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A soldier’s story: Bob Andrzejczak lost a leg, not his resolve - Ocean City Sentinel: Community

A soldier’s story: Bob Andrzejczak lost a leg, not his resolve

The hardest part about the aftermath of attack in Iraq was not the pain ... it was calling home

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Posted: Wednesday, May 20, 2015 1:55 pm

CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE – On an unseasonably warm April afternoon, Assemblyman Bob Andrzejczak sat at a conference table in his office and described to a reporter how he lost his left leg to a bomb while serving as a gunner in Iraq. 

It’s the story Andrzejczak told a million times, to veterans groups, school children and at political events.

One of the most horrific moments of his life, the one that effectively ended his rising military career with the U.S. Army, the one that made him re-evaluate his priorities. 

Andrzejczak, 28, who represents New Jersey’s First Legislative District, is currently the youngest state legislator. He entered the political fray on March 21, 2013, at the age of 26, appointed to fill the vacancy of former Assemblyman Matt Milam, who retired from political life. 

On election night, Nov. 5, 2013, Andrzejczak handily recaptured his seat, receiving the most votes with 29,958.

A Democrat in a heavily Republican district, Andrzejczak’s legislative office, which he shares with Sen. Jeff Van Drew, contains all bipartisan trappings. Framed posters of U.S. presidents – both Democrats and Republicans – grace the walls: John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Theodore Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln. A bookshelf contains a variety of political volumes including David McCullough’s biography on President Harry Truman. 

Andrzejczak wears a dark suit adorned with a New Jersey Assembly pin on one lapel and a Purple Heart on the other. 

His therapy dog Maddy, a yellow Labrador, he received while at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington, D.C., nuzzles his hand. Maddy helped him during the dark days when he transitioned into his artificial limb. 

He recalled basic training was purposefully difficult and demanding. 

“It’s a stressful lifestyle. They do it on purpose. That way when you do deploy, when you’re constantly thrown into stressful situations, you’re still able to react and able to get the job accomplished rather than freeze up and not be able to handle the situation,” Andrzejczak said.

So far, Andrzejczak is coping with the rigorous schedule of elected office. He puts on the suit every day and either heads to the office, one of many functions around the district or to the State House in Trenton. 

He’s chairman of the Assembly’s Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, and also serves on the Military and Veterans Affairs Committee and the Intergovernmental Relations Commission.

His personal hero is Theodore Roosevelt, whom he admires for his resolve and tenacity. Andrzejczak glances at a framed picture of Roosevelt on the wall and remarks how he appreciates the 26th president’s military service and political acumen. 

“Here’s a guy who loves his country, who’s willing to defend his country and has done amazing things as far as the military and being able to go from that into the political realm, and not only do that, but become president of the United States. He wasn’t a typical doctor, lawyer, born politician. This is a guy who’s a Rough Rider riding around on horseback and fighting in wars.  To have a guy like that and make it all the way to president, it’s really impressive and amazing what he was able to accomplish. That’s really motivating to me to look up to somebody like that,” Andrzejczak said. 

Like his hero Roosevelt, Andrzejczak likewise served in combat, became battle-hardened, and would be reluctantly catapulted into politics. 

 

Bronco Bob

 

Andrzejczak grew up in Lower Township in North Cape May, a bedroom community straddling the Delaware Bay. His father served in the U.S. Coast Guard for 24 years before retiring. 

Andrzejczak remembered North Cape May as an “awesome place to grow up” with a beach and bay conveniently located. 

“Growing up in Cape May County as a kid and being here, you kind of take everything for granted. It’s just a way of life,” Andrzejczak said. 

His high school nickname was Bronco Bob because he drove a Ford Bronco.

“For whatever reason it stuck. Not only did it stick, but it became a lot more popular than I ever thought it needed to be,” he recalled with a chuckle. 

As a youth, the military life called to him. Following the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and buoyed by a patriotic yearning to serve his country, Andrzejczak knew he wanted to enlist. He played paintball with his friends, who ended up joining the U.S. Marine Corps following high school. 

 “It was something that we all really wanted to do, especially after 9/11. We all really had that same desire,” Andrzejczak said.

Following his graduation from Lower Cape May Regional High School in 2004, Andrzejczak attended the Williamson Free School of Mechanical Trades in Media, Pa. on a full scholarship, where he studied machine tool technology. 

“It was a lot of math and programming. It was a very old, very small school that was ran very much like the military. The dean was actually a retired Marine. Every day it was suit and tie, shine shoes, shaven and every morning was formation. That was how it was ran,” Andrzejczak said. 

Though enmeshed in academic pursuits, the desire to serve in the military eventually won out. 

“It really wasn’t the college experience that I wanted. I said if I’m going to be doing this every day anyway, if I’m going to be living in a structured environment like this, I might as well just do what I really want to do and go and serve in the military. I ended up leaving college and going into the Army,” Andrzejczak said. 

Andrzejczak told the recruiter he wanted to be in the infantry. After evaluating Andrzejczak’s test scores, the recruiter urged military intelligence or some other facet. 

“He said your test scores are pretty good and your options are unlimited,” Andrzejczak said, but still asked to serve in the infantry and to be stationed in Hawaii. 

He went to Fort Benning, Ga., Home of the Infantry, and recalled basic training as “a four-month-long camping trip with a lot of running and working out involved.”

