Staff Sgt. Patrick Zeigler thought it was some kind of drill, until a red laser blinked across his eye and a bullet exploded into his head.
He was in Station 13 of the Fort Hood Soldier Readiness Processing Center on Nov. 5, 2009, home from his second deployment to Iraq and moments away from being cleared to attend Officer Candidate School, when a man sitting a few feet away wearing an Army uniform stood up, produced a gun, shouted “Allahu Akbar,” and began firing.
Zeigler tried to crawl out of the building, slipping in the blood that was pumping out of his skull. He was shot three more times as he struggled — in the shoulder, arm and hip. The last thing he can remember is reaching for a chair leg to pull his weakening body toward the door, and the chair sliding toward him instead of him toward it.
Nobody knows exactly how he got out of the building. A medic found him among the chaos of the unfolding tragedy in which 13 were killed and 32 wounded, calling for a phone so he could reach his fiancée, Jessica.
The four years since have not been easy, but Zeigler, who was a 1st Cavalry Division scout with 6th Squadron, 9th Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, when he was shot, has gone on to apply the same Army Ethos that got him out of that building to every aspect of his life after that day.
“I’ve had to re-learn how to walk four times,” he said in a phone interview from his home in Rochester, Minn., where he was re-stationed to the Fort Riley Warrior Transition Remote Care Unit to better continue his recovery. “After every brain surgery, I’d be set back to the point where I’d have to re-learn.”
Today he walks with a limp, but without a cane.
With such serious head injuries, doctors were uncertain what his quality of life would be, but his progress has exceeded all expectations.
“The biggest change has been the medical necessity of taking care of myself, and the lack of independence,” he said. “(But) I’m not in very much pain. I have pretty bad pain in my head, usually in the morning when I wake up, but the meds I’m taking are just over-the-counter stuff so it’s sort of a non-issue.
“My personality and my outlook on the world really hasn’t been affected,” he said. “I can joke around a lot and I still have a pretty conservative outlook on things.”
Initially, his doctors were unsure that he would be able to speak again, but his voice is clear and fluid as he speaks about what keeps him positive.
“Mostly my wife, Jessica,” he said. They were married in 2010 in a wedding arranged by the TV show “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” “She keeps me on my toes.”
“It’s a new kind of life for us,” Jessica said. “It’s been (four) whole years of all day, every day therapy, and it’s not over by any means, but it’s the same for tens of thousands of wounded warriors. A brain injury doesn’t heal. He’s still paralyzed on half of his body, but the mental resiliency is there. Honestly, we couldn’t hold our breath and wait for the outcome (of the court proceedings) because nothing will change. What’s done is done. It’s important that we find our own footing and move on with our lives.”
Moving on is exactly what they’re doing, despite the difficult fact that Patrick has finally had to let go of his dream of being an officer.
“I went through the complicated steps to re-enlist while I was a wounded warrior, in the hopes that I would be able to re-classify or something like that,” he said. “But it looks like I’ll be medically retiring once my medical boards are complete.”
Patrick is still fighting every day to keep his wounds from overcoming him. This past year, he spent six months in the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, because his medications were making him ill.
“We’re both looking forward to going back to school and starting new careers on the civilian side of things,” Patrick said. “We’re going to get some distance from everything that’s happened to us and go on with our lives, and that’s the most important thing everybody should know.”
Staying true to that course, Patrick and Jessica took their biggest leap forward a little less than a year ago.
“We were told that, because of his brain injury, we would probably not be able to have children,” Jessica said. “It was something we’d hoped for but didn’t necessarily think would happen.”
Patrick beat the odds yet again, as he and Jessica were interrupted several times during the interview for this story by the loud and happy vocalizings of their son, Liam Patrick Zeigler, who will turn 1 in October.