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Wounded soldier makes it home for the holidays

By KBell
Dec. 27, 2011 at 6:27 a.m.

Sgt. Robert O'Canas talks about the head injury he received from an improvised explosive device while in Afghanistan earlier this month. O'Canas, who suffered some hearing loss and has scars from shrapnel from the explosion, was awarded the Purple Heart while in an Army hospital. His wife, Kasey, and son, Zane, 3, watched the ceremony on Skype. "It's an award I didn't want to get," he said, "but, still, I was happy to be alive to receive it."

ABOUT THE WAR IN AFGHANISTAN

Sgt. Robert Ocanas said the months he spent in Afghanistan were much more unpredictable and he saw more firefights than the time he spent in Iraq.

The U.S. began its military operations against terrorist organizations and the Taliban regime on Oct. 7, 2001.A total of 1,461 American service members have been killed in action in Afghanistan, according to the U.S. Department of Defense.More than 50 percent of the American casualties in Afghanistan in 2011 were the result of an improvised explosive device (IEDs), or roadside bomb.More than 3,000 American soldiers were wounded by IEDs in Afghanistan in 2010.Source: www.defense.gov

Shortly after midnight on Dec. 1, Kasey O'Canas was startled awake by a phone call from a fellow Army wife.

There had been an accident. Her husband had been airlifted from the scene.

For 10 hours, that was the only information she would have concerning her husband and the father of their 3-year-old son, Zane.

"I couldn't sleep. I didn't know what to do. I literally wanted to pull my hair out because there was nothing I could do or nobody I could call to find out information about him," the 24-year-old wife said.

Sgt. Robert O'Canas, 24, was six months into his second overseas tour, this time in the Farah Province of Western Afghanistan.

As a squad leader, the soldier was manning the tail end of a patrol through the city of Farah - a daily routine for his platoon.

"I don't know, just something about the day seemed different. You kinda suspect something," O'Canas said.

He remembered an explosion. Disoriented among the smoke, he saw blood, then realized it was pouring from his face.

"I just started praying, 'Just let me see my family again,' because I thought I was bleeding out," he recalled. "I was like, 'I don't want to die here in this country.'"

The soldier called out for the team's medic, but would learn the medic was also injured in the blast. They'd later find out a roadside bomb had been detonated between the two soldiers, most likely set off by enemies hiding in a nearby field.

Meanwhile, O'Canas' family and friends prayed for the soldier at his mother-in-law's home in Nursery. While waiting for official word from the Army, his wife feared the worst - getting a front-door visit from soldiers with condolences.

But by 10 a.m., O'Canas was able to call home from a hospital in Afghanistan. By that evening, a four-star general was awarding O'Canas the Purple Heart and five other medals.

His wife, son and extended family watched the ceremony, teary-eyed, via Skype.

O'Canas' face was swollen, bloody and bruised, his left eardrum shattered. His cheek was fractured, two molars cracked and shrapnel had splattered his face and arm.

"I don't know if you want to see me right now," O'Canas said he had told his wife. "She was like, 'I don't care what you look like. I'm here for you.'"

His wife said her heart melted when she saw him on the computer screen.

His good looks were what caught her eye in the first place, after they both graduated from Faith Academy - he in 2005, she in 2006. His outgoing personality and ability to make anyone smile made her fall in love.

For him, it was her beauty, too. But O'Canas said he also knew pretty quickly she was the kind of woman who would stick by him no matter what would come of his military career.

They were married after six months of dating, right before O'Canas' first 15-month deployment to Iraq in 2007.

"She's a strong woman - a strong mother now," he said.

After two days in an Afghanistan hospital and three days in Germany, O'Canas flew to San Antonio for an overnight stay.

There, his wife and son surprised him.

"Zane didn't even hesitate. He just went straight to his dad ... 'You tell me who did this to you so I can go get them for you,'" O'Canas' wife recalled their son saying.

O'Canas said he'll tell his son about his time in Afghanistan when Zane is older.

But for now, Zane reaches for his dad's Purple Heart as if it's a shiny toy. Just 20 days after the explosion, he jumps in his father's lap and looks into a face that looks healed, except for a few scars.

And Zane now has one more memory of spending Christmas with his father.

O'Canas said his wife had told him all she wanted for the holiday was to see her husband, who wasn't scheduled to come home until June.

So before O'Canas hopped on a plane bound for the U.S., he called his wife.

"Well, I guess you got what you wanted for Christmas. I'm coming home," he said.

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