Loyola Magazine

A soldier’s sacrifice

After losing his legs in Afghanistan, Capt. Greg Galeazzi, '07, begins to piece together his future

An empty soda can getting hit by a freight train. That’s what it feels like when an IED explodes under your feet. As if every inch of your body is being crushed at the same time.

Capt. Greg Galeazzi, ’07, remembers sitting up on that road in Afghanistan and looking down at his legs. They weren’t there.

“Nothing in the world could have prepared me to see that both of my legs were completely gone,” said Galeazzi, who had been on morning patrol with his soldiers that day, May 26, 2011. “They weren’t hanging off. They were nowhere.”

And that wasn’t all. “I didn’t know it at the time, but my right arm was almost completely severed as well at my elbow,” he said. “My immediate thought is that I’m going to die out here, out in the middle of nowhere in farmland, where we patrol by foot because we can’t get vehicles here.”

He saw the boots of one of his soldiers running to help him and blacked out. “I wish I could say that I stayed unconscious, but I woke back up a minute or so later, and at that point my soldiers had already put tourniquets on both my legs and my arm,” Galeazzi said.

His soldiers called in a Medevac helicopter, swatting his face to keep him conscious in the 110-degree sun, pouring every ounce of their drinking water over him to cool his body down. Galeazzi told one of his soldiers about a letter he had written to his girlfriend, and the soldier promised to give it to her, although insisting that Galeazzi would deliver it himself.

“I guess I still had a sense of humor,” Galeazzi said, “because I told him, ‘She only gets the letter if I die, you idiot! So how the hell will I deliver it?’”

The first Medevac had mechanical problems and had to turn back. As they waited for a second helicopter, Galeazzi’s pain became excruciating.

“All of a sudden it felt exactly like my legs had been ripped off. There’s nothing I could do but scream and hope for death. I remember wanting to die, not wanting my life to be over like this, but at the same time, not knowing what’s going to happen. Am I going to be a cripple in a hospital bed all my life? I remember just stopping and letting myself go and feeling myself getting sucked into this sort of blackness. I was pulled out of it by the fist of my squad leader hitting my chest. After 30 minutes of waiting, we heard the helicopter coming in. I was loaded on board and then blacked out.”

Galeazzi woke up in a trauma bay where he was stabilized. Then he fell unconscious again. The next time he woke up he was at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas.

“Waking up in a hospital here only begins a whole separate type of nightmare. Some of the worst pain is still to come. The mental struggles against depression, anxiety, and stress—that all starts to sink in.”

It’s a new life Galeazzi could never have imagined.

A man for others

The youngest of seven children, Galeazzi was the third of three brothers to come to Loyola from Glastonbury, Conn., to study and to participate in ROTC. John graduated in 2000 and Steven in 2004. Another brother did ROTC at Fordham, and his sisters went to the College of the Holy Cross. He knew he wanted to attend Loyola and enlist in ROTC.

After graduation from Loyola in May 2007, Galeazzi went to Fort Benning, Ga., where he completed the Infantry Officer Basic Course and Ranger School before heading to his first duty station at Fort Carson, Colo. Galeazzi had dreamed of being a helicopter pilot, but the Army needed him to serve as an infantry officer.

When he was deployed with his unit in July 2010, he was sent to Afghanistan. At the time of his injury, he was serving on the outskirts of Kandahar City, the birthplace of the Taliban. Kandahar had started to fall back under Taliban rule, and the unit’s mission was to help regain control of some of the ground the Coalition Forces had lost over the years.

Galeazzi found himself in a whole different world.

“Afghanistan as a whole is poor to begin with, but these people were even poor for Afghanistan. I remember seeing an old man scraping up what looked like crabgrass on the ground, and that was his food for the night,” Galeazzi said. “The neighborhoods I’d patrol, people would live in mud huts. They’d mix water with the dirt on the ground and build their walls.”

As platoon leader, Galeazzi needed to work on establishing relationships with the residents. “It starts out with being kind of friendly and respectful, and you share a cigarette with them or you bring them some food. After a while, you’re building these relationships, and then all of a sudden they’re sharing information with you. It’s important to build those relationships and those friendships, but at the same time you always have to be skeptical.”

