From the football field to the battlefield
One man's odyssey from Wisconsin to Afghanistan and back
A phone is nothing more than a carefully arranged amalgam of plastic and wiring and circuitry. It's passed by, picked up, heard, ignored and taken for granted every day. It's another inanimate object at our disposal, blending in with the rest … until it's not.
For the Church family, as dusk and dawn and night and day blended into a sleepless stupor, as uncertainty's vice squeezed, the phone was all that mattered. It beckoned them like gravity. It was their tormentor. It was their hope. It broke their hearts. It was the loose thread that strung those hearts together. Every eight hours, the plastic and wiring and circuitry would stir to life. It would tell them if their son, who'd just given so much of his blood and body to desert, would be able to hold on.
On the other line, a complete stranger in Ft. Knox, Ky., would tell a father, a mother and two brothers the most important news of their lives. The words had been typed in Afghanistan or Germany, read aloud in Kentucky and digested in Menomonie, Wis. Every eight hours, a new script would be delivered and the phone would ring.
Your son, United States Army 2nd Lt. Jason Church, stepped on an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan, the stranger told them. Your son lost both legs below the knee. Your son has shrapnel lodged in his right arm. Your son lost a dangerous amount of blood. Your son is in serious condition. Your son is in surgery. Your son might lose his knees. Your son is being transported to Germany. Do not call back. If you do, I can only read you these same words. Do not call back. The phone will ring again in eight hours.
After a few calls, amid the prayers and hugs and tears and silence, the phone cried out again. Midnight neared; it had not been eight hours. Col. David Church, a military man for more than two decades, who, according to his wife, never yields to his emotions, who wears an unflinching face to match his uniform, whose son followed his footsteps into the Army, put the phone on speaker so the family could hear. But the faint voice didn't belong to someone in Kentucky reading a medical report; it didn't belong to a stranger.
Jason's throat was saddled with tubes and ached because of dehydration and blood loss and a subtle nod from death -- his words seemed impossible to decipher. Heart pounding, David picked up the phone and pressed it tight to his face, hoping he might hear something through the obstacles in his son's throat, through the thousands of miles that separated them. As he strained, a few of the garbled sounds morphed into words that, nearly a year after they were uttered, still bring tears to the colonel's stoic eyes.
"Dad, I'm OK."
Six-hundred-and-fifty-seven days before he simultaneously broke and warmed his father's heart through that phone, before his legs were taken from him by a monster he never saw, Church, his 250-pound frame clad in maroon and gray armor, was the epitome of strength. Triumphant, the defensive end ran off the Wisconsin-La Crosse's Veterans Memorial Field for the final time, helping his teammates hoist retiring head coach Larry Terry after a 49-14 drubbing of rival Wisconsin-Eau Claire that was televised statewide.
Church, a 2011 La Crosse graduate and four-year member of the school's football team, says he'd always planned to set foot on that field again; he never doubted that he'd return to that stadium to watch the team that had been such an integral part of his life. He'd hang back, out of the spotlight, and say hello to old friends and coaches, he thought. When he strode off the field for the final time on that November afternoon in 2010 with Terry held high, he had no way of knowing that when he returned, he wouldn't be able to feel the grass beneath his feet. He had no inkling of the impact that his homecoming would have on the school and his former teammates. He did not realize that a hush would descend upon those boisterous stands -- 1,800 people silenced by awe and appreciation and grief -- as a father pinned a Purple Heart on his son's chest.
"We told Jason when he was very, very young, 'God didn't give you the God-given talent,' " his mother, Barb Church, says. " 'You're going to have to work hard at everything you do.' "
He listened; though, really, he had no choice in the matter. Both his parents speak with those Midwestern voices that have been hardened by living amid cold that seeps into your bones and lingers, by the rigors of enduring a husband's military life. David, sent overseas during Desert Storm, was gone for nearly a year when Jason was young. Barb's advice may have been helpful, but their son would come to understand toughness and hard work through simple osmosis.
