On June 12, while conducting a dismounted patrol in Maiwand, Afghanistan, an improvised explosive device detonated near the men of 1st Platoon, Company B, 4th Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division.
Following the explosion, Spc. Chris Anderson’s life would forever be changed.
He lost his left leg, above the knee, while suffering substantial damage to his right. Another soldier suffered a lower extremity amputation in the blast.
In the days, weeks and months following the incident, Anderson said all he could think about was whether or not his comrades would make it through the remainder of the 9-month deployment unscathed. He kept in touch through Facebook as he received nearly 50 surgeries at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, MD.
On Jan. 11, Anderson’s dream to be reunited with his men came true. With his doctor’s approval, Anderson and his wife, Spc. Jasmine Anderson, also in the 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Inf. Div., planned how he could surprise the soldiers of Company B. The couple purchased their tickets on Jan. 9, but while Anderson was planning the reunion, Jasmine had a surprise of her own.
She contacted retired Chief Warrant Officer 4 Anne Sprute, founder and president of The Unfinished Mission, a non-profit organization that, according to their website, “[offers] the tools and gateway for Veterans to continue their personal and continued mission.” Jasmine, a Charlotte, N.C. native, wanted her husband to be greeted by the men he had to leave behind in a small welcome home ceremony at the Seattle-Tacoma Airport.
Although there were only two days to plan the surprise, Sprute went to work, and what awaited Anderson at the airport was more than Jasmine could have ever hoped for, she said.
Slowly, and meticulously, stepping out of gate C 11 with a prosthetic on one leg and spatial frame supporting the other, Anderson was greeted by thunderous applause from airline and USO staff; Port of Tacoma Police officers; TSA representatives; and nearly 100 strangers, most with tears in their eyes.
But there was more in store for the young Pittsburgh infantryman.
After exiting the concourse, nearly 20 USO volunteers held a large welcome home banner. Again, he was welcomed with cheers. After posing for photos, Anderson was sure that he and Jasmine were going to get their luggage, pick up their rental car and drive to Joint Base Lewis-McChord, where he would be able to finally surprise his men.
The SeaTac USO Center Manager, Bill Baker, told Anderson they saved the couple the trouble of waiting in line and had their rental keys and paperwork upstairs. Following Baker, Anderson made his way to an auditorium upstairs and opened the door to find a surprise of his own— nearly 40 men from his company.
“There was never an option to say ‘no, we can’t do it,’” Baker said of the request to support the event. “Having the soldiers wait for him is the final salute to his service…a sense of closure, if you will.”
Anderson stood in front of the men in disbelief. At one point, he had to turn away and hide his face, the emotion almost too much to handle, he said.
“Words cannot describe the feeling of being able to have his friends surprise him,” Jasmine said. “I saw his lip start to tremble, like he was going to cry, but he held it together…this is all he’s been talking about. This is what he’s been waiting for.”
Soldier after soldier approached Anderson and embraced him. Smiles, laughs and, yes, even some tears spread through the company.
“It’s a relief… I’m so thankful you guys are back here,” Anderson told the men. “I wanted to surprise you, but I guess you got me,” he joked.
Anderson spent time talking, joking and telling stories of his outpatient rehabilitation. He explained his prosthetic, and even passed it around to have it signed.
“I knew he was coming in, and made sure I gathered as many of us as I could,” explained Spc. Shane Ryan, a lead M240 gunner with 4-23 Inf. Anderson was Ryan’s assistant gunner, but he was not on the mission that July day. “My first worry when I heard he had been hit was whether or not he was going to make it back… it’s a big relief to have him here.”
For one Army veteran and USO volunteer in attendance, Anderson’s reunion with his soldiers was “an honor” to see. Denny Hamilton, a Vietnam veteran and former combat aviation soldier, joined the celebration to thank Anderson for his service, and said it was a relief to see him welcomed home with such love and admiration.
“We came home [from Vietnam] a very different way, and I am glad to see that America woke up and gave him the hero’s welcome he is most deserving of,” Hamilton said.
The Andersons plan on spending the weekend with their friends, most of whom returned from Afghanistan last week.They will return to Walter Reed on Jan. 15. Anderson is scheduled to have his 49th surgery on Jan. 16, when doctors will place new rods in the spatial frame currently stabilizing his right leg.