Army Sgt. Ray Kusch plays frisbee July 7 with his assistance dog, Zeuss, during his 'Happy Alive Day' party at the Rock of Gibraltar Post 4230, Veterans of Foreign Wars hall in Rockwood. Mich. (Kim Brent / Monroe Evening News via AP)
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Army Sgt. Ray Kusch, right, gets a hug July 6 from high school friend and fellow Army soldier Anthony Bucciarelli of Taylor, Mich., during his 'Happy Alive Day' party at the Rock of Gibraltar Post 4230, Veterans of Foreign Wars hall in Rockwood, Mich. (Kim Brent / Monroe Evening News via AP)
ROCKWOOD, MICH. — About a year ago, at 2 a.m., Alyssa Kusch’s phone rang with a message no military spouse wants to hear.
Her husband, Army Sgt. Raymond Kusch, was on the line from Afghanistan.
“He told me that he was all right but he had lost his foot,” Alyssa Kusch told The Monroe Evening News. “I told him it wasn’t funny.”
He replied that he was serious. And as the details emerged of what had happened when he stepped on an improvised explosive device, it became obvious that he was lucky the injuries were not more critical or even fatal.
To acknowledge his war injury on July 9, 2012, and continuing recovery, Kusch was honored at an “Alive Day” party Sunday at the Rock of Gibraltar Post 4230, Veterans of Foreign Wars, hall.
Rockwood is the Kusches’ hometown, although they are living in Washington, D.C., while he continues outpatient treatment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
Sgt. Kusch remembers pretty well what happened that day. He was in charge of five men and tactically directing 13. They realized they were surrounded and started to move from their position. It was about 4:30 a.m. local time, before sunrise.
As he crossed over a wall, he heard and saw the explosion of noise and dust that he knew to be an IED. He just didn’t realize at first he was the one who hit it.
“I still remember flying through the air,” he said.
Now, a year later, Kusch is working on recovery and celebrating his survival.
The celebration cake read “Happy Alive Day Ray.” Green plastic toy Army men decorated the tables as a nod to the military career he aspired to as a young boy.
Another table showed a photo album of his days at Walter Reed with both serious photos of him in a hospital room and an amusing series of photos showing Kusch moving an electric wheelchair through the drive-thru window at a McDonald’s near the hospital.
The earliest photo shown at the party was taken while he still was overseas, a few hours after his injury when he was presented his Purple Heart medal.
Kusch’s sense of humor also was evident in the shirt he wore at the party. The front said “Combat Wounded Soldier: Some Assembly Required.” The back read “I had a blast in Afghanistan.”
Kusch is a 2009 graduate of Gibraltar Schools’ Carlson High School. His wife is a 2010 graduate of Carlson. They started dating while in high school after being introduced by his brother.
After high school, he went into the Army to fulfill a childhood dream of military service. His specialty was that of a sniper. His first tour of duty was in Iraq and lasted about a year. When he returned from that assignment, he and his girlfriend married on Nov. 5, 2010. They then moved to a small town near his new post at Fort Stewart, Ga.
When the second deployment began, his wife moved home to Michigan. She had every expectation this mission would go smoothly, as well.
“He was good at what he did,” she said.
Two factors minimized the injuries Kusch suffered, as serious as they are. First, the way he approached the hidden device meant that the wall diverted some of the explosion away from his body.
“Not too many people step on pressure plates and live,” he said.
Second, he managed to fall on his back instead of on his head when he landed.
In the aftermath of the explosion, he lost his vision equipment. That problem, combined with the predawn hours meant he could see little, as he normally wears glasses.
The impact also blew off his watch and his first aid supplies, so he could not treat his injuries. He was able to put in a call for a medic and trusted the soldiers he was with to take care of him. But he had to wait for them to approach carefully and slowly.
The initial surgery and amputation of part of his left foot happened at Camp Leatherneck, a Marine Corps base in Afghanistan.
Kusch insisted on personally making that phone call back home, rather than having someone else give such a message to his wife.
As the news started spreading among family members and friends during the next few hours, his best friend, who is in the Marines, happened to log onto Facebook and saw the messages. That friend, John Foley of Southgate, happened to be at Camp Leatherneck, too. He was escorted by a high-ranking military officer to the medical center and stayed with Sgt. Kusch until the medical flight to Germany took place in preparation for the trip back to the United States.
Kusch also got a set of replacement glasses after he arrived in Germany.
As a result of repeat surgeries, the amputation then went past his heel, and it is now just below the knee. He expects more surgery relating to nerve problems, as it can be painful at times to walk with the prosthetic foot.
The scars shown in some of the pictures remain visible on his arms. “I still have shrapnel in every extremity of my body,” he added.
There are many months of recovery ahead, and probably a year from now a medical evaluation board will decide his future.
He expects that he either will get a medical retirement from the military or will be offered a different job in the military, perhaps as an instructor.