Church's affection for football began, as it does for so many, in the yard with dad. His parents, long fans of the Minnesota Vikings, bought him a knock-off Vikings jersey and helmet that quickly became the centerpiece of their oldest son's wardrobe. He'd watch games or venture into the yard with David, pretending he was Warren Moon or emulating other Vikings stars. Though Church may not have shared the Hall-of-Fame quarterback's athleticism, he went on to don a real uniform on Friday nights in high school. He juggled football with hockey and earned a spot in the Wisconsin state championship field for his skills with a discus.
When Church arrived at La Crosse, he garnered ample playing time as a freshman. He was a bruising fullback who opened holes for his teammates, who sacrificed his body so someone else could move the ball. When an offensive scheme change during his junior year all but eliminated his position, he switched to defensive end without complaint. He wasn't the fastest, but coaches and teammates alike marveled at his discipline in the weight room, where he routinely bested everyone -- he could squat more than 500 pounds. Through that diligence and his willingness to do whatever was asked, teammates looked to him as a leader. Church admits he wasn't vocal, but tried to push his peers by silently pushing his own limits.
"Even though I was a captain, he was a guy that I always respected and looked to for guidance," says former teammate Jimmy Litscher. "No one could touch Churchy in the weight room. He had a drive few players had."
It wasn't just football or proximity to home - La Crosse is about two hours south of Menomonie -- that lured Church to the school; he was eager to enroll in the university's ROTC program. He says he wasn't pushed that direction by his father, but by an inescapable sense of obligation to his country. So he accepted an ROTC scholarship, which helped him handle the cost of school, but required that he enlist after graduating. When he enrolled at La Crosse in the fall of 2007, his country was years deep into a pair of wars -- in Iraq and Afghanistan -- with no clear end in sight. The scholarship might come with a hefty price, he knew, but he wouldn't yield to fear.
"When you look back, I feel like I would say, 'What did I contribute either to the country or my family?' " Church says. "This is a war that we've been fighting for about 12 years; I felt compelled to be a part of it."
But the calls home during Church's college years weren't about life and death, the coming perils of battle or a mother's silent anxiety. David only dispensed military advice when asked. Most of the conversations echoed those of any other student adapting to a new life outside the nest. He complained about the difficulties of balancing his ROTC training and a full classload -- Church was a political science major -- with the demands of playing college football and coaching hockey. Some calls were simply about "girlfriend issues," Barb recalls, laughing. The wars and the specter of his coming service were overshadowed by sheer normalcy.
But, sometimes, Church would confide with those close to him about the life that awaited after college. His running backs coach, Tim Ebner, who'd hired Church to be an assistant on the high school hockey team he coached, would lend an ear whenever needed. Church would be stepping off the stage at graduation into a different world than his classmates. They would hunt for jobs amid a recession, hope to make rent and shudder at the thought of moving back in with their parents. But Church had secured a job, albeit one that might require him to emerge from the belly of a transport plane in Afghanistan -- a place where more than 2,100 American soldiers have died since Operation Enduring Freedom began in 2001; a place where 17,000 more have been wounded, many of them losing limbs to those invisible monsters lurking under dried mud. Still, Church never wavered, never expressed regret with the path he'd chosen.
"He understood what he was getting into," Ebner says.
So, five days after he graduated in May of 2011, Church packed his life up into large Tupperware containers and began a long drive away from home, away from the teammates and the school he'd come to love. He pointed his truck to Ft. Benning, Ga., where his Army officer training would begin, where he'd get one step closer to the desert.
"I was proud of him, but, yeah, it's hard as a mother," Barb says. "You know that they may not come back."
The hard road was the only option; he was Barb and David's son, after all. So with a college degree in hand, which earned him the right to take a safer position in the Army working in the logistics, aviation or intelligence divisions, among others, Church picked the infantry because, he says, it would demand the most of him. He wanted to put the body he'd sculpted in the weight room to use. He wanted to be an officer on the ground with men under his command so that he could experience the "thrill and the burden of leadership." He'd only gotten a taste of it on the football field.
