After months of recovery from Afghanistan injuries, warm hearts greet Medford soldier
After spending more than a year recovering from life-threatening injuries he suffered from a roadside bomb in Afghanistan, Army Sgt. Tom Rollason returned to a homecoming he won't soon forget.
About 100 people greeted him Thursday at the Medford airport with applause, whistles and shouted "thank yous" as Rollason wheeled off a flight from Salt Lake City in a wheelchair.
Dressed in a green Army uniform, Rollason choked up with tears as he saw the reception, and his 6-year-old grandson and namesake, Thomas Tucker, climbed into his lap.
"I love you guys," Rollason called out with a weak voice nearly drowned out by his revelers.
The 44-year-old, a member of the 569th Combat Engineers/4th Engineer Division, was critically injured Sept. 20 by an improvised explosive device near Kandahar, Afghanistan. His driver was killed. Two other soldiers also were seriously injured.
"I was actually in Pittsburgh when I found out because Tom's father, who had cancer, was not expected to survive, and I went there to help Tom's mother and grandfather," said Tom's wife, Sandra. "He passed away 15 minutes before I got the call that my husband was injured. It was a bad day."
Rollason was quickly transported to the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center near the Ramstein Air Base in Germany for treatment, and Sandra joined him there.
Meanwhile, Rollason's struggle to survive and his subsequent road to recovery became a public story.
Sandra's brother, Johnny Cordero, pastor at the Lambs Home Fellowship in Medford, kept the Southern Oregon community informed about the soldier's fight for life and subsequent recovery through a series of mass e-mails, which also made their way to various media outlets. As Rollason's story became well-known in Southern Oregon and even nationally, letters and phone calls began arriving at Rollason's hospital room.
"When it gets unbearable and you can't go another day, you get a phone call or letter, and you realize this is not going to be like this forever," Sandra said. "You realize people care."
That support was repeated Thursday when friends, family, veterans and complete strangers crowded the airport to see Rollason's homecoming.
"I've never had that kind of attention before," Rollason said. "The community has been overwhelming in support."
Rollason didn't know the extent of his injuries until he woke up in October at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where he was transferred from the hospital in Germany.
He was moved again in December to the James A. Haley Veterans Hospital in Tampa, Fla. Throughout the journey, he was operated on six times with at least eight metal rods and plates placed in his body to help hold it together.
Physical therapy helped him recover some of his mobility, and a couple of weeks ago, he walked for the first time.
"I got angry," he said. "I don't know what the reason was. I jumped out of the chair in a fit of rage and walked. It was kind of a Frankensteinian walk.
"I'm literally in God's hands," he said. "I felt that way many times. It's a miracle that I'm walking."
Rollason was deployed to Afghanistan in February 2009 from Iraq, where he had just started a second tour.
He began his military career as a Navy diver and underwater welder and later joined the Naval Reserve and became a steelworker in the Seabees.
He served in Iraq in 2006-07 with the Seabees' Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 18. After that, he joined the Army.
Rollason's family and friends will hold a homecoming party for him at 5:30 p.m. April 10 in the Central Point City Council chambers at City Hall, 140 S. Third St.
There also is an effort under way to include the sergeant in a float in the annual Pear Blossom Parade on April 10.
Rollason and his wife will return to Colorado, where he is stationed, to begin the process of a medical discharge, expected to take six to nine months, he said. Then they plan to return to their home in Medford.
"It's been a long road," Rollason said. "I've come a long way."
Reach reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.