Written by Rich Forestano Friday, 25 April 2014 00:00
Humbled and grateful is what Sgt. Carl Duda felt after “A Tribute to the American Spirit” on Sunday, April 13 at Chaminade High School in Mineola. The concert honored him, along with two other disabled veterans, playing patriotic classics dedicated to those who fought for the United States military.
“I got the tank chair,” he said. “Each tread is about eight inches wider than a track chair. It has headlights on it. It’s just amazing. It dwarfs the first model. It does everything for me except cast a reel. I love to go fishing.”
The concert collected $20,000 for the Independence Fund, which raises money to purchase hi-tech wheelchairs for disabled veterans. Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, who brought the fund into the national spotlight after The O’Reilly Factor ran a story with a war veteran, co-sponsored the event.
“Anybody who needs [a chair] can get it,” O’Reilly said. “They have a great sense of independence because they can do anything from play golf, to go over any type of terrain with these chairs. They deserve this help.”
O’Reilly, a Chaminade graduate, called on viewers to donate to the fund. Viewers have raised more than $20 million in the last three years, according to Fox News.
“This is a great way to honor the men and women who put their lives on the line for us,” said Maestro Louis Panacciulli. “Look at what they’ve done and look at what they’ve given up. The attitudes they have; they’re still such patriots.”
For Duda, this chair will let him continue his love of fishing and interacting with his two daughters and son. Track chairs cost around $15,000, but have a militaristic feature that helps users get around. Duda received the 500th track chair at the event.
“My youngest is 13 and for most of her life I was in the service,” he said. “I’ve never taken her camping or fishing. It’s going to open up a new world for us.”
Duda served with the Marine Corps from 1989-2005, before switching to the U.S. Army. He was in Desert Storm, Somalia, two tours in Afghanistan with the Marines and Iraq with the Army. It was Oct. 29, 2006 when he became surrounded by the enemy in Iraq.
Duda served with the 148th Infantry, working with “high-value detainees.” His unit worked six days a week, splitting time patrolling roads and operating in Camp Cropper, a prison in Baghdad currently under investigation for detainee cruelty.
Duda was swarmed by prisoners and pulled to the ground, being beaten to what he called within an inch of his life. He needed to have every bone from his thoracic spine to his sacral spine removed. The Pittsburgh, Pa resident had a ceramic polymer sheath built around his spine to protect it.
“I ended up getting locked in an area [of the prison] with 15 to 20 insurgents and they almost beat me to death,” said Duda. “I had to play dead to get out of there. That’s when they stopped hitting and kicking me.”
Duda was on leave in 2009 after he had surgery on his back, when a doctor’s visit revealed an infection in his spine under the sheath. He was transported to Walter Reed Hospital, where he stayed until 2012.
“They could see the infection and to this day, they don’t know what it is,” he said. “It’s bacterial but the Army, the VA, no one knows. They waited too long to get rid of it. They haven’t said the world ‘terminal,’ but I’ve been told by doctors that I may not live another 10 years.”
Duda was flanked by Dylan Cannon, an Army specialist and previous track chair recipient and Bryan Dilberian, another specialist and triple amputee, who is in line to receive a chair.
The concert featured traditional American classics, including “The Star Spangled Banner” and “America the Beautiful.” But, it will also feature lesser-played pieces, like “Thin Alabaster Cities Gleam” and “Flight of Valor.” “In Their Honor,” by Carl Strommen, is dedicated to the September, 11, 2001 attacks.
“It was such a great afternoon,” Panacciulli said. “It was loaded with emotion. It was an entire patriotic program from top to bottom.”