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Walter Reed visit is personal for Keselowski

September 27, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Visit to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center a sobering one for reigning champ

BETHESDA, Md. -- For Brad Keselowski, it was like catching up with an old friend.

The reigning Sprint Cup Series champion sat on a raised and padded rehabilitation table chatting breezily with Brendan Marrocco, in a room the latter knows all too well. The New York City native lost all four limbs after being struck by an explosive projectile while serving in the U.S. Army in Iraq in 2009. Three years later, the infantryman became just the seventh American to undergo a successful double hand transplant.

But on this Thursday, the setting eventually dissipates and differences in ability or disability between the two men gradually disappear. Suddenly, they're just a couple of guys talking about cars. That's the way it is between Keselowski and Marrocco, whether it's at the race track or here in the amputee rehabilitation room at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

"He certainly has an amazing story," Keselowski said later. "I'm just proud of what he's done, and just feel lucky to get to meet him and know him."

Keselowski was part of a large NASCAR contingent that paid its annual visit to the nation's largest military hospital en route to Dover International Speedway. Even for a sport that goes to great lengths to recognize those who serve, the trip is a sobering reminder of the cost of war. During a late afternoon autograph session, the line included wounded warriors in wheelchairs or with prosthetic limbs, leaning on canes or crutches, bearing scars or other battle marks.

But there was one thing missing -- any tangible sense of self-pity. "It's just amazing, seeing the attitudes they have," team owner Richard Childress said. That was certainly the case with Marrocco, whose life changed forever on an Easter Sunday morning four years ago when his company was returning from a night patrol. An explosive roadside projectile struck the vehicle he was riding in, killing one soldier and leaving Marrocco so severely wounded he nearly bled to death.

Although his double-hand transplant occurred at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, Marrocco has spent much of his time since at Walter Reed. It was at the old hospital -- patients were moved last year from the original Washington campus into the current, newer facility -- where he first met Keselowski, who was taking part in another NASCAR visit. The meeting came soon after Marrocco was wounded, and he barely remembers it. Later on he was well enough to attend a race at Richmond, and Keselowski reintroduced himself prior to the driver's meeting.

Marrocco eventually attended a race at Bristol courtesy of Keselowski's Checkered Flag Foundation, which supports wounded military members, veterans, first responders and their families. "He's just a great person to be friends with," Marrocco said of the NASCAR champ. Thursday, they parted after striking a deal -- once Marrocco and his new hands grew strong enough to scale the climbing wall in the rehab room, Keselowski would salvage a leftover piece from the now-closed Penske Racing engine shop for his street car.
"The first time I saw him (after the surgery) it was going to take him a year to even (move his fingers). Well here he is six months later, and he's about three times ahead of where he's supposed to be," Keselowski said "I said, 'Well why stop here?' I said, 'Go climb that wall, and I’ll get you an engine.' Because his next step is to build strength and flexibility, because now he's got nerves. We all need goals, right? So he's got to earn it. Not that he hasn't already, but I want to give him a little motivation." 

'Those dudes are heroes'

Keselowski is no stranger to military hospitals. His first trip was several years ago when he was at JR Motorsports, and drove a Nationwide Series car backed by the U.S. Navy. He visited the Naval Medical Center San Diego, and for a competitor in his early 20s about the same age as many of the patients there, the experience clearly left an impact.

"Incredibly difficult," he called it. "... That was much earlier in the stages of the conflicts that were going on, and the wounds were more severe. And it was difficult walking into rooms and seeing bandages that weren't white. I guess that's the best way to put it."

Thursday's trip was very different, even though the physical scars of battle were still quite evident. Keselowski and the large group of NASCAR personalities -- which also included Kurt Busch, Joey Logano, Brian Vickers, Austin Dillon, Brian Scott, Kyle Larson, Nelson Piquet Jr. and Sam Hornish Jr., as well as team owners Childress and Roger Penske -- first visited a large rehabilitation room that featured roughly a dozen rehab tables, with stationary bicycles and other pieces of cardiovascular equipment arrayed around the periphery.

Seated on one table was Aaron Decino, who has been at Walter Reed about a month since being shot in the upper left thigh while with the 101st Airborne in Afghanistan. "Those are some damn cannons you've got," Keselowski tells him, nodding at Decino's sculpted upper arms. The Denver native and Mark Martin fan -- "He rocks," he said of the ageless wonder -- nods over at a wheelchair parked nearby.

"Thank that right there," he said. Decino was deployed in Khost Province when the weapon of one of his own guys discharged. "It was an accident," he said. But the damage was no less serious.

"A bullet hit me and blew my femur up and screwed up one of my arteries," he said. "But my medic, Brian Dela Victoria, he saved me, honestly. He was in front of me when I was on the stretcher, and they were packing combat gauze into me to stop the bleeding. I wasn’t doing too hot. At first I was kind of joking, and then I looked at my exit wound and I accepted I was going to die. Because I know what goes on there."

