Alaska soldier makes long journey home

Posted: Friday, October 12, 2007

ANCHORAGE - Justin Tauriainen awoke in a hospital bed, unaware a bomb had exploded lethally close to him.

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The explosion killed three others in his vehicle, paralyzed another. Justin was lucky.

The violent explosion had rocked his head, swelling his brain. He fractured his leg. His fingers were broken and he lost leg and arm tissue and muscle. One of his vertebra was shattered.

Now, more than 4 ½ months after the horrific attack, Justin is finally back to his post - and hometown - after migrating north along the Alaska Highway in a giant Dutch Star motor home.

The trip took about two weeks, but it was necessary, grandfather Jerry Cozzen said. Justin couldn't fly. His injuries are still too severe.

Slightly more than a year after departing the town he grew up in, Justin late Wednesday afternoon reached the home he almost never saw again.

About 15 friends and family members waited for his arrival at the Muldoon overpass on the Glenn Highway, waving an American flag and a banner that read, "Welcome Home T-Bone."

"We've been waiting for this day for months, said Susan Tauriainen-Houser, Justin's aunt. "It's a miracle."

At Justin's grandparents' home, nearly 50 people mingled in the chill fall air, waiting for their chance to say tearful hellos to Justin.

"Some more'll be here when they get off work," grandmother Marjorie Cozzen said.

It was cold and the pizza was hot, so the group moved inside.

There it was standing-room only among the clusters of red, white and blue welcome balloons and a few American flags. Some soldiers were in neatly pressed fatigues. Others, also wounded in action, were in street clothes.

"We're just thankful he's home, even though he does miss his buddies," mother Jeri said.

Justin, who is now 23, grew up in Anchorage. He went to North Anchorage Christian Academy, a small private school, finished high school at Job Corps and started work in construction.

His life changed forever May 21.

After the word of Justin's wounds first arrived, the Tauriainens waited for updates from the military's casualty information center on the East Coast. They came in brief, alarming dispatches.

The Army first flew Justin to Germany, then to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. The Tauriainens got on a plane.

Justin's mother and his father, Dave Tauriainen, arrived in Texas and at their son's side. There, they found a ventilator breathing for his unconscious body. The bomb had ripped his muscles and flesh. He needed tourniquets on every limb.

"They weren't sure if he was going to make it, but he did," Dave said. "He got motivated and has been motivated the whole way through."

Justin made it through what seemed a never-ending series of difficulties and survived.

"He wasn't supposed to have made it, but he's got a lot of support," his grandfather said.

The family's first concern was that he might have brain damage, but the tests were normal. After he wiggled his toes, they knew they didn't have to worry about paralysis.

"His main doctor flat-out told us they weren't sure he would recover," Justin's father said. "It's a relief watching him progress by leaps and bounds."

Dave Tauriainen was in San Antonio for about three months, but had to come back for work. Jeri stayed the whole time, at the cost of missing her grandchild's birth.

Missing work for all that time costs money, and their church helped them get through it. It has also helped them emotionally.

A lot of prayers have been said, and they seem to have been answered, Jeri said.

After all, Justin's favorite book is the King James Bible.

He'll still have to cope with surviving when his friends didn't. He misses them, he said, and he misses being with his unit. He wants to stay in the Army, at least until his enlistment is up.

That might not be an option.

Multiple surgeries, a few titanium rods in his back, and a lot of physical therapy later, Justin can now, with some difficulty, get around on his own. He still needs more surgery and more therapy, but that doesn't guarantee he'll be completely healed.

"I don't know what's going to happen," Justin said. "I don't know what I'm capable of."

He's getting better, and it shows. He might never be the same as he once was.

But he's back.

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