Local soldier injured in Afghanistan

TUPPER LAKE – Nick and Val DeGrace arrived in the Washington, D.C., area Wednesday night and were able to see their son Dane for the first time since he was injured last week in a bomb explosion in Afghanistan.

Spc. Dane DeGrace, 24, an explosive ordnance disposal technician, was seriously injured last week when he and his fellow soldiers ran into a cluster of improvised explosive devices on a mission in Afghanistan. Four of Dane’s colleagues were killed in the incident.

The 2006 Saranac Lake High School graduate was the one to tell his parents, who now live in Tupper Lake, what happened.

“He called us last Wednesday at 1:38 a.m. – I’ll remember that time forever,” Nick told the Enterprise in a phone interview Tuesday. “He called us, and when I answered the phone, he said, ‘Dad,’ and I knew almost immediately that something bad happened.

“But I knew he was alive, because obviously he was talking to me. He said, ‘Dad, I got hurt real bad.'”

Dane told Nick that his arms and legs were injured, and Nick’s first thought was that his son had lost some limbs, because he has heard of so many of that type of injury coming out of Afghanistan.

“He said, ‘No, I’m intact. I’ve got all my parts. But I got hurt bad,'” Nick said.

A member of the team Dane was in the field with, Ivan Cagle, told Nick what happened:

The men were out on a convoy, and the explosive ordnance disposal team was sweeping for bombs. Dane’s team leader, Sgt. 1st Class Jeffrey Baker, was going toward some soldiers who needed help, some of whom had already died, to pull them out, when he stepped on an IED.

“He got hurt, and he went down,” Nick said. “He ended up later dying of his injuries.”

Dane grabbed a medic named Adam Hartswick and told him they had to get Baker. Hartswick stepped on another IED that exploded.

Hartswick lost both of his legs, and Dane was hit by the bomb as well as shrapnel and dirt. Two other soldiers were hit but weren’t seriously hurt.

“After that, they got my son out of there and Adam out of there,” Nick said.

Dane came out of the explosion with severe wounds to his right calf and a cut from the middle of his shoulder blade to his hip; plus his left forearm “is pretty well mangled,” Nick said. He said Dane was having trouble moving some of his fingers and his arm.

Dane was transported to Bagram Airfield in northern Afghanistan, where he stayed for a few days, and then he was sent to a Landstuhl, Germany.

“There’s a really advanced medical facility there where they’ve been taking care of him,” Nick said.

Dane went through several surgeries since the explosion. He was put completely under on Sunday while all his wounds were scrubbed of shrapnel and dirt to prevent infection.

Nick said that each time he talked to Dane, his son was in good spirits, but when he talked to him about Baker, with whom Nick said his son was close, Dane started crying.

“He’s still obviously shaken up, and it’ll be a while for him,” Nick said.

When the Enterprise spoke with Nick Tuesday afternoon, Dane was in the air over the Atlantic Ocean, being flown to Fort Belvoir in the D.C. area. He arrived there later that day, and Nick and Val flew down Wednesday to see him.

“Sleeping at hospital next to my son….priceless!!!” Nick posted on Facebook Wednesday night.

Perfect job

Dane is a specialist in the 766th EOD Company, 63rd Battalion of the 10th Mountain Division out of Fort Drum.

Dane’s father Nick is a mail carrier for the Tupper Lake post office, and his mother Val works in the L.P. Quinn Elementary School cafeteria.

Dane joined the military in August 2010, going to boot camp for several months, then heading to Advanced Individual Training at Redstone Arsenal in Alabama. From there, he went to Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, and he graduated from the Naval School Explosive Ordinance Disposal program there in September 2011.

The EOD program is a difficult one. Dane started with about 60 people in two classes, and only about 25 passed.

“So you really need to know what you’re doing and concentrate, and it’s just amazing how our son is – we didn’t realize that he was that smart,” Nick said. “In high school, he’d just get by and he didn’t apply himself. But to this, I mean, he just took to it, and he really stuck to it, and the job was perfect for him.”

Since his graduation, Dane has been stationed at Fort Stewart in Hinesville, Ga. He was deployed overseas on Nov. 1, 2012, and was serving in Pasab, in the Kandahar province of Afghanistan.

Nick said it’s been stressful having his son do such dangerous work in a war-torn area.

“My wife and I have been on pins and needles all this time,” he said. “Yeah, of all the jobs to pick in the Army, he picks the most dangerous one. But that’s him. He loves the job.”

Since the explosion, Nick said the families of two other Tupper Lakers who were injured serving overseas – Josh Jones and Bergan Arsenault – have reached out to him and his wife. Jones’ mother, Debbie, contacted Nick.

“(Josh) told Debbie to tell me that he’s there for Dane, because obviously he knows exactly what he’s going through,” Nick said.

Nick said the rest of the community has been phenomenal as well. The family has received more than $2,500 in donations already from local people and community groups.

“It’s fantastic,” Nick said.

Benefit planned

The local Veterans of Foreign Wars post is planning a benefit to help the DeGrace family. VFW Manager Bridgette LaPierre said that no one knows how long Dane will be in the hospital and how long Nick and Val will be able to stay with him.

“The hope is the proceeds will help to defray some of the family’s costs,” LaPierre told the Enterprise in a phone interview. “If we can help with some of that, we’re always certainly glad to.”

The fundraising dinner is planned for 4 to 8 p.m. Thursday, May 30, at the VFW post at 196 Park St. Food is available for dining in, take-out or delivery, and the menu consists of pork loin, mashed potatoes, gravy, vegetables, rolls and dessert. The cost is whatever donation people wish to give.

Anyone looking for more information or to place an order can call the VFW at 518-359-7107.

LaPierre said the VFW wanted to rush to put together the fundraiser quickly.

“We hate to push it off,” she said. “They need the help now.”

Contact Jessica Collier at 891-2600 ext. 26 or jcollier@adirondackdailyenterprise.com.