Surrounded by a group of students after McCord Junior High's Veterans Day celebration, Matthew Drake had a huge smile on his face.
That smile is one of the first things you notice about the U.S. Army Specialist, who was in town to speak at the assembly about his experience in Iraq. While the experience turned out to change his life forever, Mr. Drake's story of determination and perseverance has served as an example for others.
In October 2004, he was badly injured by a suicide car bomb in Iraq. Only 21 years old at the time, he suffered massive injuries, which left him with brain trauma and first- through third-degree burns, among other injuries.
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The only one who survived the bombing, Mr. Drake was initially treated at Landstuhl Army Medical Center in Germany, where he underwent emergency brain and skull surgery. A month later, he was stable enough to be transported to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, in Bethesda, Md. Video footage aired at the assembly shows Mr. Drake in rehabilitation, walking on a treadmill and up stairs.
He was next transferred to the James A. Haley VA Hospital in Tampa, Fla. to work on speech therapy and physical therapy. Persistence and courage paved the way for more success, as he continued to recover.
In 2005, he was awarded a Purple Heart. As a military decoration that is given by the President to those who have been wounded or killed by the enemy while serving the country, his determination to be able to walk to receive the award was also highlighted in the footage.
Today, he walks without any help from a walker or a cane, but has mobility issues, as well as some speech impediments.
Walt Connolly, a Sylvania Schools teacher who has also served two deployments in Iraq, spoke during the assembly about Mr. Drake.
“Matt Drake is a lot of things to me...” he said, recalling having him in class. “...You're going to realize he had to be a lot tougher than any combat he may have faced in Iraq.”
A Northview High School graduate and former Sylvania resident, Mr. Drake has worked diligently since then to continue to become stronger. After the accident, he lived in Sylvania with his mother, Lisa Schuster, but he has since moved to Ann Arbor, Mich. Dwelling in a supported living environment as part of Rainbow Rehab Care Center, he stays busy.
Working five days a week, Mr. Drake maintains several part-time jobs, including working for Nu Step Company, which creates recumbent cross training machines. He also works for a medical division of Walgreens drugstores.
“It keeps him busy. It keeps him off Facebook,” Ms. Schuster said, talking about her son's interest in checking his cell phone.
But at the end of the day, Mr. Drake is most concerned with honoring others who have served.
"I still don't feel I did a good enough job making sure everybody got recognition,” he said at the ceremony, where he made a point to shown appreciation for and acknowledge other who have served. “I still want to emphasize the importance of honoring.”
After the ceremony, Mr. Drake was received by well-wishers.
“This is when the young people people respond to him,” Ms. Schuster said, as she watched McCord students gather around her son. She said it is his ultimate goal to inspire others, while honoring veterans.
“To me, patriotism means love and devotion to your country,” Mr. Drake said.
Contact Kelly McLendon at email@example.com or 419-206-0356 or on Twitter at @MyTownSylvania.