On a chilly morning in central Oregon, retired Staff Sgt. Ryan Craig put on his helmet for the first time in four years. But more meaningful than the Kevlar the Army presented to him on Thursday was the hole in the helmet, from a sniper's bullet in Afghanistan.
That rifle round struck Craig's skull and changed everything. But it didn't kill him.
Craig, still battling long-term health issues, said he was pleased to get the helmet that slowed the bullet down enough to save him back from the Army. He said he plans to put it on his bookshelf.
When he saw the helmet at the ceremony, he felt "kind of a deep sense of admiration," he said, "because it saved my life."
"It went well. I didn't know what it was going to look like," Craig said of the ceremony. Asked what he felt when he saw the helmet, he responded: "Kind of a deep sense of admiration. Because it saved my life."
His mother, Jennifer Miller, joined him and his sister at the ceremony in Pineville, Oregon, four years to the day after he came out of a his coma. She called the event emotional, especially when Craig put the pierced helmet on his head. For her, the emotions are mixed.
"For me it kind of carries a double-edged sword," Miller said. "It does represent humility and promise because Ryan did survive," Miller said. "It kind of represents what he's been through. But for me it also kind of represents what's been taken."
Craig, a machine gunner from small-town Oregon, doesn't remember the battle in which he was injuredsustained his injury. He suffers from symptoms of traumatic brain injury and had to relearn basic functions most people take for granted in a "long, arduous" process. But , though his sense of fight was not a casualty. He's needed that spirit; after his injury he had to re-learn basic functions most take for granted in a process he described as "long, arduous."
He has improved steadily since coming out of his coma. Though he requires constant care he has a provisional driver's license now.
But there was a setback. Last summer year Craig tried to run in a 5K fundraiser in California in the summer of 2013. Miller said he should have been prevented from running. His body doesn't regulate temperature well — a common TBI symptom — and she says he suffered a heart attack about two miles in. Although it endangered him that day, she believes his attitude has proven an asset.
"Ryan doesn't take 'no' for an answer very well. That's probably why he's done as well as he has," Miller said. "He had to learn how to walk and talk and everything. If he didn't have that mindset, I don't think he'd be doing that well."
'He should not be alive'
On Nov. 18, 2010, Craig's unit came under fire while on a patrol in the Chark district of Logar province, about 40 miles south of Kabul. Early in the firefight a bullet struck Craig, then 23, in dropped the then-23-year-old gunner after striking him on the forehead.
The helmet slowed the bullet down, and the quick thinking of his team and the skill of his surgeons saved him, said Command Sgt. Maj. Doug Maddi, who was works for Program Executive Officer Soldier now (the organization that happens to arrange reunions between soldiers and life-saving gear). But back in 2010, he was Craig's sergeant major then. Now Maddi works for Program Executive Officer Soldier, the organization that happens to arrange reunions between soldiers and life-saving gear.
But back in 2010, he was He credited the helmet for slowing down the bullet, the quick thinking of his team to get him out quickly, and the skill of the surgeons for Craig's survival.
Maddi says He said his former staff sergeant gets better every time he sees him, and he was glad to be able to "see my buddy" and ensure he got his helmet.
"Is he the same guy as before he got wounded? No, he's not. For a guy getting shot in the head, he's as good as he can be. He's amazingly boosted, responsive," said Maddi, who attended Thursday's ceremony. "He should not be alive."
The helmet Craig wore had been graded for small arms fire, but not for rifle rounds, Maddi said. Maddie said iIncidents like this one have helped the Army improve technology on helmets, which now are graded to stop bullets like the one that hit only slowed by Craig's lid.
Miller characterized seeing at the damage the bullet did as "harrowing" and "surreal."
Maddie said incidents like this one have helped the Army improve technology on helmets, which now are graded to stop bullets like the one only slowed by Craig's lid.
After the injury, Craig only remembers waking up back in the U.S., though he didn't know it at the time.
"I didn't know where I was, who I was, what had happened. I thought I was in Pakistan," Craig said.
He slowly worked his way back, albeit describing his experience with the VA as "horrible." But his mother said he never really complains, despite a variety of other health issues and complications.
"He's pretty much an inspiration to everybody he meets. He has a warm spirit about him. When you see him he kind of brings a little bit of peace to you," Miller said.
His sentences remain mostly short and blunt, and his mother said he still has worries as he continues to struggle to find a new normal. She said he has told her he'd have done everything all over again.
Craig said he served with "a great group of guys," but asked if he'd have done it over again, he said his path would have been at least somewhat different.
"No," he said. "If I knew what I know now, I would have picked a different MOS."
Craig was a carpenter in Portland, Oregon, until construction work started to dry up in 2008 and he enlisted. The military runs deep in his family. His mother said he became the fifth generation to serve. His father had been in the National Guard and his brother Steven is in the Navy, she said.
Craig, who officially retired in 2013, said he's not sure what he wants to do next with his life. His mother said she knows one thing he will do: continue to inspire others. And as hard as the road has been and will continue to be, she's just glad he's home, alive.
"He's just remarkable, he has that fight and that spirit in him that won't let him give up. That's a part of him, but it's also part of being a soldier," Miller said.
"He's home, so that's the biggest positive."