So, after 16 weeks at Ft. Benning, Church continued down the exacting path he'd set for himself and enrolled in Army Ranger School. The next three months of his life were spent performing drills and marching aggressively through mountains in northern Georgia and swamps and beaches in Florida. He did it all with little food and rest amid incessant mental warfare meant to break him. Football workouts were difficult, he says, but they had an ending you could see coming; they offered ample food, air conditioning, ice and naps as their reward. Those weren't comforts afforded in the wilderness. After 86 days spent pushing his body and his mind beyond the limits he'd once perceived, he hadn't broken.
"It was a lot more demanding than football," Church says. "I honestly don't even think there's much to compare it to."
After three more weeks spent hurling himself out of airplanes in Army Airborne School -- "fun" compared to what he'd just endured -- his training was complete. He was ordered to travel to the far corner of the country -- Ft. Lewis in Washington, just south of Seattle -- to join his unit. That would be his final stop before bounding back across the U.S., then over the Atlantic and into one of the most dangerous places on the planet: the Horn of Panjwai, the Taliban's spiritual home, the birthplace of its leader Mullah Omar, a piece of dry earth they defend more fiercely than any other. This was where the difficult path led; this was his reward for a lifetime spent working as hard as he could. But first, on his long trip to Ft. Lewis, he'd have a chance to stop by his home and his school to say hello and goodbye.
Litscher, who'd begun a career as a teacher and coach in Wisconsin after graduating, crossed paths with Church, fittingly, in the weight room at La Crosse. He remembers seeing his friend and teammate of four years -- before every game they'd pound their helmets together, trying to breathe fire into one another -- doing squats. Church was in terrific shape after his sojourn in the mountains and Litscher marveled as he pushed the formidable amount of weight on his back upwards again and again and again. It's the lasting image Litscher has of his friend before the desert exacted its toll.
"Knowing that we're in wartime, you've got a guy you care about going over there you wish that he comes back no harm done," Litscher says. "But he was excited. That's what he wanted to do."
In 2007, during Church's freshman season at La Crosse, he sat next to his father at a team banquet. They listened as the coach who he would help carry off the field four years later addressed his players. Terry sought to motivate them, to tell them how lucky they were to feel the thrill of donning a helmet and pads. It didn't matter that they played in Division III and out of the national spotlight; they were privileged to experience the rush.
"You'll never feel more alive than when you run onto the football field," Terry said.
Church nodded silently, remembering the adrenaline he felt when he stormed the field on Saturdays. David watched his son for a moment. Terry was wrong, he knew. David leaned in and offered rare unsolicited advice to the son who might soon have to set his boots down in an unfamiliar, foreboding part of the world just as his father had done nearly two decades before.
"No," David said. Jason ceased nodding and turned to him. "You're never going to feel more alive than when you command your men to lock and load."
Church's military transport touched down in Kandahar Airfield on May 6, 2012. When the plane doors opened and the heat first grabbed him, the words his father spoke five years before echoed. The son finally understood.
"He's totally right," Church thought to himself. "I got an adrenaline rush from playing football, but this is life and death."
Five days later, he reached his new home: Forward Operating Base Zangabad. Initially, he worked a staff position at the base away from the combat as he acclimated to his new world. He'd be assigned a platoon - 30 men - to lead when he was ready. Quickly, he bonded with fellow officers in his company who'd been sent there before him. He regularly lifted weights with 1st Lt. Lewis Han, who had arrived in March and controlled the fire support assets for Comanche Company -- calling for artillery from a distance and helping fighter jets and helicopters find their targets -- in support of infantry platoons like Church's. They bonded over a love of sports as they toiled in the tent-encased weight facility they lovingly dubbed the "prison gym." It was their refuge from this alien planet they'd landed on, from the stresses that lurked outside the tent's walls.
"If somebody was going to take over a platoon and do the job, we definitely didn't want anybody who was incompetent, especially with the consequences of that over there," Han says. "He earned [our trust] very quickly."
When Church finally got the chance to lead his men out into the field, his company got pulled into a significant firefight. Skirmishes were common; when the gunshots would ring out, Church admits he'd feel that initial surge of fear -- the inevitable adrenaline spike -- then he'd lean on his training and his memories of controlling his emotions on the football field to make decisions governed by a sound mind, not a racing heart. When Church and his men ventured beyond the base's walls, they were not on simple marches meant to befriend the locals and keep the peace. This was a place where every soldier knew the ground beneath him could erupt at any moment. This was the Horn of Panjwai. This was war.
