FAYETTEVILLE — Willie Stewart has a new home.
He has a new van, designed to carry a new chair. He has a new addition to his household, an assistant who helps him perform daily tasks. He has a scar on his neck that hasn’t been there long.
He has a shiny new Purple Heart — one more thing that he can’t see, or touch with his right hand.
Willie, at age 25, has a new way of life.
The only way Bonnie, Stewart’s mother, knows how to describe it is with words she heard other families use while pacing the hallways of military hospitals. Caring for Willie, she says, has become the family’s “new normal.”
“It’s a new life, and it’s like we have to start over again,” she said.
It’s one for which Stewart volunteered.
At the age of 12, Willie began frequenting at a paintball range where his dad Jim worked. It was there that he met military higher-ups who went there to train — and they let him join in. Days spent hiding from enemy fire, and listening to men who knew they were training to duck shots that weren’t harmless or colorful, led him to decide to join their ranks.
When he was 18, he was sent to Ft. Benning. Ga., for basic training, and was based in Germany. From there, he was sent on a 15-month tour to Iraq. It was at Ft. Bliss, Texas, where his infantry unit received orders to go to Afghanistan. Stewart, who had a bothersome back, was told he didn’t have to go — but he chose to. It was the end of 2011.
“People ask me all the time, ‘How could you not be angry,’” Bonnie said. “I say because I had supported him in everything he wanted to do.”
Bonnie, Jim, and Stewart’s sister Elizabeth were at a restaurant in July of last year, at 8 p.m. on a Sunday, when Bonnie got a call from Ft. Bliss. On the other line was an officer who told her that her son has been injured, was in critical condition, and they didn’t know if he would live or die.
Jim had to pick his wife up out of the parking lot.
She didn’t stop moving until she saw her son five days later. Until Stewart arrived at Walter Reed Hospital, where the family was waiting, the family received phone calls every four hours from a different person, who updated them on Stewarts’ condition, sometimes with conflicting information.
“Those five days, we couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat … ,” Bonnie said, her voice trailing off.
In between reports, the family pieced together what had happened. A piece of mortar from an attack near Willie’s unit had severed his carotid artery, and the resulting blood and oxygen loss caused him to have a stroke. The injury to his brain also stifled his speech and memory.
“It didn’t really look like my son,” Bonnie said of seeing Willie in the intensive care unit. “Even then, it was like we were talking to him, but he wasn’t responding.”
Stewart was soon transferred to a trauma unit in Richmond, Va., were he stayed until Dec. 27. His recovery was touch-and-go, and he returned to intensive care for a week. He was moved to a rehabilitation clinic in Raleigh, and got to come home on March 15.
When he became more alert, the hardest thing for Stewart was to realize that he couldn’t immediately get up and do the things he had once liked to do with his father — like fish. But when asked if he regrets his decision to go, and to fight, he shakes his head.
“No,” he says. “Duty.”
For that reason, his new life doesn’t bother him.
That life has been dotted with news articles, accolades, and visits from members of the Wounded Warrior Project, who take him on on short trips around town. In Fayetteville, Stewart has become somewhat famous, but he waves that away with a flip of his left hand, and scoffs at the idea of being well-known — as if someone has made a joke. As his mother says, he still “thinks he’s a comedian.”
“I tell him that he doesn’t realize it, but he’s a national hero,” Jim says.
Great Marsh Baptist Church n St. Pauls, where Stewart’s grandparents Danvy and Elaine Fisher have been members for several years, will be hosting an event in his honor on May 25.
The event will begin at 10:30 a.m. and last all day. It will include a plate sale, a silent auction, a live cake auction, a horseshoe tournament, and a gospel sing. Donations can also be made to William Stewart in care of the church, at P.O. Box 115, St. Pauls, 28384.
Money raised at the event will be used to help pay for Willie’s new lifestyle — and ongoing treatment that Bonnie says has helped to make his life normal.
“The goal is for him to be as independent as possible,”she said.
Abbi Overfelt works for Civitas Media as editor of The St. Pauls Review and The Red Springs Citizen.