Brians Journey Back.

Kirby, the loving 10-year-old border collie-Labrador, licked Army Sgt. Brian Radke's reconstructed right hand, the one with the missing index finger.

Maybe dog saliva will help, Radke said Tuesday. After 71 surgeries over 26 months, the wounded soldier and former Vancouver high school football hero is home in Hazel Dell for Christmas and doing well.

He walks with a limp but talks straight, spreading gratitude, compassion and good humor, despite five pieces of shrapnel still floating in his brain. Scars speckle his body, his hands remain stiff, though strong, and he wears heavy braces on his right knee and left wrist.

"They've nearly put Humpty Dumpty together again," joked Radke, 33, a 1993 Columbia River High School graduate and three-year letterman in football and baseball. His body was shattered by a roadside bomb near Camp Victory in Baghdad on Oct. 5, 2005.

Radke's dad, Dave, stoked the fire at their home. His mom, Lynne, poured steaming coffee. The Christmas tree stood in the corner, and Brian's cat, Badger, curled around his feet.

Radke, wearing an Army shirt and jeans and looking relaxed, sat in a big chair by the fire and quietly smiled.

"Every day you wake up is a blessing, when you've been through something like this," he said. "It's brought us closer together. That's for sure."

A .50-caliber machine gunner serving in the Arizona National Guard, Radke was standing in the Humvee turret when the bomb went off, killing his driver and best friend, Army Spc. Jeremiah Robinson, 20.

Radke's jaw was fractured and five of his teeth were knocked out. His face, legs, arms, torso and brain were peppered by shrapnel. A finger was blown off. His left arm was broken in four places, his left wrist shattered. The nerves of his right arm were ripped away. His carotid artery was severed. His brain was bruised from concussion and lacerated by shrapnel. He had a punctured lung. Blood poured from his wounds, causing a series of strokes.

'I was dead'

In Iraq, a team of eight doctors worked on him for 12 hours and then said he would live. In a coma, he was sent to the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany.

"I was dead," Radke said from his hospital bed at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., two years ago. "The crew at the 86th CASH (86th Combat Army Support Hospital) brought me back from the dead."

Shipped to Walter Reed five days after the bomb went off, his weight dropped to 130 pounds as he struggled back to consciousness. He was visited by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Sen. John McCain and Rep. John Murtha, among other dignitaries. He told them he'd be all right and they should make sure his buddies had better weapons.

Slowly, doctors and physical therapists went to work: surgery, physical therapy, then more and more of each.

So it went for 26 months.

On Tuesday, Radke walked around his parents' home, grinned frequently and told his recovery story. Only 15 of the surgeries were "major," he said. The others were minor, "just to clean things out," namely shrapnel wounds all over his body.

Orthopedic surgeons meticulously stitched nerves and replaced skin, taking a piece from behind his ear to fix his nose; deadening some arm nerves and reconnecting others; rebuilding his right arm with skin from his left lower leg. They were unable to completely restore his brain. The shrapnel will have to float in his head permanently because doctors are afraid if they remove it, he could end up paralyzed. The chance that a piece of shrapnel might move and damage his brain is a threat he has to live with, he said.

The right front area of his brain has died, he said. He has difficulty with memory, and his emotions are erratic. Once he was a mild guy, but his brain injuries make him prone to anger over small matters.

"The PTSD is coming back along with memories, and not just still pictures, whole memories," he said. Many times he remembers events and people he had once forgotten. He is working on mental issues with a psychologist and is making progress.

Taking a break

But now he is away from that heavy rehabilitation, on leave in Vancouver until Jan. 7. He's simply taking a break, he said.

"There's no place like home," he said. "There is such a supportive community here, the Lord, the church and my folks."

At Messiah Lutheran Church in Hazel Dell, Radke got a hero's welcome Dec. 16 as he has before on trips home.

"It helps other people who have soldiers in Iraq," said Dave Radke. "They can see people can survive."

Each time he comes to town, he appears a little more like the old high school quarterback. He has regained his full 6-1, 190-pound frame. He said he could add another 10 pounds to be in top shape.

For now, he said he feels good just getting out of the big city and relaxing. He'll see some friends, maybe visit with kids from the Hazel Dell Little League who idolize him. He himself was a star for the undefeated Hazel Dell Padres in 1986.

A month ago, he had his 71st surgical procedure. It involved work on his left wrist to bring back its full range of motion. He took the brace off Tuesday and flexed the wrist, and he said everyone believes the surgery was a success.

More surgeries in store

In May, he hopes for surgery on his right hand to straighten his remaining two middle fingers, so he can throw a football or a baseball again.

He plays a lot of golf, he said.

"I hope my new flexible wrist doesn't ruin my golf swing," he joked.

He and his wife, Nova, will continue to live in the Fisher House at Walter Reed, a communal house they share with seven other wounded soldiers and their spouses and kids. Nova is spending the holidays in Arizona with her mother and ailing grandmother and will rejoin Radke in January at the Fisher House.

Next summer, he hopes for a right knee replacement. He hopes that will be his last surgery.

After that, he and Nova will face the future. Radke has had job offers from both the CIA and the FBI to work in counterterrorism, he said. The alternative might be a football coaching job in Vancouver if one is open for him, he said.

The anti-terrorism work holds appeal, he said, even if it means going back to Iraq.

"I'd rather fight the terrorists over there than here," he said. "And it's only a matter of time before they come here."

He said he knows his folks and his wife have no enthusiasm for his return to the war zone.

"But if that is part of my job," he said, "then so be it."

His parents looked grim at that thought, but said nothing.


Previously: Army Sgt. Brian Radke, a former Columbia River High School football star, suffered wounds to his hands, arms, legs, torso, face and brain when a roadside bomb blew up his Humvee in Baghdad on Oct. 5, 2005.

What's new: A resident at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., for the past 26 months, Radke, 33, is spending the holidays with his parents, Dave and Lynne Radke of Hazel Dell.

What's next: Radke hopes 2008 will bring his last two surgeries: repairs on two middle fingers of his right hand and a right knee replacement.

Dean Baker writes about military affairs. Reach him at 360-759-8009 or dean.baker@columbian.