More than fireworks: July 4th has new meaning for soldier

Published 6:52 pm Monday, July 2, 2012

Fireworks are a normal part of Fourth of July festivities and, for a lot of people, a fun way to cap off a relaxing day spent with family and friends.

For Jemison native Donny Eslinger, a corporal in the United States Army, the same fireworks that mesmerize children and delight adults will carry a much deeper meaning for him, along with memories of the battlefield that nearly claimed his life last fall.

“I ask Donny what Independence Day means to him now,” said Mary Sazera, Eslinger’s mother. “The sights and sounds of fireworks remind him of the continual sounds he heard around him in Afghanistan, knowing that each ‘boom’ we get excited for here was fired with intent to harm and destroy there.”

Eslinger, 20, was in the middle of a tour of duty in Afghanistan when a surprise enemy attack critically wounded him and several other soldiers.

On Sept. 26, 2011, rounds of rocket-propelled grenades rained down on his unit’s base in Afghanistan, leaving Eslinger with a severe chest wound, head trauma, broken ribs, a broken leg, damage to his internal organs and numerous contusions.

If not for fast-working Army brothers and medics, Eslinger most likely wouldn’t have survived.

Although he doesn’t remember every step on his recovery path, Eslinger’s mother does.

“There are times when I find myself looking back on certain dates that were milestones during this journey and asking myself, ‘How did I get through that?’” said Sazera, who accompanied her son to every medical treatment facility after he left Afghanistan.

In less than a year, he spent time at facilities in Germany, Maryland, Tampa and Washington, D.C.

At Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland, President Barack Obama awarded Eslinger the Purple Heart on Oct. 10, 2011, for being wounded in service.

“Donny Strong,” the slogan his mother coined after he was wounded, is as accurate now as it ever was.

As the United States celebrates another birthday July 4, Eslinger will prepare to do the same Nov. 24, following the one-year anniversary of the attack.

“Sept. 24 is approaching and will be celebrated as his ‘one year alive’ day,” Sazera said. “It will be forever celebrated in our family.”

In April, Eslinger reported to Ft. Stewart’s Wounded Warrior Transition Unit in Georgia, where he will remain for up to a year as the military review board decides whether he will stay in or be medically discharged from the Army. Either way, he is non-deployable because of his injuries.

Sazera said Eslinger lives in a new facility at the base, attends morning formation and participates in meetings and classes daily at Ft. Stewart.

“He has mentioned law enforcement, and he has mentioned staying enlisted in some capacity,” Sazera said. “To this day, he still says he would leave tomorrow for another tour over there.”

In May, Eslinger flew to Alaska for his unit’s homecoming from Afghanistan.

“It was a bittersweet trip as he was able to see his fellow soldiers he was with in Afghanistan and those who saved his life,” Sazera said, “But he also participated in the memorial services for those in his unit who did not survive this deployment.”

Eslinger recently had the chance to play baseball again with his younger brother, Daniel Eslinger—a senior at Jemison High School—and the JHS baseball team.

Smoke, the dog that Eslinger found as a puppy and took care of in Afghanistan, is almost 1 year old and lives in Sazera’s backyard.

“All in all, our family is slowly regrouping and adjusting,” Sazera said. “On July 4th of last year, Donny was in Afghanistan watching ‘real’ fireworks shooting over his head. This year, while watching fireworks, cooking out, and enjoying a day off … we have a whole new respect to what we are celebrating.”