On July 23, 2011, Krystina Dressler, a petite nineteen year old stretched out on her beach blanket in Belmar, New Jersey. She had waited anxiously to finally get to beach, something that did not feel within her grasp as she tirelessly worked at Party City all week. However, that morning, something didn’t feel right, and she almost did not go to the beach. “I brushed it off thinking my family would be mad if I didn’t go, and it was my first time to the shore with them all summer,” she stated.
Around ten a.m., her world shattered. She packed up her things and rushed off the beach.
Krystina explains, “I was lying on the beach and we had just gotten there. We couldn’t have been there more than an hour. I felt my phone vibrating and looked over at it and I see that his mom was calling me. I started getting nervous because she never calls unless it’s something really important. So, with shaking hands and worry in my heart I answered the call. As calmly as she could muster herself to be she said, ‘Derek was injured this morning, and he has to have his legs amputated.’” Krystina immediately went into shock.
Four years earlier, Krystina and Derek met at West Essex High School in North Caldwell, New Jersey. Krystina said she was attracted to the boy who used to walk into her class just to hang out and talk to her teacher. They started officially dating on April 27, 2007. Derek graduated in June 2008, and Krystina graduated the following year, in June 2009.
Derek left for Fort Benning, GA in January 2010, when he was twenty years old, just before their third anniversary. After Basic Training, he was stationed at Fort Drum in Upstate New York. He was an 11Bravo, otherwise known as an infantryman. Although it was tough, he loved his job. A Private First Class at the time (now Specialist who just passed his E5 boards), he left for Afghanistan in March 2011.
Krystina describes what happened on that fateful day. “Derek was securing a landing zone for an injured lieutenant. He stepped on one IED, it malfunctioned, and it just knocked him down. Of course, everyone was nervous and crowded around him to make sure he was okay. Once they knew he was okay, they asked if he wanted to continue on the mission, of course, he did. He stood up and took a picture with the yellow jug they make the IED’s with. His Team Leader looked at him and said, ‘You are one lucky SOB.’ They searched the area just to make sure there weren’t anymore. When they thought all was okay, Derek took a step to his right and that’s when he hit the 12lb. IED that took away everything from him. With this happening to him, he saved everyone else’s life that day. So for him, that makes him happy that at least he could have saved everyone else.”
Derek has a mild TBI, right arm limb salvage with limited arm and hand function, right leg high above the knee amputation, and left hip disarticulation. He also battled several infections, including full sepsis, fractures to the pelvis, jaw and skull, acute renal failure, and inability to breathe on his own. Many of the doctors thought he would not survive, but Krystina never lost faith.
At first, Krystina packed for two weeks and told Party City that “I would be back in 2 maybe 3 weeks. I didn’t know what to expect when I saw him.” Krystina left with Derek’s brothers and sister, and with me, Derek's mother, on July 29, 2011 to be by Derek’s side.
Krystina’s Facebook status the night Derek arrived read:
"So just saw Derek not too long ago and honestly was the hardest thing I've had to do, but this is life. Life is all about pushing you to your limits, to test you. And ya know what, this is his && my life now. I'm not gonna leave him. I'm gonna be here through it all no matter how difficult the road from now on is gonna be. I love him and that's all that matters. Derek Tra McConnell you are mine♥"
“Shortly after he arrived, I knew this wouldn’t be a 2-3 week thing where I could come and go. I called my job and told them I wouldn’t be back, and then logged onto my school website and dropped all my classes.” At the time, Krystina was attending County College of Morris with the intent to pursue interior design.
In addition to her job and school, she left her mother, father, and younger brother, as well as a large extended family “that is almost always together.” She left “them behind as well, with many unanswered questions.”
At age 21 when injured, Derek spent 53 days in the ICU and seven months as an inpatient at Walter Reed Bethesda. Except for two quick trips home to see her family, she stayed by Derek’s side, in spite of adversity.
Krystina was told that Derek would never walk again, and that she should leave then, before he woke up, because she was young and pretty and shouldn’t be saddled with Derek, who was no longer the man with whom she fell in love. In addition, some members of the medical staff discounted her, even though I introduced her as his fiancée (a little white lie at the time), and tried to include her in all medical discussions. Krystina was also met with suspicion from a few members of the Army staff, who cautioned me about allowing Krystina access to Derek’s financial information. Krystina had had Derek’s password for a while. I assured them that she was not a threat, but their suspicion remained. I was advised that many girlfriends, as well as some wives, grab the injured soldier’s wages as well as his life insurance payout (TGLI) and take off, because they cannot handle the new situation. Krystina proved to all of them that she is made of strong stock, and that her love for Derek overcomes all else.
For every one of those who tried to walk over her or garner suspicion around her, there were three or more who were wonderful and caring, and who did not share the thought that she might leave. An ICU nurse told me, “We can always tell who will make it just by the way they react to the wounds. Some wives refuse to look when the sheets are pulled back. Not Krystina. She is strong, and she will make it.” Not only did Krystina not look away when the wounds were revealed, she grabbed the yanker (attached to the suction machine) and tended to Derek when he was either sick to his stomach or needed secretions suctioned. She also lovingly fed him ice chips, sat by his side for hours, held his hand, and did whatever she could to make him comfortable and let him know that she was there. “It was hard at first, as it always is for everyone, but I wanted to be in there and see everything he had going on, even in the ICU," Krystina said.
Krystina wants “to thank all the wonderful doctors, and nurses we have met along the way that have touched our hearts. I will remember them always, and I thank them for all they did for Derek, and our family.”
I stayed in Bethesda for nine months before turning the reins over to Krystina. After Derek was released to Tranquility Hall, otherwise known as “Building 62,” the outpatient rehabilitation housing, I returned to New Jersey, and Krystina took over all of Derek’s care. She helps him schedule and keep appointments, tends to his physical needs, such as colostomy care, and, most importantly, helps him emotionally.
