't make it. Twice.

"I died twice," he said. "Once in the helicopter and once on the operating table."

Months later, Hackemer recalls what he believes were visions during those moments.

In one, he was in a place where he believes he was looking at hell. It was a large pit filled with millions of screaming people.

He was trying to climb out when some Army soldiers came and pulled him. He then found himself in a place with a bright, white light.

"I felt at ease," he said. "If there was anything I wanted to eat, I could have it. If there was something I wanted to drink, I had it. Anything I needed, I had. I didn't feel any discomfort."

He explained what he believes the visions were.

"I think God showed me hell and heaven," he said.

He called his mother from the hospital and told her about the visions.

"We started bawling and bawling and bawling," he said.

Hackemer said his faith has become a very important part of his life.

"Oh yeah," he said. "For sure."

His life now revolves around his rehabilitation. A speech therapist has helped him with his speaking. He's relearning how to write. And now he's trying out his first prosthetic leg.

He will get more training on prosthetics in a month when he's transferred to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., he said.

He has had other struggles as well. He and his wife are getting a divorce, and that has meant he hasn't been able to see his two young daughters very often.

But his parents and siblings have shown him great love and support throughout his ordeal. They have retrofitted the farmhouse to be wheelchair-accessible, and they're planning for Hackemer to live with them when he's done with his physical therapy.

But that day is still many months away.

In the meantime, Hackemer intended to enjoy his first visit back home.

Over the weekend, he was relishing the comfort of the living room couch and the new shotgun his father gave him, which he hopes to hunt with when he's better.

He was happily dining on Sahlen's hot dogs, fresh-delivered pizza and his mother's poached eggs for breakfast. He was looking forward to a meal at Olympia's, a Greek diner in Gowanda.

But mostly, he was enjoying being at home, sharing time with his family, and he appreciated it all.

"It's pretty amazing being able to see life in a different way," he said.


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