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Supported by a common thread

A huge smile played across Larry Kaibetoney's face yesterday as Hamilton firefighters, police and paramedics handed over hundreds of their workshirts and hats.

The clothes from Hamilton's first responders will soon head to Canadian troops in Afghanistan, a direct link between soldiers in harm's way and Hamilton's front-line guardians fighting to save lives and serve and protect.

Kaibetoney, 32, was a long way from his Albuquerque, N.M., home but looked at home among the local crowd of blocky firefighters and polished police brass.

Yet as the stocky United States army sergeant shook everyone's hand with his left hand, it became clear something about him was different.

His right arm had been lacerated by the Phillips screws, lug nuts and ball bearings a suicide bomber packed into his pockets before walking into a U.S. military mess tent near Mosul, Iraq, four years ago.

Kaibetoney was only six feet away when the bomb blew up, killing 23 Americans and Iraqis and wounding more than 70.

"My buddies and I had just come off guard duty at our FOB (forward operating base) and we decided to go to the chow tent."

The base was not on high alert, and most soldiers heading in to eat had dropped their heavy Kevlar and ceramic plate body armour. For some reason, Kaibetoney decided to keep his on.

"I walked right past the guy. Then the blast. It was unbelievable, the force was tremendous. What got a lot of people were all the metal ball bearings, nuts and bolts and screws and whatever garbage he could stick in his pockets and in the explosives."

The blast was so powerful, it sent concrete from the floor flying with deadly force.

On the ground, Kaibetoney realized he was still alive. He looked down and his legs were still there, although he didn't realize they had been shredded by shrapnel.

A metal fork was embedded in his flak jack at the shoulder. His arms were bloody and shaking.

He touched the back of his head and felt something hot and sticky. "I thought, 'Oh God, it's blown out my brains.'

"But then I saw my hand was all black and realized my fleece cap had melted on my head."

Kaibetoney heard another soldier call for medics. "Someone said, 'Hey, this guy's hurt real bad,' and I thought, 'Please, don't let it be me.'"

It was a  ball bearing had found an opening in the side of his body armour and sliced through his ribs and lung. His chest deflated and he began to drown in his own blood. A Black Hawk helicopter sent to evacuate him to Kuwait came under mortar fire and soldiers literally threw him on-board in a touch and go landing. The near-lethal little ball is still embedded in his breastbone.

Five years ago in the U.S., a group of volunteers started Hero-To-Hero, collecting shirts from firefighters and police.

A Canadian Hero-To-Hero donation tour began in 2005, and the clothes are sent to soldiers in Afghanistan, Sudan, Haiti and Israel.

"The first year, we collected 228 shirts. The next year that grew to 1,261," said Kevin McKarg, a Sarnia firefighter. The first responder clothing gives troops a tremendous morale boost, he said.

"Last week, I got an e-mail from a soldier from Sarnia.... He said they'd been out doing some ugly work picking up after suicide bombers and all (were) in a bad state mentally," McKarg said.

"They came back and the shirts were there. All he could talk about was how it just picked everybody up and took their minds off the negative stuff."

Author:mosbearing   2008-6-19   Source:    View(1400)     Comment(0)

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