By Colin DeVries
COXSACKIE — Family and friends came out in droves Friday night to celebrate the lives and sacrifices of two wounded soldiers from New Baltimore, James T. Rundberg and Seth Stephen.
The Quarry Steakhouse was brimming with pride during the event, which featured adult comedy entertainment, food, a cash bar and good cheer from the over 200 that packed the restaurant dining room.
“Every community should do this for its people,” said organizer Duane Keezer. “Many we lost have not been recognized. Let’s keep them in your thoughts and your memories.”
Both Rundberg and Stephen served in the U.S. Army and were wounded by roadside bombs in Iraq, an unlikely commonality shared with hundreds of other soldiers serving overseas. Fortunately, they are among those that have survived such unexpected attacks.
Rundberg, who serves as Sergeant First Class, was executing a special mission in Baghdad when his convoy of three armored humvees was bombarded by an EFP — explosively formed projectile — on June 25. He was hit directly by the blast and suffered severe burns and broken bones.
Even while injured he was able to exit his vehicle and move up to the first humvee where a chaplin the squad was escorting was being transported. While the convoy was stopped a second EFP went off and injured other soldiers in the convoy.
Seven of eight soldiers were injured from the attack, with one losing a leg and another needing reconstructive arm surgery.
Fortunately for Rundberg, he is expected to make a full recovery, according to his brother-in-law Pat Linger. He is currently undergoing rehabilitation at Brooke Army Medical Center and is expected home on leave Wednesday, Aug. 26.
Linger said Rundberg also hopes to return to service as soon as possible, though he may not be able to return to his commanding unit of 40 men.
“He’s in excellent spirits,” Linger said. “The only thing that’s hard for him is that he may not be able to return to Iraq and finish his tour.”
Rundberg first enlisted in 1993, is divorced and has two children, 11-year-old daughter Samantha and 8-year-old son Dylan.
Friday night’s event also happened to fall on Rundberg’s 34th birthday, a special gift for him in his absence and for the family members that attended.
Stephen, who was also injured from a roadside explosion in Iraq, was also absent for treatment at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
Stephen, 25, was injured in March 2008, flown to Landstuhl Medical Center and then to Walter Reed, where he has been recovering from internal injuries.
His grandfather, Dick, and numerous neighbors joined the celebration on Friday, honoring his service and sacrifice.
“He’s hopeful for the future,” said neighbor Sally Russo. “He’s just anxious to come home.”
Stephen will be coming home today.
“I’ve been waiting for him,” said an emotional Dick Stephen, “and I’m still waiting for him.”
Dick called the outpouring of affection for his only grandson “beautiful.”
“We’re new to the area,” said Dick, who originally hails from Southberg, Conn. “I never thought he would have this kind of support because he’s new here.”
Seth’s mother, Sandra Lee Stephen, couldn’t make it to the event because she was by her son’s side at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. She has been with him at Walter Reed for the entire 17 months he has been rehabilitating, Dick said.
To honor the soldiers service for America, lawmakers and veterans came out to show their support.
Assemblyman Pete Lopez of the 127th Assembly District and State Senator James Seward of the 51th Senate District presented American flags that flew over the state capitol to the families.
“We’re honoring two local heroes and honoring what America is all about,” said Seward.
Lopez echoed the senator’s sentiment on honor and pride for our young men and women who sacrifice so much for God and country, adding his own personal story about his 19-year-old daughter Stephanie, who is joining the ROTC program at Siena College this fall.
“Its important that we recognized these soldiers,” he said. “We had a whole generation who did not get that support and they still bear the scars from that.”
A 20-year veteran, First Lieutenant David M. Douglas (Ret.), was also on-hand donating DJ services for the event and read an essay he wrote titled “Our Flag,” something he found as a therapeutic form of expression to support the troops serving after 9/11 — an event that occurred only five days after his retirement.
“I am made of fabric, unlike any other fabric,” he read. “My presence alone can bring out feelings of pride, feelings of love, feelings of sorrow and in some even feelings of hate for the symbols that I represent.”
The emotional reading drew a standing ovation from the crowd.
Douglas later played Taps and the capacity crowd stood in silent reflection, as lips quivered and eyes moistened.
Local county legislators were also on hand amongst the crowd, with New Baltimore Legislator James Van Slyke acknowledging the great turnout.
“I’m just so proud of the town and for this event,” he said. “The sacrifice they have given should be honored. Over the years, it has been overlooked but we have a lot of vets coming home now and they should be appreciated.”