He’s only 4, but Jacob Anliker already understands what we celebrate on the Fourth of July.
After hearing his father, a nurse anesthetist in the U.S. Army who just returned from a tour of duty in Afghanistan, tell about a 12-year old boy who lost his leg to a land mine, 4-year-old Jacob restated it like this:
“It was not nice when you couldn’t walk where there was trees and grass. Why?”
His father, Army Capt. Eric Anliker, explained again that land mines could hurt you very badly.
“But when you’re here, you can walk with your bare feet,” said Jacob. “And no land mines.”
FREEDOM FROM LAND MINES is among the freedoms that will be celebrated tomorrow on July 4 in Great Falls. The local celebration begins with an informal 5K race sponsored by the Great Falls Ecumenical Council. It was initiated five years ago at the suggestion of Jacob’s grandfather, Christ the King Lutheran Church Pastor Paul Gysan.
Like everything else about the Fourth of July in Great Falls, the race is homemade and unpretentious.
It begins at 7:15 a.m. at First Union Bank and winds through a residential neighborhood. There are no entry fees, T-shirts or trophies, just running for the endorphin high that Gysan, the former president of the Great Falls Friends, refers to as “God’s drugs.”
After the race, Gysan leads the pledge of allegiance at the gazebo in the green at Village Centre.
Before the pledge, when he asks people to share their remembrances of July Fourth and what it means, their responses often express their love for this country, their home, Gysan said. This year, he’ll have a story of his own to tell.
THE GYSANS ARE celebrating Eric’s safe return from Afghanistan. As a nurse anesthetist and a Captain in a U.S. Army combat support hospital from Ft. Hood, Okla., he just returned a five-month duty tour in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Kuwait and Afghanistan, where he worked in an underground operating room in an airport control tower in Bagram.
While he was there, his wife, Gretchen, and their two children stayed in Great Falls with their grandparents, Paul and LaVonne Gysan.
While he was in Afghanistan, Eric missed his daughter Sydney’s second birthday. But last week, he was again cuddling his children on the back porch of his in-laws’ home in Great Falls. He and Jacob had gone fishing at Lake Fairfax on the day before.
“I WAS HAPPY TO SERVE my country. But I was overjoyed to come back,” said Anliker.
In Afghanistan, he said, it is not easy even to identify the enemy. They don’t wear uniforms. “It’s not tanks lining up to come across the border,” he said.
“You have to live your life, but you have to be aware of what’s around you.” His unit, the 21st combat support hospital from Ft. Hood, Okla., is a Level III medical center, a category that ranks “just below Walter Reed,” he said.
They treated injured American soldiers, coalition forces, and members of the recently-organized Afghan military.
“The country is littered with land mines and unexploded ordnance,” Anliker said. The 12-year-old boy who lost his leg was tending to his goats when they wandered into an area that was labeled “land mines.”
“He didn’t want his goats to get injured, so he went in after them,” said Anliker.
The boy lost one of his legs, amputated below the knee, and suffered shrapnel wounds to his other leg and both arms.
The Army medical team tried to salvage function in his limbs, but “he’ll have a prolonged recovery” and uncertain prospects for obtaining a suitable prosthesis or rehabilitation.
“It was a heart-wrenching situation,” Anliker said.
“The Taliban was a very brutal regime. I heard quite a few stories that would turn your stomach.
“There are still bad guys there,” he said. “There are still ongoing hostilities. It’s just like the President said: It’s certainly not going to end in Afghanistan,” Anliker said.
“We’re so thankful for our freedom and for what these [military] people go through to keep it for us,” said his mother-in-law, LaVonne Gysan.
IT HAS BEEN AN AMAZING YEAR for the Gysan family: first the terrorist attacks on 9-11, then Paul Gysan suffered a heart attack and had bypass surgery in November. Anliker got news his unit would be deployed on the same day in December that Gysan came home from the hospital. Anliker’s unit left for Kuwait in January.
During his rehabilitation sessions, Gysan said, he found a visual symbol for the kind of struggle that engaged his country, his family, and his son-in-law and other Americans serving in the military in Afghanistan.
An American flag hung on the wall above two rowing machines in the room at Fairfax Hospital where Gysan had 36 sessions of rehabilitation as he recovered from heart bypass surgery, Gysan said. When one of the rowing machines was in use, it generated a current of air that caused the flag to flutter.
“When no one was on the machines, it just hung straight down. I would use this rowing machine whose winds would blow that flag,” he said.
“I would use that time to pray for all the service people, and how they go out in the world to protect those freedoms.
“The flag is limp until the wind blows, and that is the spirit that moves us as Americans,” Gysan said.
“Let’s keep the flag flying.”