January 1, 2009
Lavoie comes home for the holidays
U.S. Army Corporal Matt Lavoie grew up in two-story white house in northeastern Bristol, just down the street from Kern Park.
An American flag waves on a pole his father installed in the backyard last summer, with a blue and white 3rd Infantry Division banner fluttering right beneath it.
The stars and stripes hang from a front porch pole as well, with a wooden wishing well on the snowy ground nearby.
Inside is a glittery Christmas tree surrounded with presents, but there’s no doubt what the greatest gift the Lavoie family received this holiday season.
Their son, mangled in a Sept. 30 roadside bomb explosion in Iraq, came home.
“We could have been up on Chippens Hill putting flowers on a grave,” his father, Sam Lavoie said. “We have a lot to be thankful for.”
Lavoie, whose arm looks like a jigsaw puzzle of skin grafts and other repairs, said he is happy for the chance to return to Bristol.
Sitting at his family’s dining room table with his father and his mother Pam, Lavoie said the injuries he received “are not going to stop me from living.”
Lavoie, who still has at least another eight operations ahead of him to try to regain full use of his right hand, was driving a Humvee in the lead position of a patrol in an unsettled area of Iraq when an explosion tossed it six feet into the air.
He wound up pinned to the steering column through his right leg, his right arm limp and gushing blood, his gun snapped in half.
Somehow, Lavoie pulled himself off the metal rod that had pierced his leg and flailed out onto the dirt, where friends dragged him to safety as he struggled to stay and fight.
He nearly died, Lavoie said, but eventually pulled through to the safety of Walter Reed Army Medical Center in the nation’s capital, where surgeons are painstakingly putting his arm back together.
Lavoie got the green light to return home before Christmas. He needs to return to the hospital on Jan. 11.
He said he wished he could have come back to Bristol a month earlier for a community fundraiser that drew 500 people to Nuchies and raised $15,000 for his family. He said he wanted to convey his thanks to everyone and to his mother's boss, Carrie Tonon, who organized the effort.
“I couldn’t believe the whole town would come together” to lend him a hand, Lavoie said.
He said that everywhere he goes in Bristol now, people thank him for his service.
A man who recognized him from the picture that ran in The Bristol Press asked him, “Dude, are you the one who got blown up?”
Lavoie said that despite all the support, it’s still hard.
He has two bolts “kind of popping out of the skin” in his elbow, he said, which “kind of hurts.”
Lavoie has little feeling in his right fingers and not much elsewhere in his arm, which was so torn and shattered that he still wonders if he’d have been better off to lose it entirely.
“I wake up so stiff sometimes that I can’t get up,” he added, leaving him with the sense that his battered body is more like an 80-year-old man’s than one belonging to a former star wrestler who graduated from Bristol Eastern High School in 2005.
“My body has been through absolute hell,” Lavoie said.
He said he gets “a lot of flashbacks” to the explosion and other horrors in Iraq that are seared into his memory.
“Crowds get to me,” too, Lavoie said, and he “freaked” when he had to wade through a big assemblage at an airport on the way home.
He remains “absolutely terrified” of cars, he said, and loud noises can send him sprawling to the ground.
At Stop and Shop, Lavoie said, a bang caused him to hit the deck in the cereal aisle.
Lavoie his “teeth are getting kind of strong” as he uses them to pull zippers, open a can of soda or beer, and more. He set up a Blu-Ray home theater system with his one good hand.
“I really can’t do anything” with the right arm, Lavoie said. “I feel like it’s just dead.”
Still, Lavoie said he hopes that doctors will succeed in restoring at least 80 percent of his hand’s function. He said he’s angling for 100 percent.
Recovering at Walter Reed, where Lavoie spent six weeks flat on his back, he said he got pretty depressed.
But one say New York Yankees great Yogi Berra came through and that made him happy.
After that, a parade of celebrities stopped by, including comedian Robin Williams, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rogers, Pat Tillman’s mother and his favorite, Jason Bryant Acuña, who plays Wee Man on the television show “Jackass.”
“He jumped up on my bed and just talked,” Lavoie said.
Lavoie said he’s not the same person he was before the bomb went off.
“When you’re that close to death, it changes you,” Lavoie said.
“I went from a punk to a man,” Lavoie said.
With luck, Lavoie said, he’ll be able to return to active duty.
“I’d put my boots on right away,” Lavoie said.
He said that if he can stay in the infantry, he’ll stay in the Army, though his plans to become a Ranger are likely never going to happen now.
If he can’t keep fighting for his country, Lavoie said he’d like to become a SWAT team member when he recovers. If that proves impossible, Lavoie said, he might try firefighting or perhaps become a history teacher.
“When I get older, I think I’ll run for mayor,” Lavoie said, with a hint of mischief.
I will add more information this weekend, including Lavoie's memories of Iraq and perhaps something special beyond that next week.
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Contact Steve Collins at firstname.lastname@example.org