Baptism by fire
Army soldier Tony Drees not only survives, but thrives after a debilitating injury.
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The obstacles he has faced define Tony Drees’ character. They’ve been huge, potentially crushing - and on that day in 1991 when an Iraqi Scud missile found its target, nearly fatal.
Drees’ U.S. Army unit had arrived in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, a few days before, part of the coalition formed to drive Iraqi forces out of Kuwait. The soldiers lived in a steel and I-beam warehouse used as a barracks.
“We were truck drivers looking for a mission,” says Drees, then a 23-year-old Army private. “Our job was to take fuel to the front lines. Every day we thought we had a mission, and every day it fell through.”
A tragic night
At night, they listened to sirens warning of incoming Scuds. When Patriot missiles intercepted them, blasting the Scuds out of the sky, the soldiers could hear shrapnel raining down on the metal roof.
On the night of February 25, a Scud made it through.
Drees remembers someone shouting, ‘Close the door,’ then a deafening boom, and he was on the floor, blood running down his face, fire all around him, trying to drag a close friend whose legs had been blown off to safety.
“It was a direct hit, amazing carnage,” says Drees. “The barracks’ roof was gone and I remember looking up at the moon.”
The blast killed 28 service members and wounded 98 more - the single greatest loss of American life in the Persian Gulf War. Shrapnel hit Drees in the right thigh, shattering his femur and blowing the backs off both legs.
A tough recovery
Doctors in Saudi Arabia considered amputation of his right leg, but at an American military hospital in Germany, Army surgeons examined him and said, ‘Hold on, we can save that leg.’ They did, but Drees’ ordeal had just begun.
He spent more than a year in the hospital undergoing 58 surgeries, then grueling physical therapy at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
“I left a lot of tears on that PT bench,” says Drees, who last year earned a bachelor’s degree in business management from University of Phoenix. “When we say PT, we mean pain and torture.”
How was he able to get through it? The answer goes back to Drees’ early years.
He was born at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. Although reluctant to provide details, he describes his home life with his stepfather and biological mom as “pretty rough going.”
At 13, he was removed from that environment and placed with foster parents John and Vivian Drees, in Grand Forks, North Dakota. Through high school, they provided him with a loving home that eventually included four other boys and two girls. He joined the Army at 18.
Drees believes his difficult upbringing gave him the fortitude he needed to regain his strength after his injury. He also found inspiration from his sister, Heather, who is wheelchair-bound from cerebral palsy and who also required frequent and difficult surgeries.
“I couldn’t quit rehab when I had this kid, my hero, back home doing everything she could basically to live,” says Drees. “I owed it to Heather to demonstrate the same heart she did.”
A new life
After a medical discharge from the Army in 1992, Drees had to forge a new identity. The surgeries, the morphine and the trauma had shriveled him to 138 pounds, down from 205.
“I’d walk by the mirror and say, ‘Who is that guy?’ The body image I’d created for myself was gone. So was my purpose in life, to be a soldier.”
For several years, he drifted. Drees’ first job on returning home was at a local liquor store in Grand Forks. But some days the pain was so severe, he could only work a few hours.
As he improved, Drees moved through a series of sales jobs, eventually taking a position at Infiniti of Denver. He rose to sales manager and finance manager. Now, after 11 years, he is director of retention and special programs.
Setting the example
Drees enrolled at University of Phoenix in 2003, but work demands forced a long hiatus. He started classes again in 2010, driven by the example he wished to set for his kids. He and his wife, Letitia, have four children.
Now studying for his master’s in management, Drees credits former instructor Deanna Moats with encouraging veterans to keep pursuing their education. He recalls writing a paper for Moats and receiving his worst grade ever at the University.
He was irritated. But with more thought, Drees understood she was correct, and from then on Moats became his mentor. “She had really high expectations and because of her I never again went for the low standard,” he says. “She’s an awesome instructor.”
Now 45, Drees walks proudly without a limp, although there’s still pain. But he has perspective now, and perhaps some wisdom to impart about the importance of plowing ahead, no matter the obstacle. He’s eager to share his story, through teaching or public speaking, with veterans and students trapped by hopelessness, or simply struggling to finish degrees.
“No one can promise you a great job if you graduate,” says Drees. “But life gets better if you learn to think critically. And once you get your degree it can’t be taken away. That great feeling of accomplishment can push you forward.”
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