On April 18th, 2003, an elite U.S. Air Force search and rescue team took heavy enemy fire while hovering over a village in Afghanistan. Team leader Craig Fitzgerald, 29, of Nashua, New Hampshire, got shot leaning over to help a wounded comrade and lost consciousness. "I was shot twice, once through the hand and wrist, then once through the torso and armpit, and the bullet stopped at my shoulder," Fitzgerald says.
He had 11 surgeries at U.S. medical facilities run by the Department of Veterans Affairs, but lost the use of his right arm. After about three years of physical rehabilitation, he says, "I'm doing great. In comparison to some of the individuals I shared hospital rooms with, I had it easy."
Relatively easy. He saw veterans who were burn victims, who were missing limbs and other body parts, as well as those suffering from psychological trauma, men and women for whom the transition to so-called normal civilian life would be terribly difficult, "a tough road," as he puts it, adding he chose the historic mountainous trail because they face "a lot of ups and downs along their own road to recovery. The Appalachian Trail has a lot of uphills and downhills, and it's a long trail and takes a lot of stamina and persistence to successfully complete it. It's kind of symbolic of the paths they face."
To call attention to their needs and raise funds for disabled vets in financial trouble, Craig Fitzgerald started walking the historic Appalachian Trail. He's nearing the end of a more than 3500-kilometer walk across the rugged terrain of the Appalachian Mountains in the eastern United States. He will have crossed 13 states by the time he reaches the trail's end in the southeastern state of Georgia on Veteran's Day, November 11th.
"I'm trying to give back to those who are in the shoes I was in about a year ago," Fitzgerald says.
Craig Fitzgerald says he and other wounded vets receive great medical care, but some are struggling financially because their physical and psychological limitations make it hard to find jobs and pay bills, and sometimes not every need is meet. Although he says he "was very satisfied," he says he saw others who faced hardships. "I did see a few instances where spouses had to quit their jobs to do stay-at-home care for the disabled vet in the family, not having that extra income coming in, or maybe a delay in the compensation. I saw a few people face some financial hardships, whether it be paying their mortgage or paying car payments, and it was really tough on them."
The federal government has many resources and programs to help injured soldiers. A top official at the Department of Veterans Affairs, Terry Washam says the VA provides lifelong compensation for victims of what it determines are serious injuries. For example, Washam says, "a traumatic brain injury, traumatic amputations, severe visual impairment. Another would be spinal cord injury. It could be serious mental disorders, also. For the seriously disabled veterans, it's a lifelong process: the VA will stay with them for the
VA runs a nationwide network of hospitals, clinics and benefit centers exclusively for veterans. There are 860 community-based outpatient clinics that are all connected to these medical centers, as well as 209 veterans' centers to help them adjust to civilian life.
Disabled veteran Craig Fitzgerald is readjusting well to civilian life: he is going back to college to get a degree in accounting. His Appalachian Trail hike -- the trail to recovery, as he calls it -- is meant to supplement federal aid to disabled vets through private donations.
"At some point," says the American veteran of the war in Afghanistan, "we, as citizens, need to look around the society in which we live and say, 'Gosh. What's wrong? Are there people struggling?' And instead of saying, 'Oh, the government should take of care them,' we should look in the mirror and say,'What can I do as just a single citizen to make a difference?' I think if enough people did that, identified things which need improvement, acted on those things, I think we'd, for one thing, live in a better society, and, two, live a much more fulfilling life."
Fitzgerald's goal at this point is to raise $100 thousand in private donations for disabled veterans. Information about how to make a donation can be found on Fitzgerald's website,