Monday, May 26, 2003

Injured pilot humbled by support

Florence native rehabilitating to fly again

By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer

CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. - The cards, letters and posters spread across the floor of Mark and Tara Wisher's tidy living room help explain the shrapnel-ridden blood stained military uniform hanging in the closet.

Air Force Capt. Mark Wisher talks with first-grader Abigail Moore at Woodfill Elementary School after she gave him a flag during a visit May 12.
(Patrick Reddy photo)
| ZOOM |
Capt. Mark Wisher, 29, an Air Force fighter pilot and Florence native, wasn't wearing the uniform in the early morning hours of March 22 when a grenade allegedly tossed by another American solider tumbled into his tent in the Kuwait desert. He's not even sure whose blood saturated the sleeve.

But he will keep the tattered garment, always, as a reminder of what happened that night.

The uniform, piled among Wisher's gear, took 25 pieces of the BB size shrapnel that exploded from the grenade. Wisher was hit with 13. The force of the hot metal fragments lacerated his liver, punctured a hole in his diaphragm, collapsed his right lung and ripped into his arms and thighs. Fourteen men were injured that night. Two died, including Air Force Maj. Gregory Stone of Idaho, who was standing next to Wisher when the grenade went off.

"Thousands of veterans out there from wars past have gone through this," Wisher says of his injuries. "It's a shame we lost two good officers, and it's a shame the way they died.

"But the end result is the same. They died for their country, doing their job."

In the two months since the attack, Wisher underwent two emergency surgeries in a desert military hospital and spent 10 days recovering in a hospital near a U.S. Army base in Germany. Since returning to the States he has been going through strenuous and at times painful physical therapy at Fort Campbell, the massive base that straddles the Kentucky-Tennessee line about 50 miles northwest of Nashville.

It is Monday, May 19, and after a morning of lifting weights at the base hospital Wisher is returning to work for the first time since the attack. But desk duty at an army base is not exactly the dream job for an accomplished F-16 pilot.

"I'll do it, I'll do whatever I'm ordered to do," Wisher said, his breathing heavy as he lifted weights in the hospital's physical therapy department.

"But I want to get back to my unit. I'm trying to get back in shape so I can pass my pre-flight physical. Once that happens, I get back up in the air."

The reason he is so eager to return to flying is back on the floor of the house he and Tara share outside the base in Clarksville, Tenn. It is those hundreds of cards from Northern Kentucky school kids, the letters from people all over the state and country, the posters that greeted him when he visited several area schools this month.

"It's humbling," he said. "They call me a hero. I don't know about that.

"But I do know that one of the reasons we are over in the Middle East, one of the reasons we need to support what President Bush is doing, is our kids. They are the future of America. I don't want them living in a place like Israel is right now, where people live in constant fear of suicide bombers. That is my fear, and that is why we need to fight this war on terrorism. I just want to get back to it."

As much as anything else it was the cards that kept his spirits up during the hospital stay. So two weeks ago Wisher and Tara visited eight area schools to thank the kids who wrote him.

They went to schools in Fort Thomas, Walton-Verona, Grant County, Fairfield, Taylor Mill, and St. Paul's elementary in Florence and St. Henry High School, the two area schools he attended while growing up in Florence.

On a visit to Woodfill Elementary School in Fort Thomas Wisher was greeted by a full-school assembly. A choral group sang patriotic songs. Posters thanking him for his service hung on the gymnasium wall. Students waved American flags.

Wisher sought out fourth grader Austin Rosenhagen, who in his letter to the injured soldier included a tiny toy bee. "I thought he might like something funny, and I think this bee is sort of funny," Austin said.

Wisher wanted to return the toy. Austin told him to keep it.


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