NORTHBRIDGE, Mass. – An ordinary day in Iraq seven years ago changed the battlefield for Sgt. Stephen J. Mandile of Uxbridge from the desert of Iraq to the hospitals and bureaucracy of the U.S. Veterans Administration.
The Iraqi War veteran has a new supporter in his corner: the Fire & Iron Firefighters Motorcycle Club, headed by Northbridge native Steven George of Millbury, which is holding a fundraiser ride on Saturday to benefit the Sgt. Mandile Disabled Veteran Benefit Fund.
Money raised will go toward surgery that will greatly improve Mandile’s quality of life, but it is a surgery not approved by the Veterans Administration.
An artilleryman for the U.S. Army National Guard in 2005, Mandile was driving the lead Humvee in a convoy to Baghdad. An Iraqi vehicle, driving erratically, pulled in front of Mandile and slowed almost to a stop.
“That’s what a suicide bomber usually does,’’ Mandile said, and his orders were clear. “We aren’t allowed to stop,’’ he said, so he plowed through the suspect vehicle at 50 or more miles per hour and kept on going.
“I was tossed around inside,’’ Mandile said, but he and the rest of the convoy made it to Baghdad. “There was some damage to the Humvee, but I felt fine,’’ he said.
It wasn’t until the next morning, when he couldn’t move his legs or sit up, that he realized he’d been seriously hurt. Over the course of a few months, tests revealed five ruptured discs in his spine, damaged nerves in both legs, and a traumatic brain injury.
Since then, he’s had three surgeries during which some discs were removed and some fused.
“I’ve been told the surgeries just slow down the process of being in a wheelchair,’’ he said.
He walks with a cane, copes with the inevitable falls he takes when his legs go numb, and deals with the constant pain and occasional confusion and depression with medication.
“Jess (his wife) has been my rock,’’ Mandile said, and it’s his wife and 14-month-old daughter Abbigail who keep him going.
A surgically-installed a pump for pain medication was recommended by physicians at the Home Base Program for Disabled Veterans at Mass. General Hospital in Boston, but the VA approves that surgery only for those who are terminal, Mandile said.
With the pump, a line is placed close to the damaged nerves so the medication reaches the affected areas directly and is more effective, Mandile said..
The Mandiles have also asked the VA for help adapt their home to accommodate his disabilities, a request that's also been denied.
Mandile is a member of the Wounded Warriors Project and the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Association.
The help of Fire & Iron club members, all of them firefighters, gives Mandile hope.
"There is a stereotype of what bikers are,'' Mandile said. "These bikers are a community, have become a family within our family, and we are grateful for their help.''