RUCH — Cody Smith may not be up to a forced march with his buddies in the Army's elite 101st Airborne Division, but the wounded Afghanistan war veteran is fighting his way back.
Nearly 18 months after a bullet struck his lower spine, initially paralyzing him, Smith is once again on his feet and stepping out, albeit tentatively.
"I can pretty much go all day now," said Smith, who saw the community rally around him on his return to help build a handicapped-accessible living area. "If I can take a break every couple of hours, I'll be fine.
"It's just my left foot right now that is behind the rest of my body," he added. "It works, but it is slower going than the rest. It's catching up."
Smith, who turns 22 in August and officially remains a private first class in the Army until he receives his expected medical discharge, no longer relies on a wheelchair to get around. Until recently, he used two forearm crutches to walk.
Now he uses one, although he sometimes doesn't need any mechanical help beyond leg braces.
To be sure, his gait is slow and sure. The soldier is taking it one step at a time in his one-man mission to get back on his feet.
"Last week, I couldn't even walk around with just one," he said of the crutch. "Even two weeks ago I could probably walk only from here to the door with two of these.
"My muscles have been building pretty fast," he added.
A 2009 graduate of South Medford High School, where he was an all-conference guard on the football team, Smith was shot on Feb. 17, 2011, during a firefight on a remote ridge in the Ghaziabad district of Kunar Province in eastern Afghanistan, a mountainous region known for its frequent insurgent attacks.
He had been deployed with the Army's elite 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) based at Fort Campbell, Ky.
The young soldier, whose best friend in his unit died beside him that day, had three weeks left in his yearlong deployment when he was wounded.
The son of Chris and Vicki Smith of Ruch would spend the next six months in military hospitals, including Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
When he arrived home last July, he found that friends and strangers alike had volunteered more than $100,000 worth of time and materials to create living quarters in his childhood home in Ruch where he could work on his recovery. He says that setting, coupled with physical therapy sessions he has been taking at Jacksonville Physical Therapy in Jacksonville, have helped make him mobile.
"When I got out of Walter Reed, I could barely jolt my legs," he said, crediting physical therapist Don Reordan at the Jacksonville facility for his work in getting him on his feet.
"When I started working with Don three months ago, that was a major break through for me," he said.
Indeed, the avid hunter is making plans for a fall hunting trip. He bought a new four-wheel-drive pickup truck three weeks ago.
"I didn't want to take it out on dirt roads at first but that's what it's for," he said as he stood beside his new rig.
"I have a lot more freedom now," he said. "I can got to town by myself. I don't have to have someone take me."
In fact, he recently drove to Portland and back by himself.
"I went to see one of my buddies from the Army who lives in Portland where he grew up," he said. "I went up and hung out with him for a weekend."
"He is making amazing progress," his father, Chris, said. "I have seen him walk about 40 feet without crutches, just his leg braces. When he went to Portland — by himself — he didn't even take his wheelchair with him."
His strong-willed son has also returned to the target practice he loved in his youth. He has also pulled a 20-pound salmon from the Rogue while on a fishing trip with his father.
But he figures that is just the beginning in his mission to get completely back on his feet.
"Stubborn — yeah, that's what everybody says about me," he said with a grin.
One step at a time.
Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at email@example.com.