COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. –
He gave both legs for this country. And on Saturday night, U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Travis Strong will be standing for the National Anthem.
As PBR Celebrates America in the Broadmoor World Arena in Colorado Springs, Strong, who had been injured severely in Iraq a decade ago, will be honored for his extraordinary sacrifice and bravery.
Strong grew up north of Los Angeles with a yen for speed and adventure. He played high school football as a strong safety and raced dirt bikes on the high desert flat lands.
The stepson of a Vietnam veteran, he had always wanted to be part of the military and proudly joined the U.S. Army in 1997.
Strong was stationed in Italy, honorably discharged in 2000. But the routine slack of civilian life was not for him.
When the planes hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 9/11, Strong re-enlisted with the Army’s First Stryker Brigade, named after the ceramic-armored mobile combat vehicle designed to protect troops from all but the most potent explosives.
On November 27, 2006, two days after Thanksgiving, Strong’s unit was on night patrol in their Stryker rolling down an empty street near Baghdad.
Strong, the vehicle commander, was seated in the middle of the Stryker. Without warning, a powerful EFP (Explosively Formed Penetrator) bomb engulfed the eight-wheeled vehicle. A quiet road turned into hell on earth.
“I remember the smoke, the smell, the fire, and everyone yelling,” Strong said.
His right leg was gone. His left leg was mangled.
“I don’t remember any blood or not seeing my leg or feeling any pain,” he said. “I just knew I was hurt very badly. It was the worst experience anyone could feel: that dread of dying, and there was nothing I could do to stop it.”
His lungs collapsed. The men were shouting for Strong to breathe. He was fading in and out of consciousness.
Strykers travel in groups. This time, a soldier from Colorado took off solo, smashing into cars and anything else in the way to get the dying sergeant to the field hospital at Camp Liberty.
“I was in limbo, fading in and out,” he said. “They were asking me questions, but I don’t remember my answers. I could feel my clothes being cut off.”
He would flat-line four times. His left leg was lost.
He woke up in a Baghdad hospital drugged, dazed and confused. The battalion commander and chaplain reassured him, “You’re still with us, you’re alive.”
Strong drifted away. Next time, his eyes opened to a group of familiar men – his platoon lining the room.
“It was really cool to see them, but also a very somber moment,” he said. “My driver, who had become a good friend, couldn’t look at me. He sat on the edge of the bed, his head down. It was hard for all of us.”
Strong was sent to a military hospital in Germany. He then shipped back to the U.S. to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. Then it was a transfer to the Navy’s Balboa Hospital in San Diego, which was closer to family and friends.
He endured painful complications from bone growth and skin graphs on his leg. Emotionally, too, the first year following the blast was very difficult.
“I went through every emotion: anger, sadness, depression and despair,” he said. “But I never gave up. I knew everything had changed, but this was also the start of a new life.”
Strong would spend five years in a wheelchair, each day vowing not to give up on his recovery and keep moving forward.
He met a beautiful girl and promised he’d walk down the aisle to take Cara as his wife.
Homes for the Troops hooked him up with a house in Golden, Colorado. Scores of volunteers – carpenters, electricians, plumbers and roofers – came together to build the elevator-equipped house in three days.
The faith-based Wild River Ranch, supported by the Green Family of Hobby Lobby, became a respite for relaxation and fun.
He learned how to snow ski, tackling the most difficult black diamond slopes. He now plays sled hockey, competes in obstacle course races, bike marathons and jumps from airplanes. Next up is wheelchair rugby.
Travis and Cara even attended bull riding events at Denver Coliseum and Cheyenne Frontier Days. They own two gentle bulls, Gus and Monty, who were going to be dinner for a while. Then the couple discovered that some bulls love kisses. Now Gus and Monty are family, like big beloved dogs.
“I’ve done crazy stuff, but getting on top of a bull is genuinely crazy, and it’s a lot of fun to watch,” Strong said. “To go to PBR and be honored will be quite humbling, when I was just doing my job.”
He’s proud to be asked to come down to the dirt to be part of PBR’s “Celebrate America” initiative.
“I believe these (NFL) guys have every right to protest; that’s why I fought. But I feel they are doing it the wrong way,” he said. “To anyone who has served – cops, vets, first responders – the flag means so much. It symbolizes all the blood shed throughout the years for our freedom.
“We are proud of the country and our flag, and that’s why we put our lives on the line. On the same hand, a lot of Americans, and we’ll see them this weekend, do support the troops, and that makes me feel good.”
Strong will accept being called a hero if it helps get out his story. But go easy on the H word.
“It was like a lottery that I didn’t hit so good,” he said. “A lot of my friends didn’t make it. In my mind, they are the heroes.”
Nonetheless, Strong feels honored when asked to tell his story – not to recount tales of courage and valor, but to share a vital life lesson.
“When something traumatic happens in life, you don’t give up. You keep living. If my story and what I do inspires one person, maybe they can help make the world a better place.”
When Travis Strong walked down the aisle to meet his bride to be, you can bet every single person in the chapel was pretty darn inspired.