Soldier wounded in battle gets free home near Garner

kjahner@newsobserver.comNovember 9, 2013 

— In the Renaissance Park neighborhood in south Raleigh, one home on a corner stands out from the rest. A Southern-style double porch juts out from the white house, which has navy blue shutters.

The owner of the home stands out as well.

Army Ranger 1st Lt. Nathan Rimpf received the key to his new home from Operation: Coming Home at a ceremony attended by hundreds on Thursday. The house is about a quarter-mile north of Garner.

Rimpf, 25, lost both his lower legs in Aghanistan a year and a half ago. The North Raleigh native had joined the Army Rangers after completing the ROTC program and graduating from East Carolina University.

He became the sixth recipient of a new home from the charity formed as a partnership between the Home Builders Association of Raleigh-Wake County and the Triangle Veterans Association. From the plot to the light fixtures, every part of each home is donated.

“This isn’t exactly what I dreamed – it’s way beyond that,” Rimpf said to the crowd. “Look at this out here. Who wouldn’t give a pair of ugly feet to defend these people? It’s been a very awesome 487 days, to be honest.”

Cadets from ECU’s ROTC program, including seniors who were freshmen when Rimpf was a senior, attended the ceremony.

Four paratroopers landed nearby to deliver the key as fireworks exploded.

A silver-lining expert

Rimpf used to say that whatever life threw at him, it wasn’t as bad as Ranger school.

“Now it’s, ‘Can’t be as bad as stepping on a bomb,’” he said.

Rimpf was leading his platoon through an area of Anbar Province on July 8, 2012, when he stepped on an improvised explosive device the size of a coffee can.

He couldn’t hear anything for 15 seconds, he said. But he continued to direct soldiers as they worked to get out of the area.

Rimpf didn’t lose consciousness until doctors put him under for surgery.

When he saw his mangled legs, he knew he’d lose them. And when he woke up from surgery, he was actually pleased by how much was left: One was amputated through the knee and other just above the knee.

“Being at the hospital with guys more injured than me, in my eyes I got a little scratched up,” Rimpf told the crowd on Thursday.

Rimpf said he briefly wondered whether God had the situation under control. But he said he never truly doubted the plan, not during the accident or through extensive rehab at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.

Not that it’s easy. As Rimpf notes, “A human body isn’t meant to stand on your femurs.”

Standing tires him, and by the end of the day he’s in a wheelchair. The stairs of his new home have a wheelchair lift.

But Rimpf remains upbeat.

“What kind of surprises me is that as soon as this positive attitude’s wearing down, there’s something that comes along and boosts it up 10 times more than it was,” Rimpf said after the ceremony. “I have a habitual ability to find the silver lining in almost every situation.

“It started before I got hit, but once I got hit, I decided right then when I looked at my legs what I was going to do with it.”

Kindred spirits

Elected officials from Raleigh and Wake County, along with Garner Mayor Ronnie Williams, attended the ceremony.

ECU football coach Ruffin McNeill sent a tape-recorded message and a signed Pirate helmet and football. (Rimpf showed off a Pirates sticker on his prosthetic leg.)

But perhaps more meaningful to Rimpf: his immediate and extended family, the ROTC cadets and a few other special guests who share a special bond.

Army Sgt. Monte Bernardo lost both legs and an arm near Kandahar, Afghanistan, four days before Rimpf – on the Fourth of July. The soldier in the Fayetteville-stationed 82nd Airborne division was one of three other than Rimpf who lost limbs overseas.

“We all have something in common,” said Bernardo, a California native.

Bernardo was granted a house in Texas from a similar program; he said it makes all the difference in the world.

“Sitting in a hospital bed, three limbs gone, thinking what the (heck) am I going to do, what am I going to do for my family – it really takes a lot of stress off,” Bernardo said. “It makes you feel like what you did was worth it, that people still care. ... I came out of my coma, I was like, ‘All right, here we go, blown up and forgotten. Let’s do this.’”

Rimpf agreed.

“With all this support, how could I be sad and depressed?”

A new path

At one point, Rimpf figured he’d spend his career in the military, perhaps becoming a general someday. That changed in a literal flash.

Now he plans to attend college to pursue an MBA.

Having been immersed in a health care environment for 18 months, he hopes to use his perspective to get into health care consulting.

He’ll pursue his dream from that new home, which speakers at the event, much to his chagrin, repeatedly noted has two walk-in closets in the master bedroom occupied by the bachelor.

He already has a Ranger Room-man cave plotted out as well.

In the meantime, Rimpf said he is awed by the people who inspired him. He said he has no idea, for example, how a kindergarten class in Texas learned about him, much less sent get-well cards to his hospital room.

But he deflects any praise.

“I don’t think I’m doing anything that special,” Rimpf said. “It’s just driving me to continue serving.”

Jahner: 919-829-4822; Twitter: @garnercleveland

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