‘Waterfront Warriors Reunites Veteran With Parent’

Waterfront Warriors image from the Sun Sentinel newspaper.

This article originally appeared in the April 17, 2013 edition of the Sun Sentinel

By Ben Wolford, Sun Sentinel

SINGER ISLAND — Army officer Brendan Harkess stood in the lobby of an oceanfront resort here Tuesday thinking he was posing for a picture.

Actually, he was being reunited with his parents after a year on opposite ends of the country. West Palm Beach Waterfront Warriors orchestrated the surprise.

“He was talking about his parents so much it just kind of got to our hearts,” said Joe Bartlett, 64, a former Palm Beach County firefighter who helps lead the project, which has granted Florida vacations to about two dozen hospital-bound veterans.

Bartlett said the Fraternal Order of Leatherheads Society, another firefighters group, also contributed money to make the trip happen.

Seven soldiers participated this year. Bartlett said they went over budget to fly Judy and Brian Harkess in from Seattle.

“We called everybody down into the lobby on the pretense that we wanted to do a group shot,” Bartlett said.

Brendan Harkess didn’t notice until after the pictures were taken that it was his mother’s hand on his shoulder. Their joy brought everyone to tears.

At 27, Brendan Harkess stands 6-feet-5-inches tall, and the only evidence of his injury is his halting speech.

On Sept. 25, 2011, Brendan Harkess was doing his job in Afghanistan as an engineer in a route-clearing company. This is exactly what it sounds like. From inside an armored truck, Brendan Harkess was looking for roadside bombs.

“And he found one in a bad way,” Judy Harkess said.

The front of the truck flew into the air. Brendan Harkess and two other soldiers smacked their heads. “Broke a large computer screen with my head,” he said.

He broke the screen, but the screen broke him, too. He suffered a traumatic brain injury. The violent jolt up and down injured his spine and the nerves around it.

Judy and Brian Harkess received a phone call from a field hospital.

“I’m still alive, and I’m not dying,” were the first words they heard.

They flew to visit him in recovery at Ramstein, Germany, but the trip was short. And Brendan Harkess was working half the time. Much of their time together was over dinner.

These days, Brendan Harkess is living in Virginia at Fort Belvoir. Half the week he undergoes physical and cognitive therapy. He lost some memory and the ability to create new memories. So doctors are repairing those connections with puzzles and thought exercises. He is also improving his range of motion.

The other half of the week, he works for a unit that deploys troops to restore power during domestic natural disasters, including Hurricane Sandy. He’s the No. 2 in the unit, overseeing 110 soldiers. He says he puts them first when vacation time comes up.

“Brendan usually gives his trips away to his men,” Judy Harkess said.

Not this time.

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