"It's just littered," Han says. "Every single step you take when you're out on patrol you're wondering if there's an IED. It's pretty nerve-wracking because they literally could be everywhere when everything's made of mud."
As Church did the dangerous work he felt obliged to do, his mother couldn't sleep. David admits he worried, but that the burden was heavier for his wife; he saw her carry it every day. She'd been through it before when her husband was gone to war, when she was alone with a new child wondering how the rest of her life might unfold. Even so, it didn't make Church's absence any less difficult. Sometimes, phone calls from Afghanistan would come in the middle of the night - welcome distractions when sleep evaded. Usually, mother and son traded messages on Facebook. She didn't reveal her silent angst, only her public pride for the sacrifices he was making. An Army wife, an Army mother, she knew it was her duty.
"There wasn't a moment I didn't think about him," Barb says.
Five months after he landed at Kandahar and first felt that rush his father foretold, Church set out on what would be his final mission. His platoon and one other would be tasked with clearing a route northeast of their base at Zangabad. Along the path, they encountered a deserted settlement. The signs -- the vacant homes, strange rock formations -- pointed to trouble. Church would not lead his men through that trap. But to circumvent it, they'd have to pass through rows of six-foot-tall mud walls, each separated by only a few feet, which the locals used to grow grapes. As the platoon approached the first wall, fire crept out from the ground underneath a soldier's boot. But there were only flames, no explosion, and he skipped out of the way. One of Church's men had stepped on an IED, but it had malfunctioned. So the chemicals inside simply burned away, their flames poking through the dried desert mud like hell itself was simmering only inches below.
Han and a commanding officer were no more than 30 meters behind Church and his men. After contemplating his predicament, Church called back to them -- his platoon was going to push through those mud walls ahead. It was their only way out. If a man applies enough pressure to those primitive walls, they'll tumble. So Church decided to throw his powerful frame into the first slab. He'd do the same to get through the next and the next, row after muddy row, clearing holes for his men like the lead blocker he once was. The plan seemed sound, Han agreed from a distance.
"He was just trying to get his men out of there," Han says. "It was a sticky situation."
Then, fixated on the first wall in front of him, Jason Church took a step.
After the thunder and fire, as the smoke swirled into the sky, Han and others outside the IEDs' grasp rushed in with no regard for their own safety. Ten men had felt the sting of the explosions. Church wasn't lucky enough to have been knocked unconscious by the blast, nor did his mind turn itself off because of the shock. The concussive force had only made the world go black for a few seconds. He got to see, in vivid detail, the work that the bomb had done.
"It was bad," Church recalls, pausing for a heavy second. "That's all I'm going to say."
But, somehow, calm washed over him. Men he was charged to lead, to protect, were in agony beside him. So, as he'd always done, he set the quiet example. Now was not the time to shout or wail, even as he pondered the end of his life. The medics had a job to do. The other healthy soldiers had a job to do; Church refused to make it any harder on them. He'd imagined this moment again and again since he arrived in Afghanistan; what would he do if he stepped on the wrong piece of earth? Don't panic. Don't frighten your men.
"He's one of the calmest people I've ever seen with that kind of injury," Han says. "He didn't want to add any more stress to the situation."
So Church relished the strange tranquility, which he attributes to his strong faith, and accepted whatever the next few minutes had in store. Though his injuries were the most severe of the wounded, he reassured his men that he'd be OK. He told them to make sure they got out of there unscathed.
The nearest flat piece of ground where helicopters could safely land for a medevac was more than 200 meters away, beyond all those muddy walls. So the men had to do the excruciating work of hoisting 10 heavy, gravely-injured soldiers over innumerable rows of six-foot-high obstacles. Church doesn't remember the pain. He remembers his men's faces, straining under his weight and the weight of the moment -- trying to keep him alive -- all the while wondering when the next monster might bite.