In the beginning, the family, both Krystina and Derek’s relatives, agreed that Krystina would be Derek’s best medicine. I told everyone in the ICU that Krystina was Derek’s best hope for a full recovery.
This became apparent when the full gravity of his injuries finally hit him. At first, Derek’s response to hearing that he lost his legs was, “f*** it.” He often joked about being “a cripple,” and hilarity ensued when he wiggled his stump, cracked jokes about his condition, and gave Krystina the pouty lip when he needed help. “But once we came to 62 and he saw the extent of how his injuries limited him, it hit him hard. He was upset for a while because he felt like he was useless and couldn’t do anything for himself.” Through her love and “take no crap” attitude, Krystina showed Derek just how much he could do. “I am happy to say that since then he has gotten a lot better with it and realized he can do more for himself then he thought.”
“The hardest loss for him is still not being able to do the one thing he loved more than anything in this world, and that was martial arts,” Krystina explains. “He gets upset because he knew his potential and he never had his chance to show it off, and that this injury robbed him of everything, especially his dreams of being a cop, or working for the FBI. But he has gotten back into writing and sees that as a career path, even with his injuries.”
As for Krystina, she says, "There are still things that he needs me to help him with, and I am happy to do that because I am so happy I still have him and that he is alive. So for me, his injuries don’t bother me. I have always made jokes about his injuries to him since we were on the 4th floor. That’s how we are. We laugh about it. I always tell him I didn’t like his feet before anyways, because they were just gross. Now they are gone and I have cute plastic feet to replace them. ;]”
When asked about any benefits she sees to this, Krystina muses, “I feel like since this, we have gotten closer. We have gotten the opportunity to live together and see what each other is like on a 24/7 basis. Being here at Walter Reed has driven me onto a better career path. I now want to be an OT. I have met wonderful, amazing people with the best attitudes. Derek has found his love of writing again. And our families have gotten closer. I feel so blessed and couldn’t be happier.”
Krystina’s mother, Raffaela, recently said, “They compliment each other. They are good for each other.”
Krystina also said, “We have gone to the White House and the Pentagon. We have met the Giants. And we have connected with people all around the world who all they want to do is help. I love that the most.” In addition, they were donated a van which was made possible by Help Our Military Heroes, Adopt-A-Soldier Platoon, Ride-Away, and the Clifton PBA.
Additionally, Krystina, now 21, says the biggest change of all is “We got engaged here! Someone originally send us a small, diamond engagement ring, that I will keep forever, that started off our engagement plans. If you are reading this, you brought so much joy to us that day and everyday so thank you! There are some good people in this world.” Krystina does not know who sent that first ring. One day in October 2011, Krystina went downstairs to get the mail, and there was a small package included. She opened the box, because Derek was unable, and when she saw the contents, she passed it to me. There was a simple note enclosed with the ring, “I know it isn’t much, but it is something to get you started. Wear it in good health. Anonymous.” I handed it to Derek and told him he had a decision to make. At first, Derek tossed it to Krystina and said, "wear it." After I smacked him upside his head, he said, "You have been by my side throughout this. I wanted to get you my own ring and give it to you around Christmas. Well, I guess sooner is better than later, so will you marry me?" When Derek proposed a second time on Christmas Eve, he said, "Most people are just told that they are loved. I have proof. I have pictures of you sitting by my side in the ICU."
Krystina is also amazed by the community and family support. “There have been countless fund raisers and each time we are always surprised by the amount of people that come out for him. The amount of cards, and care packages we have gotten bring such joy to us.” Krystina was sent “a whole bunch of cards” for her birthday in August. Also, she said, “The cards Derek would get in the hospital were amazing! The amount of time people take to write a nice card, and send it out to Derek makes us happy.”
At present, Krystina’s only solid plans are “getting him better, getting out, and making sure he gets to his appointments.” They are also “taking some breaks and going home to spend time with our family, enjoying our ‘new normal.’” They were finally able to take Con Leave in September, 14 months after injury, and are planning to go home again for Christmas. When they return after Christmas, Derek should be well into his VA appointments for the Med Board, and he hopes to schedule a colostomy reversal. Krystina also hopes to “possibly help him start going to school online.” As for her, she will get back to school once they are home for good. Until then, she said they are “just kicking butt and rocking it every day, laughing, and crying until we can walk into our homes again.”
Krystina recently posted the following on Facebook:
"I am an ordinary 21 year old girl, who has her whole life ahead of her. But, my fiancée is in a wheelchair. Some people don't understand this. Some people have said to me "you are too young and pretty to be tied down to that. Don't be with him because you feel sorry for him." Or "he's never going to walk again, can you handle that?" People like to throw their 2 cents in, or stare at us with a deer in headlights look.
"Here's what I say: yes, I could have easily walked away. But, I didn't fall in love with my hero 6 years ago because of looks, I fell in love with everything else he has to offer. He's in a wheelchair, so what? I'm not with him because I feel "sorry" for him. Things are just different now. We now drive an awesome van, we wheelchair dance, I always have a place to sit if I get tired of standing, we have wheelchair races, I still have my best friend, we get awesome parking. We have more fun now, than we had before his accident.
"So when you see us, before you throw your "thoughts on why I shouldn't be with him" at me, think before you speak. If this happened to someone you "loved" would you have walked away, or would you stay? Derek and I know we’ll make it to the end."
To follow Derek and Krystina’s story, check out www.facebook.com/teamderekmcconnell
Their tattoos for each other - Derek's Claddah for Krystina and Krystina's heart for Derek (see the "D" on the right?):