With a month left to serve in Afghanistan, Galeazzi had learned some of their language. He could talk to the people and felt he understood them better. He was leading his platoon because the former platoon leader and squad leader had been killed less than a month into the deployment. He knew those injuries might have been prevented if people had stood farther apart. So, as the leader responsible for the 30 men in his platoon, he kept that in mind and worked to make sure none of them became complacent.

“We can be on our A game 99% of the time,” Galeazzi said. “The enemy has to be right 1 percent of the time.”

That morning Galeazzi remembers some Afghan children came to the soldiers and said they thought they had found some bombs. They pointed them out to the soldiers, who gave them candy and water. After disposing of the explosives, the soldiers were heading back to their compound, walking down the road.

Galeazzi had just turned around to make sure the soldier behind him was far enough back, when he stepped on 25 pounds of explosives.

In that moment his whole life changed.

Phantom pain, real agony

He still feels phantom pain in his legs—as if someone has taken a sledgehammer to his shin, or is pounding nails into his toes.

The mental pain may be worse. He had to learn to rely on others for help.

And there are so many things he can’t do that he used to enjoy. He can’t play guitar. He can’t hike. He can’t go to the batting cage and blow off some steam. He can’t run around with his nephews. Just going to the movies presents challenges with accessibility. And no matter where he goes, people stare.

“I understand people looking because I look different and they’re very curious, but it doesn’t make it any more of a great feeling,” he said. “You want to go through the mall and you just want to go shopping. Everyone’s eyes are just on you. You just want to blend in. You just want to look like everyone else.”

For a year or more, he constantly felt alone, wondering about his future.

“If you had asked me what happens to a wounded solder after he gets injured, in my mind I would picture something like Forrest Gump. OK, they recover from their wounds, and move on with their lives,” he said.

“In reality, it’s a much longer recovery.”

Searching for God

As Galeazzi has focused on his physical recovery, he has also had a crisis of faith. When he was injured in Afghanistan, he was a “pretty decent Catholic.” Even when he came home, he continued to believe. Then as he watched other soldiers come home with severe injuries—such as third-degree burns on their bodies—and wives who wouldn’t look at them, who divorced them, he stopped believing in God.

“Sometimes traumatic events can make people stronger in their faith. For me unfortunately I have had a complete loss of faith,” he said. “It is such a scary thing to go through this world feeling like you’re all alone. And it’s a comforting feeling that there’s a higher being watching out for you. I’d like to have that back. If my faith is going to come back ever, it’ll happen when it’s ready, but for now it’s been a whole additional challenge. In moments of despair, I have no one to reach out to. Sometimes I find myself praying, but I don’t really believe in it.”

At that moment on that Afghan road when Galeazzi looked down and saw that his legs were gone, he made a plea with God.

“Look, if you get me through this,” he said to God, “I will forgive the people who did this to me, and I’ll make sure I share this with people.”

And he has.

“Even though I don’t necessarily believe in God anymore, I kept my end of the bargain. Because if he does exist, I will keep my end of the bargain,” Galeazzi said. “I don’t blame or hate the people who did this to me. This is just the reality of war.”

War is gruesome

He’s not anti-war. He understands that there are justifiable reasons for sending soldiers abroad. He believes in the work that he was doing as a soldier in Afghanistan. But if he feels he has a message to share, it’s that war is gruesome.

War injures.

War kills.

War shatters lives.

“Shrapnel does not discriminate. It goes through whoever, whatever is in its way,” he said.

During the nearly two years he has spent recovering, Galeazzi started a blog to update friends, family, and other supporters on his progress. His family started a foundation to help Galeazzi establish this new part of his life. And a fellow Greyhound, Chad Maddox, ’04, ran a 50-miler in honor of Galeazzi, calling his effort “Greg’s Legs” to draw attention to Galeazzi’s situation.

Now Galeazzi is working to determine what his future and new purpose are.

“The fact is that there are a lot of things I can no longer do in this world. But it’s also true that there are plenty of other things that I can do. It’s time I start focusing on that, and move on with my life."