It would take three helicopters to evacuate the wounded. Forty-two minutes after the ground ignited under Church's boot, the wheels on the final chopper carried the last injured soldiers away. Church was awake until the surgeons at the base anesthetized him and began the first of many operations to save his life and save what they could of his mangled legs. It was a "rough" day, Han says, of watching his friends' lives change in an instant and carrying their damaged bodies over all of those damn walls. But, through nine months in the Horn of Panjwai, he lived through many rough days.
"Combat is combat," he says, flatly.
Tim Ebner looked down at his phone -- Barb Church's name flashed on the screen. He knew; he was sick.
"There would only be one or two reasons why his mom would be calling," he says.
Ebner wasn't the only one who Barb called on Aug. 23, 2012. After a stranger in Ft. Knox broke her heart, she summoned David from work. Once the tsunami of emotion had receded, she put away the tears and the terror and called all the friends and family who would need to know. She called the pastor of their church, who came to pray with the family. David called Ft. Knox for an update, but was told to wait eight hours, so they sat together with Jason's younger brothers, John and Jake, and waited for the phone, the new center of their world, to beckon. And those phone calls -- no matter how infrequent, no matter how brief, no matter how tortuous the time was between them -- were a blessing, they thought. They wanted the phone to ring, not the doorbell. They wanted to talk to a stranger in Kentucky they couldn't see, not a stranger in uniform on their doorstep.
Soon, they learned that Jason was stable enough to be moved from Afghanistan to Germany. Familiar with military protocol, David did not want to hear that the family needed to be flown to Germany to see their son. That would mean they were being summoned to say goodbye. But they were not invited to Germany, and the doorbell never rang. Instead, Church gathered what strength he had to borrow a phone from a nurse, call home and tell his father, like he'd told his men, that he was OK.
But when the Church family arrived the next day, they realized their son's mind was intact. His first few weeks there were spent in and out of the operating room -- over the course of a month, he was anesthetized and cut into 21 separate times. Surgeons worked to save his knees, clear infections and graft new skin over the open wounds. He slept 18 hours per day. Many of his waking moments were spent in the fog; David says his son often fell asleep mid-sentence.
As doctors slowly pieced him back together, Church repeatedly told Walter Reed physical therapist Etaine Raphael, who worked with him from his first day at the hospital until she left the facility in March, about how strong he'd once been, about all the weight his legs could once move. She would help him regain that strength -- no one would forget how powerful he once was, she promised.
"I really understood how important his strength and athleticism was to him as a person and how much you wanted to get him back to that lifestyle," Raphael says. "As a below-the-knee guy, I would say anything is possible for him."
And those four or five inches of leg Church still had below his knees were vital. Losing them, losing the joint, would alter the rest of his life. Things like running, lifting weights or navigating stairs would be far more difficult. If he lost a few more inches, his limitations would grow exponentially. His physicians worried most about the left leg, so they tried to lengthen it. In a complex procedure, they borrowed a chunk of muscle from his back and tried to implant it at the base of his leg, hoping to stave off further amputation and make the appendage more functional. They worked on him for 12 hours. When he awoke, the pain was unbearable - his body had rejected the offering. He'd lost a lot of blood in the process; his blood pressure had plummeted.
"That was not a good day," Barb says. "He was in danger there."
Though the surgery failed, Church and those few inches below his left knee endured. After a few weeks in the ICU, he was finally given a room of his own. Normalcy was elusive until a Saturday afternoon that offered a faint reminder of the joys of taking the field in the fall. On Sept. 6, La Crosse squared off against Northern Michigan. Church wouldn't miss that game, so the family ordered pizzas and watched a live stream. For a few hours, DIII football -- not medical reports, not surgeries, not a silent phone -- was the center of their lives again.
In the hallway outside, after weeks of gloom, Barb finally shed a few happy tears. In the room behind her, there were pizza crusts and empty soda cans and the sounds of pads colliding and of a father and son admonishing officials. The tubes had been removed; the catheter was gone. It was pizza and football; it was the team her son had loved so much, the one they had followed around the Midwest to watch him play. David, after comforting his wife in the hallway for a moment, looked at her and said, "I've got to get back in there; we've got to watch this game." Barb smiled; she understood. La Crosse lost that day, and Church was still battling the medication's numbing effects, but none of that mattered.
