Stryker Brigade company's new leader beat the odds
By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer
SCHOFIELD BARRACKS — The commander of the Army's Stryker Brigade in Hawai'i ticked off the injuries that Capt. Ray O'Donnell suffered in a 2007 Humvee rollover in Afghanistan.
The list included facial fractures, traumatic brain injury, a crushed pelvis, spinal damage, a fractured hip, dislocated femur and severe nerve damage.
To this day, O'Donnell has near-total paralysis in his lower left leg.
"But what I skipped was the hard part — over 29 months of grueling physical therapy, when many thought he would never walk, would never run and could never serve again in the infantry," said Col. Malcom Frost, the commander of 4,300 Stryker Brigade soldiers.
O'Donnell, 29, stood at attention yesterday as the litany of broken bones was read off — then bounded up onto a makeshift stage as if none of that had ever happened, as he took command of about 290 soldiers that make up Headquarters and Headquarters Company.
O'Donnell, a 2003 University of Hawai'i ROTC graduate, has faced more than his share of adversity — and overcome it.
He was a classmate, trained with and was a best friend of UH ROTC and Kamehameha Schools graduate 1st Lt. Nainoa Hoe, who was killed by a sniper in Mosul, Iraq, on Jan. 22, 2005.
O'Donnell escorted Hoe's body back to Hawai'i from Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.
Three months ago, O'Donnell returned to duty, and yesterday at "D Quad" took command of the company of soldiers as the larger Stryker Brigade to which it belongs prepares to head back to Iraq this summer.
Frost said O'Donnell is the "ideal choice" to lead the soldiers of "HHC," which provides support for the Stryker Brigade's battalions.
"First off, he's a tremendously inspirational individual and leader," Frost said. "He has been through more than most people go through in their life."
O'Donnell, who a couple of months ago completed a triathlon — 500-meter swim, 12-mile bike segment and 5-kilometer run, admits the road back hasn't been easy.
"I cannot even begin to describe to you how difficult it was. It was definitely without question the hardest thing I've ever done in my life," he said of his recovery.
He was bedridden for two months. He was in a wheelchair for four months after that.
"I had to literally learn how to walk again in a pool," said O'Donnell, who wasn't born in Hawai'i but lived here longer than anywhere else while his father was in the Air Force. His wife, Kellie, was there yesterday as he took command of the headquarters company.
He still has to wear a prosthetic-like brace that supports his lower left leg.
O'Donnell was assigned to the Army Reserve's 100th Battalion, 442nd Infantry, which is headquartered in Hawai'i, for its 2005 deployment to Iraq.
He was in Farah province in western Afghanistan with the 1st Infantry Division in 2007 when a Humvee he was in went into a gulch, rolled and split in half after it hit some trees, O'Donnell said.
He was ejected, and two other soldiers were killed.
"That day, God decided it wasn't my time to go," O'Donnell said. "I need to live for two brothers who were killed."
He said he also needs to live for another brother who died overseas — Nainoa Hoe.
"Pretty much from the time I was cognizant again (following the Humvee accident ) I wanted to get back and serve again," O'Donnell said. "The camaraderie is something that you don't experience anywhere else."
The Stryker Brigade and its 4,300 soldiers and approximately 330 eight-wheeled Stryker vehicles will be heading to the National Training Center in California in mid February for about six weeks of training, officials said.
The Stryker vehicles later this month will be driven in convoys between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m. to Pearl Harbor for shipment to California.
O'Donnell said the commander of Tripler Army Medical Center, Brig. Gen. Steve Jones, helped him get a state-of-the-art leg and foot brace called a dynamic ankle-foot orthosis to overcome the lower leg paralysis.
"It's allowing me to run — I'm not as fast as I used to be," he said.
O'Donnell said he is ready for the Iraq mission, which comes as the U.S. is starting to wind down its presence there.
"I think it's really awesome that we from Hawai'i, the 25th (Infantry Division), have been picked to do this, and it's important for us to close out that mission with honor," he said.