Fort Hood Soldier Recovering.
Want to meet a real life superhero? A man whose strength and power defies what many believed was humanly possible? A man who defines the phrase "American soldier"?
Meet Staff Sgt. Patrick Zeigler.
For the past 8 ½ months, Zeigler has looked death in the face and refused to blink. He’s battled back from eight brain surgeries and diagnoses that labeled him everything from "comatose" to "permanently disabled."
Zeigler was one of 32 who was injured on November 5, 2009 when accused gunman Army Major Nidal Hasan opened fire inside the Soldier Readiness Center at Fort Hood.
Thirteen people died that day, and Zeigler came very close to adding to that number.
He was airlifted to Scott and White Hospital in Temple with four gunshot wounds, including one that shattered his skull. The bullet left a hole the size of a softball.
Zeigler’s family and fiancée were warned that he may never recover.
He has since fought a battle that he refused to lose. And on Friday, a major victory: Zeigler walked out of the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.
He describes it simply as “overcoming a major hurdle,” saying he felt “like he was being let out of prison."
But to fully understand what Staff Sgt. Patrick Zeigler is referring to, you must understand that his hurdles are things most of us will never face — or have the strength to overcome.
When I first met Zeigler, he was half the man he appeared to be in photos taken before the shooting. His shoulder bones could be seen through his shirt, and his legs were merely sticks.
He had lost 50 pounds.
But his sarcasm and determination were still intact.
Zeigler, a graduate of Florida State University, had just returned from Iraq. He had been accepted into officer’s school. He was at the Readiness Center to fill out paperwork at the time of the shooting.
At that time, the hole in Zeigler’s skull was left open. He wore a helmet to protect his brain. Scars criss-crossed his shaven head. He was undergoing painful therapy at an Austin rehab center.
Before I left, he managed to stand and walk to his wheelchair, smiling and saying it’s something doctors said he would never do.
In the following months, he would undergo intensive surgery to replace the opening of his skull. Doctors would try this multiple times — each time complications nearly took his life.
Zeigler's fiancée, Jessica Hansen, stayed by his side. She slept in the hospital each night. She would often have to hit the "Code Blue" button to alert nurses when Zeigler would stop breathing.
Zeigler would later move from Scott and White in Temple to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, Hansen’s hometown. The renowned hospital worked wonders, and so did the community.
Zeigler has since gained 35 pounds back. He enjoyed outings into the "real world" that included fishing and a basketball game.
And slowly — some say miraculously — Zeigler began to regain strength. He began to move his left arm, something he hadn’t done since the shootings, and he slowly began to take small steps.
Earlier this month, doctors removed a bullet from his shoulder. One still remains somewhere in his body; it originally entered his hip but has since moved.
Zeigler plans to head back to Texas next month. “I’m active duty,” he told me over the phone. “I’ll report to Fort Hood."
And so goes the life of a soldier — ready to report for duty some 8 ½ months after an ordeal that would have taken the life of most people — if not their spirit to ser