They were 30 men and women among a crowd of 900 Wednesday night at the first Charlotte Stands for Heroes, bound by war, their stories – and their injuries.
There were stars galore at the heroes event, organized by the Hood Hargett Breakfast Club. Politicians. TV anchors. Panthers. NFL legends – even comedian Sinbad and singer Darius Rucker.
But the 30 got to sit in the front row of Knight Theater. They clutched a spouse and absorbed the grateful applause of everyone around them.
Among them was Joe Brazzle of Fayetteville. After surviving mortar attacks, ambushes and roadside bombs during three Army tours in Afghanistan, Brazzle came home in 2007 without a scratch.
Yet months later, he was on a training exercise at Fort Bragg when an explosive misfired and the strapping sergeant first class and others were thrown from the blast. It cost him his left eye. He was badly burned and nerve damage in his left leg “makes it feel like I’m walking around on a numb foot.”
He left the Army after 13 years and got a master’s degree in counseling. Now he helps veterans cope with their scars.
“I got interested in mental health the worst way you can get interested in it,” said Brazzle, 36, who counsels troops at Fort Bragg and runs a nonprofit that finds mental health solutions for injured veterans. “I use my trauma from the injuries and the experiences from three terms in Afghanistan to help get these guys through their problems.”
The event to honor the 30 men and women was also a fundraiser for the Bob Woodruff Foundation, an organization founded by the TV journalist and his wife Lee to help injured post-9/11 veterans and their families. Woodruff and his co-founder were there too.
Events like this make these folks stronger,” . “It reminds them that they’re not alone and it reminds the spouses that there are other people dealing with the same problems.
A red-carpet entry
Woodruff knows the agony that many of the veterans face. In January 2006, he was co-anchor of ABC World News Tonight and had traveled to Iraq to meet with troops when he and a photographer were seriously injured after an IED (improvised explosive device) exploded.
Woodruff told the crowd that he had developed “a special bond” with the 4th Infantry troops he’d embedded with that day. “They saved my life,” he said.
Two years ago, Jenn Snyder, the breakfast club’s executive director, attended a similar event that the Woodruffs host in New York each year to raise money. “I knew then that we had to do this in Charlotte,” she said.
So she got to work and enticed Rucker to come sing, Sinbad to humor the crowd and Meghan Linsey to sing the national anthem. In no time, tickets for the event – at $150 to $500 – were snatched up.
The Panthers hosted the 30 injured veterans on Tuesday and Modern Salon & Spa pampered them Wednesday morning.
Wednesday evening, the crowd entered by red carpet.
‘They’re not alone’
Anthony Pruitt and his wife Meagan drove up for the event from Rock Hill. Some days, Pruitt can’t remember his age and has to ask Meagan.
Specialist Pruitt was on his third deployment in early August 2005, part of a supply unit for the 3rd Special Forces Group that had gone to collect captured, unexploded IEDs. His unit was loading up explosives when a pallet of 3,000 pounds of IEDs slipped off a truck – taking Pruitt with it.
He suffered a deep head gash. A medic worked quickly to staple it shut.
He began having some memory issues, but nothing raised “any red flags.” Until the day after he was honorably discharged in January 2009, and Veterans Affairs doctors took a routine CT scan and “they found a fracture in my brain.”
Suddenly his life had no anchor: He began therapy for a traumatic brain injury. He has no childhood memories. He has to constantly write notes to himself. He sometimes snaps at Meagan or others. He’s working on a paralegal degree, but concentrating is hard.
He and Meagan will take home fond memories of Wednesday night.
“Events like this make these folks stronger,” said Meagan, a fifth-grade teacher. “It reminds them that they’re not alone and it reminds the spouses that there are other people dealing with the same problems.
“You don’t realize how many people care until you see something like tonight.”