Growing up in east Charlotte, John Hyland wanted to sing opera for a living.
He sang in the church choir as a boy, played the part of Chino in "West Side Story" as a high school student and trained as an opera singer at the N.C. School of the Arts.
But in 2005, his life took a different turn, when Hyland - with a wife and two children to support - joined the Army at age 33. He'd hoped the military would lead to a law enforcement career.
Instead, it led him to war in Iraq. On Sept. 11, 2007, as Americans observed the sixth anniversary of the 9-11 terrorist attacks, Hyland and his reconnaissance squadron were on a rescue mission when their armored Humvee struck an improvised explosive device.
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The bomb took his left leg - but not his voice.
Three years later, tired of being defined by his wounds, he's picked up the only weapon he had left - his singing - to do good things for other wounded warriors.
On Saturday, the singing sergeant will be in Charlotte to perform the national anthem at the fourth annual Patriot Gala, the largest fundraiser for the nonprofit Patriot Charities, which raises money for organizations that help wounded troops.
Since 2006, the group has given more than $250,000 to such groups as the USO, the N.C. Heroes Fund and the Wounded Warrior Project.
"I am truly honored to sing for this group," he said by phone from his home in San Antonio, Texas. "I do whatever I can to help the cause of the wounded warrior. It's important that Americans... understand their job is to take care of these guys and gals who come home banged up by war."
Finding his voice
As a boy in east Charlotte, Hyland, 38, never thought about being a soldier. He played trumpet and sang in a church choir. His choir director was the first to spot his talent.
He went to Garinger High. But a neighbor was a drama teacher at West Stanly High in Stanly County, and each year produced a major musical. He persuaded Hyland to transfer to West Stanly his junior year to play Chino.
That year, he also got involved with the Charlotte Children's Theater, and realized that singing - songs from musicals, not operas - was what he wanted to do.
He ended up graduating from Independence High, then moved to Winston-Salem to help his grandfather with his catering business. There he found the Community Music School, a part of the N.C. School of the Arts, and a teacher named Martha Teachey, who eventually led him to opera.
"She was good at finding things in your voice," Hyland said. "She was an opera singer. But I didn't like opera. I didn't understand it. I just wanted to sing musical theater."
She asked him to listen to some tapes of opera singers.
He liked it. "I think she heard something in my voice, and she thought I could eventually sing opera and be pretty good at it," he said.
In 1992, he auditioned for the School of the Arts and got in. He earned a degree after training as an opera singer and performing tenor roles from New York to Rome.
From opera to Iraq
It takes years, he said, to build a career as an opera singer.
Until then, he had to make money. He got a job as a catering manager for Salem College in Winston-Salem, where he met Erica Shehan. They had a son, Hunter, in 2000. They married in 2004 and had another son, Wyatt.
Now he had three mouths to feed and he needed a steady income. "It was looking like I wasn't going to sing for a living," he said.
After he worked for the Hooters corporation, running several restaurants in the chain, they moved to Charlotte, where Erica returned to school and John got a job with a security company.
He began to think about being a cop. Yet one of his co-workers had been in the Army. He told Hyland about the benefits: insurance and school on the Army.
Hyland enlisted in February 2005 and was assigned to the 1st Cavalry Division and an elite scout unit.
Hyland rarely sang in the Army. His buddies, he said, would be surprised if they knew he could sing opera.
Two years later, he was stationed in Muqdadiyah in the east-central province of Diyala. A call came: A Humvee had been hit by an IED.
On the way, his vehicle struck a bomb. The blast crushed the heels of his feet and fractured his pelvis, bones in his back and both shoulder blades. After 33 operations, doctors had to take his left leg below the knee.
The Army gave him a medical retirement.
Hyland was wheelchair-bound until last year, when he was invited to go back to his battlefield through a program called "Operation Proper Exit." He left the wheelchair at home, and made the trip using a prosthetic leg.
"It was an opportunity to push the reset button and go back in time," he said.
Facing his battlefield - where he was so badly damaged - changed his life. He saw a dramatically improved country.
That trip in 2009 has led him back to singing to raise the profile of wounded warriors.
Since then, he's sung at about 20 other functions, including the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway last May .
"I realize my strongest asset is my voice," Hyland said. "I don't know that I would be singing and doing what I'm doing now, if it weren't for the events that I went through and for my injuries.
" ...I reached a point where I was done being wounded. I'm moving forward and singing for other wounded warriors so they can get on with their lives."