While serving in Iraq in 2008, U.S. Army Sgt. Donna Pratt suffered an injury that broke both her feet and ankles, damaged her knees and spinal cord, and bound her to a wheelchair.
“My doctors told me I would probably never walk again,” she told the audience gathered May 27 for Jefferson Memorial Park’s Remember and Honor Service, after she walked to the podium.
She was one of the guest speakers for the annual Memorial Day event at the cemetery in Pleasant Hills, along with state Sen. Pam Iovino, D-Mt. Lebanon, and Master Sgt. Chuck Burrow of the U.S. Marine Corps.
Pratt discussed the anxiety and depression she faced after returning home, plus the guilt she felt at leaving her team of fellow soldiers to fend without her in the Middle East.
Then the Wounded Warrior Project came calling.
The Jacksonville, Fla.-based nonprofit offers free services to support injured military personnel, and representatives extended Pratt an invitation to participate in a Soldier Ride, a four-day cycling experience.
“The Soldier Ride is much more than a bicycle ride. It pushes you to your limits beyond what you think is possible and leaves you with a deeper understanding of who you are and what you’re capable of,” she said.
In her case, the event introduced her to an adaptive cycle, for people who are not able to use their legs. And it opened her to a whole world of adaptive sports. Her goal is to make the U.S. Paralympics archery team.
“The Wounded Warrior Project saved my life,” Pratt said. “They gave me my team back. I didn’t feel alone anymore.”
Through his participation in the South Hills Veterans Honor Guard, Burrow helps grieving families feel they are not alone. He serves as president and chaplain of the group, which provides final military honors to honorably discharged veterans upon request.
“Being a member of an honor guard is not always easy, and yet, mostly routine,” he said. “But there are times when something happens and it is difficult to maintain one’s composure.”
He cited an occasion in which a young boy wouldn’t stop crying at the service for his grandfather, a World War II veteran.
“But it is a feeling of fulfillment, of giving back to continue to serve our veterans, however it may be,” he said.
A veteran of 23 years of active service in the Marine Corps, Burrow is the nominee for second vice commander of American Legion Post 760 in Bethel Park, and he is a former commander of Post 156 in Mt. Lebanon. He spoke about the South Hills Veterans Honor Guard’s participation in an especially poignant ceremony May 16 at the National Cemetery of the Alleghenies in Cecil Township.
The burial service with full military honors was for Army Pfc. George Spangenberg, a Pittsburgh native who died at age 30 while serving in the Korean War. His remains were not recovered until last year.
“After a long search for the next of kin, his remains are now at home and laid to rest,” Burrow said about Spangenberg, who earned the Bronze Star Medal for heroic achievement, along with many other commendations. “And it was my honor to preside over that last memorial service prior to his interment.”
A Navy veteran, Iovino also had a 23-year military career, culminating in her promotion to captain, the equivalent of the rank of colonel in other branches of the military. She subsequently served as assistant secretary at the Department of Veterans Affairs as appointed by President George W. Bush.
She reminded those in attendance the military is all-volunteer, as it has been since the elimination of the draft in 1973.
“That call to service comes from within,” Iovino said. “It is their choice to do that, to don that uniform and protect us, and for some, make that ultimate sacrifice.”