LENOX -- For U.S. Marine Staff Sgt. Michael Stringer, a native of Lenox Dale and former Sheffield resident, the homecoming reunion and celebration attended by at least 75 friends, relatives and VFW members over the weekend was a heartwarming show of affection and support.
Stringer, 30, was severely injured Feb. 21, 2012, as he attempted to defuse an improvised explosive device, or IED, while on combat duty in Afghanistan's Helmand Province.
Stringer was airlifted to the U.S. military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, where he spent three weeks in a medically induced coma. He underwent further surgery and rehabilitation in Texas and Virginia.
He was awarded a Purple Heart and remains on active duty as a member of the Wounded Warrior Battalion at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, N.C., while he awaits a medical discharge. He reports to the base for daily physical therapy.
His three-day return visit to Lenox was his first since the injury. In an interview, Stringer told The Eagle that he has no recollection of the near-fatal explosion after he prepared to disarm the device.
"I know now what it's like to almost die," he said. "Knowing how close my family is, with all the support, has a whole different value now."
"He's doing really well," said his father, Stockbridge Police Officer Bruce Stringer. "We're really happy with the way he's recovering."
The Marine's older brother, David, was injured in Afghanistan in 2004 and also was awarded a Purple Heart by the Marines. Jacob, the youngest brother, is in training for military service.
With his wife, Kalai, at his side, Michael Stringer commented that the past year of recovery has been "a difficult and trying time for myself, my wife and our children" and he thanked the Lenox Dale community "for all their love and support -- letters, notes, monetary gifts from many of you have meant so much to carry us through."
"He's done way better than his doctors anticipated," said Kalai Stringer, a Realtor for Coldwell Banker Seacoast Management in Jacksonville, N.C.
Kalai has been assisting in her husband's physical training. He took part in a 5K road race for wounded warriors, a fundraiser co-sponsored by his mother, Kari (Wellington) Legault, formerly of Lenox Dale, who now lives in Charlottesville, Va.
Showing only a few facial scars from his head injury, Stringer described himself as 70 percent functional after his discharge from Hunter Holmes Mcguire VA Medical Center in Richmond, Va., the third hospital where he received treatment.
"As of today, I'm back close to 90 to 95 percent physically," Stringer said, though he still deals with some pain and some "slow short-term memory, but nothing really bad."
"I don't like loud noises," he said. "Sometimes crowd scenes give me a little bit of anxiety. I don't feel safe in crowded areas, but for the most part, I'm feel like I'm doing good and the anxiety is getting better.
"The hardest thing was trying to fit myself back into my old lifestyle, trying to wish nothing had happened. But the realization that I'm not the same person, that things are different, that there'll be difficulties all my life that weren't there before, was the hardest thing to deal with. Sometimes I don't like to admit that traumatic brain injury has its side effects. I try to pretend those don't really exist and that I'm just as good as I was before."
Stringer candidly described "ups and downs from PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder], anxieties, sometimes fighting with the family and not fitting in as well as I wanted to."
He declared that while he's about to leave the military after 10 years -- "I'm ready; I'm done" -- he'll miss doing his dangerous job as an explosive ordnance disposal technician.
"I'll miss straddling a possible explosive, cutting a wire and making a road safe for civilians and my fellow military," he said. He voiced high praise for his fellow Marines and Air Force medical technicians who took immediate care of him after the explosion.
"I did my best that day," said Stringer. "I wish I had done something better to avoid getting hurt. Something went wrong, I failed at doing something I was supposed to be doing. That's the only thing that really bothers me."
The Saturday afternoon celebration for Stringer was held at the Lenox VFW headquarters and was organized by the post's commander, Lenox Police Officer Sean Ward. The VFW, the Lenox and Stockbridge police and fire departments, and other groups had organized a rubber-bracelet sale last March to help raise funds to assist the Stringer family.
"It's amazing how it's all come together, to see how well the military takes care of us, and how the community, my family and friends have been behind me," Stringer said. "Coming back to Lenox always feels like home,"
After his return to civilian life in North Carolina, Stringer hopes to work in property management alongside Kalai.
"I'll be his boss," she said, laughing. "His boss at home and at work."
To reach Clarence Fanto:
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On Twitter: @BE_cfanto