WATERLOO, Iowa --- Ian Ralston looks straight ahead from his wheelchair. That says more about his outlook on life than his disability.
Ralston, a U.S. Army medic from Waterloo paralyzed from the neck down by a bomb blast in Iraq nearly a year ago, has dreams for the future.
"To me, there's absolutely no point in being upset about it," he said of his disability. "I mean, yeah, it sucks. And if I had my choice, no, I wouldn't be in a wheelchair. But this is what I got right now. So I might as well make the best of it. If all you want to do is be upset about it, it's just going to make it that much harder for you to live with it, to cope with it. So I got past that quick."
Short term, he wants to improve his ability to breathe on his own when he returns to a Twin Cities military hospital next month for a checkup.
"I want to get through this breathing trial and just push myself as hard as I can, work as well as I can with therapists," he said. "Because I know the people up there. I trust them and they trust me. And I'd like to think they believe in me."
He might try to tackle a hand cycle to build back some arm strength. He works out for 45 minutes at a sitting now on a leg cycle at home. His legs are driven by impulses from electrodes attached to the cycle. By adjusting his breathing apparatus to breathe more on his own, he can get a good cardiopulmonary workout.
Long term, he wants to go back to school, to become a teacher or motivational speaker.
As part of his medic responsibilities, he taught combat lifesaving courses to nonmedic infantry troops and officers at Fort Lewis, Wash., and in Iraq during both of his deployments there.
"I love teaching," he said. "I got pretty good reviews. I love seeing people's eyes light up when they get something."
And he recently proved he still has a way with people, speaking to a school assembly at Don Bosco High School in Gilbertville. He was invited there as part of a project honoring veterans.
Prior to his disability, he had been an animated instructor, pacing and gesticulating as he lectured. He can't do that now. In front of the Don Bosco kids, he discovered he doesn't have to.
"You could hear a pin drop," Ralston said. His fiancee, Nicole Sanders, held the microphone as he delivered remarks and fielded questions from the assembly. The students gravitated to him afterward.
"All of these kids came down from the bleachers and just made a big circle around Ian," Nicole said. "They were kind of nervous, and so Ian and I started reminiscing about funny stories in the hospital, when he was delusional and stuff like that. They were just cracking up."
They warmed up, asked more questions and offered to help load up the van when it was time for him to leave.
Students presented Ian and Nicole with cards and several gifts, including a handsome cedar chest made by a student's grandfather.
"It was really impressive how eager these kids were to hear and learn about what I'd been through," Ian said. He admitted to having butterflies beforehand. "Physically, I felt great afterwards. I was pumped. The kids were so interested."
Ralston hinted he would probably speak at his alma mater, West High School in Waterloo, if asked.
He'd eventually like to return to the Pacific Northwest with Nicole, who has been by his side right along with his family since his injury. He fell in love with that region, and her, while stationed at Fort Lewis. Nicole is finishing her studies online at the International School of Design in Seattle.
This is all coming from a guy whose doctors, a few months ago, expected him to still be in the hospital today.
Not Ian Ralston. He, his family and a host of volunteers in Waterloo had other ideas, remodeling and adding on to the Ralston home to accommodate Ian's disability and bring him home before Christmas. He constantly expresses his gratitude to the community for helping him and other returning veterans.
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And Ralston is the first to tell you it was his parents, Steve and Sue, sister Emerald and Nicole, who pushed and motivated him during his darkest, most despairing days in the hospital.
For example, when asked if doctors have him on a special diet, he nodded toward Nicole and deadpanned, "She does."
He's generally been a positive person and hasn't lost that since his wound.
"I know I'm a pain in the ass. Just imagine if I was a depressed, moody pain in the ass," he said smiling at his family and fiancee as they laughed.
To be sure, Ian acknowledged, he has mild post-traumatic stress from the injury.
"Loud noises really get me," he said. "Sometimes I can't watch certain shows because it brings up bad memories. I get angry when someone makes a loud noise just because it freaks me out. I flinch, and I can't really flinch like I used to. I've really strained my neck, and I take muscle relaxers or a heat pack for it."
He had served in an honor guard for soldiers' funerals on a previous Iraq deployment. "I can't listen to 'Amazing Grace' in bagpipes. I just can't do that," he said, because of the memories it evokes.
He remembers some things about the explosion, when an improvised explosive device suspended from an overpass went off as the Stryker armored vehicle he was in passed. He figures the device was set off remotely from a cell phone. Ralston, unfortunately, had poked his head out of a hatch of the vehicle to take in some air and scenery.
He compared his sensations during the blast to the battle scenes in the movie "Saving Private Ryan" --- muffled hearing, and the sensation of everything being in slow motion.
"I was standing upright for a second before I collapsed. I remember hearing a blast and then cringing. I remember falling through the hatch into the bottom of the Stryker and people yelled my name."
And then nothing, until he woke up at a military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany. A nursing-trained Army friend from his first deployment, Jake Flores, was at his side, as was his sister, Emerald, herself just deployed.
Ralston doesn't recall being told he was paralyzed, though his mother said medical staff at Landstuhl filled them in. She said Ian was told, but was too sedated to remember. A ball bearing projectile put a tiny, 13 mm hole in his back and settled near his spine. It was later removed.
Sometimes the intervening months of therapy and rehabilitation seem to have passed like a heartbeat; sometimes like a lifetime. But Ralston has no second thoughts about his military service.
"I don't regret a second of it," he said. "All my life I knew I'd serve. Dad served. Grandpa served. There was no pressure on me to join, but I just knew I would. If I had to do it all over again I would. The only difference is I would have ducked. The friends I've had, the lives I changed, make me proud."
He said even his injury served a purpose if it prompted the military to improve countermeasures against improvised explosive devices, reducing the risk of injury or death.
"If I had to be that sacrifice to protect others, that's fine," he said.
Ralston and his family have tried to reach out and help community fundraising events for other wounded soldiers.
"I've considered going back to Walter Reed (military hospital in Washington, D.C., where he also was treated) and talking to some of the wounded soldiers," he said.
Still considered on active duty, Ralston's squad leader has asked him to speak to returning wounded troops at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.
"They're so downtrodden," he said. "I guess they're just acting out because of their injuries, and they feel hopeless or they're not doing anything to help themselves. So he asked me to speak to them because of my motivation and how upbeat I am about my circumstances --- I guess my injury is worse that theirs. But I haven't decided, really, whether I want to do it."
It might be a tougher audience than a high school. "That's for sure," Ralston said.
It may end up being another goal --- like the others Ralston takes on, straight ahead, one at a time.