As in, the location of the critical femoral artery. Decino said he lost so much blood, he started to slip in and out of consciousness. "I looked up and Ryan was still there. I saw him working so hard on me, and I decided I was just going to push and not make all that work go to waste. He gave me what I needed to make it through that. He's the real hero," Decino said.

"Me and him were real good friends before this incident. He slept on the bunk above me in this tiny room with the other machine gunner in my platoon. I talked to him after, and he said it was the hardest thing ever to work on me. He kept his face calm and he did what he had to do to save me. There were other guys working on me too, but I'm pretty sure if he hadn’t been there, I probably wouldn't be here, honestly."

Now, rehabilitation is one of the best parts of his day. Although Decino isn’t yet ambulatory, he points to a machine that allows him to walk using only 20 percent of his body weight. "My legs actually move, and that's fantastic," he said. "The therapists here are fantastic. They're top of the line. They just push me a lot to keep working so they can get my legs moving again."

And he's grateful to have legs to move. Decino nods to the wall of windows that separates his rehab area from the one reserved for amputees. "Those dudes put up with a lot more than I ever will," he said. "I got to keep my leg. A lot of those guys didn’t. Those dudes give me inspiration here, honestly, because I see guys with one limb, no limbs, and they're rolling around with half-smiles on their faces. Those dudes are heroes. In my eyes, they are."

The room on the other side of the glass includes an occupational therapy area where wounded military personnel learn to use prosthetic arms, and a track in the ceiling that helps amputees walk, run, or even rollerblade on prosthetic legs. It's a place Marrocco has become very familiar with since his double hand transplant in December of 2012, a surgery that took 13 hours.

"It got me off my deathbed to basically where I am now, to being pretty independent," Marrocco said "Without Walter Reed, there would be nothing for me."

'It does have a cost'

The NASCAR visit to Walter Reed is not without its share of pomp and circumstance. The facility's gymnasium has been converted to a banquet room, with basketball hoops winched to the ceiling and two dozen circular tables set up in front of a stage. Later singer Pia Toscano, a former "American Idol" contestant, will perform for the crowd.

But clearly, it's the drivers the soldiers and sailors are here to see. During a stop at the Walter Reed cafeteria, the NASCAR contingent is set upon by military members of every stripe and background, the great many of them armed with markers and items for the drivers to autograph.

"It actually makes me feel a little bit better," said John Chase, a Delaware National Guardsman who's been at Walter Reed since injuring a hip in Afghanistan. "Ever since I was a kid, I've always liked NASCAR. I've never been a complete, die-hard fan, but I've always enjoyed the sport. Being able to meet these guys, being able to talk to them, a little bit, it really shows they do support us."

NASCAR has visited Walter Reed in eight of the past nine years, the exception coming last year when the century-old Washington campus was closed under a Pentagon consolidation plan, and most patients were transferred to the current facility in Maryland. It was a delicate procedure, with what had been an Army hospital merged into a Navy installation. When the planning for the move first began in the mid-2000s, administrators sought strategic advice from another entity that had succeeded in the midst of a transition -- Hendrick Motorsports, which thrived despite managing different generations of Sprint Cup cars on parallel tracks.

Clearly, the feeling is mutual. Addressing the crowd at a dinner that capped the day, NASCAR President Mike Helton said recognizing the military has been a priority for the series since its founding, which came in the years immediately following World War II.

"It's very humbling for us to see and meet so many men and women who at some point in their lives made the decision to fight for U.S. citizens," Helton said. "To come here today reminds us it does have a cost."

To some drivers, it's become a personal mission. Busch is tireless in advocating the Armed Forces Foundation, a military support group which is headed by his girlfriend Patricia Driscoll, who knows her way around Walter Reed about as well as anyone. "The battle after the battle," Busch called the recovery process. Keselowski set up his Checkered Flag Foundation to aid current and former military members after coming to the realization that one of those wounded warriors in the hospital could have been him.

"When you look at generations, my dad's generation was Vietnam, my grandfather's generation was World War II. These are my generation's wars, Afghanistan and Iraq," Keselowski said. "And by that very definition, that means it could very easily be me. These are the people I went to school with, these are the people I grew up with, and they're obviously not all in the best of shape. So there's an enduring quality there that really connects me back to how fortunate the turn of events has been for me over the past decade, and how not everybody was that fortunate."

Many of the patients at Walter Reed live with family members in apartments at the facility, and are unsure of how long they'll be there. "As long as it takes," Marrocco said. Which is why something like the NASCAR visit means so much.

"It's just always great to see support, whenever anyone comes," Marrocco said, wearing a T-shirt bearing the outline of an engine. "Especially for me personally, to have it be a group of people that I look up to and I follow every week -- it's just good to have support from outside places."

Marrocco is sporting a Bass Pro Shops cap, but there's no question who his favorite driver is. "We'll see you Sunday, bro," Keselowski tells him as the NASCAR contingent prepares to move on. Marrocco will be attending the Sprint Cup event in Dover. And of course, there's still the deal for that engine. Keselowski has become less an occasional visitor, and more of a participant in Marrocco's recovery. The Walter Reed trip may have ended, but the friendship endures.

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