"I've got butterflies as pretty much anyone would," Sgt. Ed Matayka said.
He never thought this day would come and it almost didn't. Ed was nearly killed in Afghanistan when his military vehicle hit a massive roadside bomb. One other Vermont Guard soldier, Ryan Grady, died in the blast.
"The biggest thing for me is I came home," Ed said. "I know a lot of guys weren't able to. On that side of the coin, I am deeply saddened in the fact that Ryan, we are not going to see him again. You know, he didn't get to make it home."
Three and a half years after the explosion, Ed's sacrifice was recognized with the military's Purple Heart at a special ceremony in San Antonio, Texas.
"It is kind of the official Army stamp on it saying thanks for what you've done," Ed said.
This is not Ed's first Purple Heart ceremony. He doesn't remember his first. It was given to him just 12 hours after the blast, because military officials didn't think he'd make it.
"He was in a bad way," Maj. Gen. Will Roy said.
Roy was there. He commanded Vermont's 86th Brigade in Afghanistan.
Ed lost his legs, suffered spinal fractures, a brain injury and two strokes. It was a night the general will never forget.
"Just to see the trauma that Ed had suffered and, of course, having lost Ryan, it was very, very hard on us," Roy said.
Military officials pulled a camouflage sheet over Ed that night and pinned a Purple Heart to it. He was in a coma and near death. Ed's wife, Karen, also a medic with the Vermont Guard, rushed to his side at the military hospital on base.
"But when Karen came in, the look on her face was we are going to make it. We are going to make it through," Roy said.
And to his doctors' surprise-- they did. Together. But it would be a long and rough road. Years of demanding rehabilitation and specialized treatment where Ed learned everyday tasks all over again at the Center for the Intrepid in San Antonio. But doctors say it was really a positive attitude and the unbreakable bond between Ed and Karen that got him farther than they ever thought possible.
"How these huge obstacles were overcome by this couple," said Dr. Raul Marin, Ed's doctor. "It just stresses marriages but these two guys are granite. Amazing."
General Roy reunited with the couple in San Antonio.
"There is no other place I'd be on this planet than here today," Roy said.
And he did the honors, pinning Ed's Purple Heart. The military wanted to wait until Ed reached a good point in his recovery.
"Thank you very much, sir," Ed said as the medal was pinned.
The general also recognized the soldiers in his Vermont Brigade who never made it home.
"We lost five soldiers in our brigade and had a number of wounded. I carry those soldiers with me every day, like most commanders do," Roy said. "They will never be forgotten. We will never forget them. They are part of our family."
"It's kind of emotional... and loop closure and full circle thing for me as well," Ed said.
And Ed recognized the person who got him through the worst of it-- his wife, the mother of his twins, the love of his heart.
"I attribute all of my recovery to her," Ed said. "When the mental got a little too tough, she kept my head in the game... She is my strength."
Ed and Karen plan to stay in San Antonio where Ed will continue his rehab at CFI. And the couple just got word they've been selected by a nonprofit to get a fully handicapped-accessible house built for them. They just need to pay $50,000.
They'll be back in Vermont in December for Karen's last weekend with the Vermont National Guard.
Saturday, March 8 2014 10:21 AM EST2014-03-08 15:21:27 GMT
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