"It was important," Church says. "I feel it was helping me get back to reality."
Ebner visited, as did a few of his former La Crosse teammates. The school sent footballs, which were prominently displayed in his hospital room. A connection back to football, to those happy years, was important as he endured rehabilitation, as the sores on the base of his legs opened again and again and as the grafts struggled to stretch and settle. As hard as he wanted to push -- like he was back in the weight room at La Crosse -- Raphael would have to rein him in. If he worked too hard and damaged the skin too much, infections might creep back and his knees, or more, might be permanently at risk. So, early on, Raphael would force him to tread water -- to repeat the same basic exercises -- even though he felt he was ready to swim full speed. The new skin could not keep pace with his work ethic; Church says each day felt like two steps forward and one step back.
In six years working with wounded soldiers at Walter Reed, Raphael says she learned that keeping their spirits up was far more important -- and far more challenging -- than getting them to rebuild their bodies. Like any solider, she says, Church would have his good days and bad, but the fact that he was an officer was apparent. He could grow frustrated, but never discouraged. When they finally were able to push past the basic exercises and his skin grafts were tough enough to do pre-running drills and plyometrics, Raphael says he started to see the first glimmers of light at the end of his long, dark tunnel.
"It was this moment where he realizes, 'Oh my gosh, I'm going to get my life back and it's not going to be so bad,' " she says.
Church has since moved from that hospital room to an apartment at Walter Reed that he shares with his mother. When Church was a child, David got called away to service; now, it's Barb's turn. The arrangement isn't easy, the couple says, but David's absences helped prepare them. While he had to return to Wisconsin for work -- he juggles an assistant general manager job at Wal-Mart with his role in the Army Reserves -- he visits his wife and son whenever he can.
While the military shoulders the cost of the apartment and all of Church's medical expenses, the travel between Wisconsin and Maryland isn't cheap. Once again, Church's connection to La Crosse helped the family. A group of Church's former teammates worked to ease their burden in January when they organized a fundraiser -- No Eagle Left Behind -- on campus. They auctioned off footballs autographed by NFL luminaries like Adrian Peterson. Church spoke. In all, the event raised almost $30,000 for the family.
"No Eagle Left Behind is truly something I will remember for the rest of my life," Church says.
In early March, Church and other injured veterans traveled to Vail, Colo., for a ski trip. Even in modified skis, he says it "allowed me to feel free and have a rush again." This spring, Church and Barb ventured to Camden Yards in Baltimore to watch their beloved Twins take on the Orioles. Barb insisted that they pack his wheelchair for the game, but Church adamantly refused.
With prosthetic legs affixed, Church ventured to the field to visit with Twins third base coach and family friend Joe Vavra. He made the trip down and back up those unforgiving stadium stairs, which can cause problems even for able-bodied fans, without help. All the while, his mother watched with anxious pride. They butt heads -- her worries and his stubborn strength often at odds -- but "bring the best out in each other," Barb says.
And while her long stay with him was necessary because Church couldn't drive, he's started to learn again. His family delivered a new, black Ford F-150 in April. Once he's able to drive comfortably, Barb will return to Menomonie after more than eight months at his side. She'll resume her post as a secretary at the family's church as her son carves a new path for himself. In the near term, he'll stay at Walter Reed. A graduate degree in international relations and a return to coaching might be on the horizon, he says.
"[The injury] isn't going to define me," he says. "It's part of me, but it's not my defining characteristic."
As his body recovers, his mind, which has been subject to so much trauma and so much time stuck in bed pondering new limitations and one grisly memory, hasn't betrayed him as it might so many others. Though he says he thinks back to the incident often, several close friends and family say, to a person, that "Jason is still Jason." Church credits faith and the mental fortitude he forged in football and the military for his ability to accept that what happened below his boot and to the men around him wasn't his fault.
"Maybe in retrospect, maybe I should've just jumped over [the wall]," he says, pausing to search for the right words. "I probably wouldn't have done anything different. Sometimes you walk into a situation that's just bad. It's not something that haunts me. It's not something that keeps me up at night."
