On November 5, 2009, Staff Sergeant Patrick Zeigler was sitting in Fort Hood’s Soldier Readiness Processing Center after returning from his second deployment to Iraq. He was thinking about his future, his family, and waiting for word from Officer Candidate School, which he wanted to attend. He was not thinking about spending the rest of his life with a limp or how he would have to relearn how to walk four different times, nor did he fear that he couldn’t be the father that he always wanted to be. He also did not expect an attack from someone wearing a US Army uniform not unlike the very one he had on. When a red laser flashed across his eyes, Patrick thought it was just a drill.
Then the bullet struck him in the head. Three more shots rung out, hitting Patrick in the shoulder, arm, and hip—there was no time to react. He was one of the first to be shot as Nidal Malik Hassan began a murderous rampage across the base, eventually killing 13 and injuring 32. Bleeding heavily but still alive, it took Patrick an incredible amount of strength to pull himself out of the building. When he was finally found by a medic, the sergeant thought he was dying and asked to speak with his fiancé Jessica.
Yet Patrick didn’t die. What followed was years of therapy, surgery, and dealing with a sudden lack of independence. Today, Patrick can walk again, but the road to recovery was a long and hard one for both him, and his family.
“A brain injury doesn’t heal,” said Jessica, now his wife, in a 2013 interview with the Army. “He’s still paralyzed on half of his body, but the mental resiliency is there.”
The doctors said he might lose all function in one arm. There were doubts whether he would ever walk naturally again. Patrick expressed concern about all the things he may never be able to do—have children, become an officer, or ever go hunting again. It was in the immediate aftermath of the 2009 Fort Hood shooting that word of the soldier reached David Allen, president and CEO of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF). Allen had heard from an Army chaplain that one of Patrick’s regrets was that he would never be able to cross off elk hunting from his bucket list. It was at this point that Allen decided to take a personal interest in Patrick’s story.
“It was the least we can do,” Allen told me in an interview. “I found my way back to that chaplain and I told him to let Patrick and his family know that as soon as he is able and healthy enough, we will make the elk hunting trip a reality. We’ll take care of everything.”
The offer was, of course, about more than just a mere hunting trip. For Patrick, it was about the hope of things returning to normal, the hope that he will once again find himself in the wild, on his own legs, doing what he loves. The idea seemed to resonate with RMEF’s 200,000-strong membership, and David said that the response was like a flood.
“When we sent out the email blast regarding Patrick to our members, the outpouring of emails and letters and presents, it was just overwhelming,” David recalled. “Our people were sending flowers to Patrick in the hospital. One man from Helena, unbeknownst to any of us, collected gifts from people around the town and right before Christmas drove straight through to Texas to deliver them to Patrick. It was mind-boggling how our members embraced him.”
David added that in a way, the organization had “adopted” Patrick.
“We just became very personally involved,” he said.
It would be years until Patrick was able to take David up on the offer. That time was spent painfully restructuring what was taken from him on November 5, 2009.
“I’ve had to relearn how to walk four times,” Patrick told the Army. “After every brain surgery, I’d be set back to the point where I’d have to relearn. The biggest change has been the medical necessity of taking care of myself, and the lack of independence. I’m not in very much pain. I have pretty bad pain in my head, usually in the morning when I wake up, but the meds I’m taking are just over-the-counter stuff so it’s sort of a non-issue.”
Patrick’s recovery was not a smooth one, but there were victories along the way. Despite being told that he may not be able to have children, Patrick and Jessica welcomed Liam Patrick Zeigler into the world several years ago. Eventually, the soldier found himself getting stronger and stronger every day.
“Jessica said that the promise of an elk hunt was one of the driving motivators for Patrick while in rehab, like it was a goal he could look forward to,” Allen shared. “We were just happy we can play any kind of role in his recovery.”
Finally, in 2014, Allen received the call he had been waiting for. Patrick was ready and willing to take him up on his offer. Allen and his staff knew just the place for his dream hunt, too: the 160,000-acre UU Bar Ranch in New Mexico.
“He had done a little bit of deer hunting, certainly never on an elk hunt,” Allen said.
But the soldier had little difficulty in securing a harvest, despite trudging through the wilderness on his own two feet in October.
“Patrick insisted on walking, and he did, he did it by himself without his cane,” Allen recalled. “He rose to the challenge because he said he wanted to do it right. It was a good shot, he dropped the elk in one bullet and by the end of it he was pretty emotional.”
In his own words, Patrick said that just being in the woods made him feel normal again.
“I’m not a hospital patient. I’m not a Fort Hood victim. I’m not a disabled veteran out here,” he said in a recent interview with the Outdoor Channel. “I’m just a normal guy who wants to get outdoors and go hunting with his family.”
He has certainly come a far way from when his doctors told him he may never be able to speak again in 2009. On that clear October hunt in 2014, Patrick gave his son high-fives, hugged his wife, and breathed in clean, fresh air.
Despite his progress, Patrick’s recovery is still ongoing. I was not able to speak with Patrick due to the effects of a recent seizure, which ended in him staying again at the Mayo Clinic. Allen said that Patrick is doing well, but long-lasting complications like seizures may stay with Patrick for the rest of his life.
Stories like Patrick’s are only a snapshot into the lives of veterans who sacrifice so much in the name of service. Although they may not make the news as much as other groups, conservation organizations like the RMEF and others routinely reach out to veterans and provide a sense of normality again. It is often just one step on the long road to recovery.
We wish Patrick and his family the very best of health. You can see a trailer for Patrick’s appearence in the Outdoor Channel’s RMEF Team Elk below.
Images courtesy RMEF