Nearly three years after being shot in the head in Afghanistan, Ryan Craig comes home to Prineville

by: RON HALVORSON - Ryan Craig arrived at the airport at about 3:30 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 20, and was greeted by Prineville's Band of Brothers color guard and a group of motorcycle veterans. He spent a short time in the terminal greeting people who came up to him and then was whisked away in a motorcade.

“The ordinary man is involved in action, the hero acts,” said writer Henry Miller.

On Nov. 19, 2010, when a U.S. Army unit was pinned down by heavy enemy fire near Kabul, Afghanistan, 23-year-old Sgt. Ryan Craig acted.

Putting himself in harm’s way, Craig positioned himself in front of his platoon to provide suppressing fire, which allowed the rest of his unit to evacuate the wounded and escape to safety. The single sniper bullet that pierced his helmet, though, changed Craig’s life forever.

He wasn’t expected to survive, but try telling that to Craig, who returned to Central Oregon on Sunday, amid a hero’s welcome.

Along with family and friends, he was met at the Redmond airport by Prineville’s Band of Brothers honor guard, and then whisked to Prineville where he was greeted by a display of American flags, and welcoming messages on business’ marquees.

He will also serve as grand marshal of this year’s Veterans Day parade, on Monday, Nov. 11.

Craig — who as a teen, lived in Madras — will now make Prineville home. He joins his mother, Jennifer Miller, who moved to Prineville several years ago.

“We’re very excited about him coming home,” said Miller, prior to her son’s homecoming. “It’s been almost three years since his date of injury. I’ve been flying around the country since then, so it’s going to be nice to be home, and staying home, and not having to leave every couple of weeks. He’s excited. He’s ready to, in his words, ‘get on with normal life.’”

“I’m beyond excited,” Craig said in an interview last week. “I’ve already started to pack.”

It’s been a challenging three years.

Soon after Craig’s injury — and after a life-saving blood transfusion — he was flown to a U.S. military hospital in Germany.

The bullet had pierced his helmet, entered his skull, and then fragmented. Craig was left with hemorrhages to his brain, multiple skull fractures, and a broken right eye socket — broken from the inside out.

Nine days later, he was flown to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. Both sides of his skull were removed to allow for brain swelling, and later, he was fitted with a temporary titanium skull. In the interim he had four brain surgeries, and developed pneumonia and an abscess. He suffered four strokes and one heart attack.

Along the way, he was presented with the Purple Heart by Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley, and in September, 2011, was allowed to come to Prineville for a visit.

Recently, Craig was diagnosed with thyroid cancer.

“A lot of the guys coming home, unfortunately, are winding up with cancer,” said Miller, “and a lot of it is thyroid cancer. My son was one of those. He worked through that.”

He still needs to finish radiation treatment for the cancer, she said, “but then that should be, hopefully, knock on wood, the last of the medical stuff for him.”

Craig has been in rehabilitation since April 2011 — first in Florida, and then in California.

“He’s been in constant rehab,” Miller said. “Six days a week, and seven hours a day.”

From Craig’s understandably impatient standpoint, it’s been a slow process.

“A lot of rehab. A lot of wasted time. A lot of wasted effort, but, I figure after all that, I’m a better person. I’ve progressed a lot cognitively.”

His mother agreed.

“It’s (his cognitive ability) improved dramatically from even a year ago. He had a big setback on the Fourth of July - a bad reaction to the heat, and some of the medicines he’s on. If you had to judge him from today to where he was before July, he’s kind of had a setback, but in July, he was up and going. He isn’t a quitter, let me tell you. He does not give up for nothing.”

Miller said that Craig was actually in a driver’s rehab program when he had his setback.

“I know he’s going to plan on trying to re-initiate that (driving), eventually, here. He actually was driving a car in the program there. It’s kind of scary for mom to know that he was behind the wheel of a vehicle.

“To think that he can even do that, from where he was at, is unimaginable, regardless. He wasn’t even supposed to survive this, let alone do what he can do.”

Miller said her 25-year-old son is fairly independent, and can mostly care for himself. At first, he’ll be living in a small rental house, where friends and family members will take turns staying with him.

“He needs daily reminders for medicine, safety awareness, that kind of thing,” she explained. “Someone to drive him to appointments, get him out of the house, keep him active.”

Craig plans to buy a house in Prineville, but the Veterans Administration financing process was on standby, due to the government shutdown, and so his plans have slowed some.

Slowed, too, might be an official military retirement, scheduled to occur sometime in November.

“He’s probably not even going to get a retirement ceremony from the military,” Miller said. “He’s having a hard time swallowing that. A lot of guys are.”

Miller readily acknowledged the pride she has in her son.

“Extremely (proud)! I got to be friends with a lot of the guys that Ryan saved, and I couldn’t be more proud of him.

“He stays home for good, now. Getting ready to start a new life, and get things going, outside of the hospital.”

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