Plus, at Walter Reed, he routinely interacts with fellow soldiers who've had legs amputated above the knee or who have lost three or four limbs because, like him, they simply stepped in the wrong place at the wrong time. They inspire him, he says. Their presence alone provides perspective and keeps pessimism at bay. Soon, he'll be able to run again. With special prosthesis, Raphael says, he'll be able to do squats again - he'll be able to try to push his body to the kind of extremes that once made him legend in the weight room in La Crosse.
Occasionally, Church gives speeches to groups or businesses in the D.C. area. He relays his story of leadership and sacrifice. When people approach afterwards and ask what they can do to repay him, he rejects their offerings. Live a good life, he tells them; take advantage of the freedoms that soldiers like me have afforded you.
"Don't waste the opportunity," he says. "Don't squander it."
Today, a Purple Heart sits on Church's mantle. It didn't get there, as so many do, after it was presented to him in a hospital bed by a relative stranger. Through those early weeks, as his mind cleared, he had ample time to think. Football was normalcy. It was simultaneously a frivolous escape and one of his life's centerpieces. La Crosse was an adopted home. So, with one of the most important events of his life on the horizon, it only made sense for football, and for La Crosse, to play a part.
Rather than receive his Purple Heart while lying down in a hospital bed, he was determined to accept it standing up in the middle of a green field. David remains a colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve; by rule, a higher ranking officer can confer the Purple Heart to a subordinate. When Church asked, David was honored to accept the bittersweet task.
Every year, La Crosse uses the home football came closest to Veterans Day as a venue to honor those who have served. Military ties run deep there -- the school is proud of its ROTC program; the Eagles play on Veterans Memorial Field. Church called La Crosse athletics director Josh Whitman, who came to know Church during his senior year, and proposed the idea.
"I was really touched that he thought to contact me," Whitman says. "We talk a lot on our campus with our faculty and with our alumni about the importance of athletics to the college experience, and here was this real-life example of someone who has gone through one of the most traumatic things you can imagine. And then he wants to celebrate this event with his university and with his athletic program and with his teammates. It was a great example of the impact that participating in college athletics can have on somebody's life."
So after the first half of the Eagles' last home game of the 2012 season expired -- almost precisely two years removed from the day when he bore his coach's weight and took his last steps off that field -- Church, in full Army uniform and in a wheelchair, returned. ROTC cadets took the field. Friends and teammates and family dotted the packed stands -- the game marked La Crosse's biggest crowd of the season.
Even in the wheelchair, Church looked the part. His jawline protruded from the shadow of his camouflage military cap like an elite soldier's, like he was still the strongest football player on the team. The only discernable difference in his appearance were his boots, laced tight and squeezed thin against prosthetic legs, hiding the secret of his sacrifice. Church had been fitted for prosthetics only a few days before, but his doctor warned him not to push too hard. Don't walk. Standing will be difficult. It will be painful. It could tear away at those carefully constructed skin grafts. Once Church and his family were in position, the ceremony began and 1,800 people held their breath.
"You could've heard a pin drop," Whitman says.
Stubborn and strong, he remained his parents' son. He would disregard the doctor's advice and take the hard road, the agonizing one. As the award citation was read aloud, Church summoned the strength to stand again on the field where he had once used his powerful legs to move men. His mother and girlfriend's worried hands kept him steady.
"I could see how painful it was for him to stand up," David says. "But he wasn't going to get [that medal] in his wheelchair."
Church saluted his father. David pinned the purple and gold pendant to his son's chest. At last, Church felt the weight. The man who was the quiet leader on that field for four years, who could squat 500 pounds, who maintained his composure as life trickled out of him in a faraway desert, finally felt how heavy that small decoration was. He saw the pride and pain in his father's eyes. As they hugged tight, Church let emotion overtake him.
Nearly three months before, David strained to hear his son speak through the plastic and wiring and circuitry, through the thousands of miles that separated them. He savored every sound. But, locked in an embrace on that silent field, close enough to whisper, he didn't need to hear a word.