Andrzejczak became a sergeant in the U.S. Army’s 25th Infantry Division.

“I tried so hard my entire life to get out and see parts of the world and my dream was to live in Hawaii and I had that opportunity, and within two weeks I really wanted to go back to Cape May. It really is a great place to grow up. It’s small towns and nice communities that you as an adult would want for your kids to grow up here,” Andrzejczak said.

 

First Deployment 

 

In 2006, he was stationed in Ryad and Hawija, Iraq. Deployment was initially scheduled for a year, but extended for 15 months.

While in Iraq, he shattered his left knee while jumping over a wall during a night raid. Andrzejczak’s team raided a building thought to be a munitions storehouse, and hurdled across a wall. Wearing night-vision goggles, he misjudged the wall’s height and damaged his knee. 

Doctors gave him Ibuprofen for the pain, and he finished out the rest of his deployment, which he describes as “really tough.”

“We lost a lot of guys and it was constant fighting every time we went outside the wire. It was almost guaranteed that there was going to be a roadside bomb every time we went outside the wire,” he said.

He said U.S. troops detected bombs the old-fashioned way: “You drive around until you find them.”

“Going in and clearing a building, you know what to expect. You know what you’re doing. Driving around with roadside bombs that are buried on the side of the road or even in the middle of the road, driving over them and losing guys to that, that ended up being more traumatic than the actual duty of going in and finding the bad guys. That was every day for 15 months,” Andrzejczak said.

He left Iraq for Hawaii in 2007, and prepared for his next deployment. His knee, still in chronic pain, flared up during regular workouts. 

Andrzejczak said it got to the point where he was running 10 miles one day and halted at mile six due to the pain. He visited the doctor, who concluded, after X-rays and scans, that he would require surgery and physical therapy on his injured knee. 

He said he was still in a lot of pain following surgery, and was moved to the armory, where he would oversee weapons for the entire company. When it came time to deploy again, doctors told him he couldn’t return to Iraq and needed more physical therapy.

“In the beginning I think I was kind of happy because I didn’t have to go again. It’s definitely not a vacation going to Iraq, but at the same time it was really upsetting my guys were going to Iraq without me.”

He fought with his doctors to let him return to Iraq as Company Armorer, an office job in charge of weapons. 

“You have a lot of fresh guys out of basic training coming to the unit while the unit is deployed and the time they’re in Hawaii they’re getting trained up and ready as replacements for the casualties that are expected to be lost while the deployment is going on. It was kind of my duty to babysit those people. That was frustrating. I didn’t join the military to babysit people,” Andrzejczak said.

His doctors relented, and Andrzejczak found himself back in Iraq, but it wasn’t the office job he’d hoped for. 

 

The Attack

 

In 2008, Andrzejczak was re-deployed to Bayji, Iraq. Two months into his deployment, his company commander assigned him as part of a security detachment for a convoy. Due to his damaged knee, he was assigned as rear gunner, a position he described as “laid back.”

“Being a gunner is the one position I really wanted to do,” Andrzejczak said. “I joined the military to serve my country. Had I not blown up, had I not lost my leg, I’d more than likely still be doing that. Due to my experience I had that taken away from me a lot sooner than I wanted.”

He was 23 years old in January 2009 when he strapped himself into a harness in the rear vehicle of the convoy he was to protect. Turret gunners have limited visibility due to protective shields and are secured in a harness to prevent them from flying out of the vehicle in the event of a bomb, according to Andrzejczak. 

As the convoy drove on, an insurgent pulled an anti-tank grenade from a chicken coop and threw it at Andrzejczak’s vehicle. The resulting explosion ripped the vehicle apart, imbedded hot shrapnel into Andrzejczak’s body and burned his eyebrows off.

“I just happened to be in the way, which is a good and bad thing,” he said. “Had they thrown it sooner, it would have killed both the driver and my squad leader. We had four or five guys in the back.”

No troops died in the attack. Andrzejczak said the driver screamed in agony with shrapnel in his back. 

“I consider myself very lucky the way that I was sitting. I was trying to get as comfortable as possible with my knee because I was in pain from my first deployment,” Andrzejczak said. 

At the time of the attack, Andrzejczak sat with his left leg stretched out and tucked his right leg under him.

“Had I had both legs out, it would have ripped right through both of them. I would have been a double amputee instead of losing just one leg,” Andrzejczak said. “I lost a leg but we were very lucky. We didn’t lose any lives.”

He said people ask him what the attack felt like. What physical sensations did he experience at the moment of the blast? 

Despite the unfolding trauma and chaos, Andrzejczak said he was consciously aware of what was happening to him. 

“I didn’t feel pain in my leg. I felt pain throughout my entire body. I’ve been blown up many times before, but I’ve always been able to walk away. I’ve never sustained any real injuries from getting blown up, other than this,” he said. “The blast itself, feeling it through your entire body, there’s a lot more to it than just a projectile ripping through your entire body….Being close to an explosion rocks your entire body. Your innards and everything. I ended up sustaining a traumatic brain injury from the explosion.”

He was knocked back in his sling and started to lose consciousness which he called “scary.”

“As I was fading into blackness, I started to get very confortable and I wasn’t in any pain at all, which was either a really good thing or a really bad thing. I was either dying or I was going to pass out,” he said. “I thought I could go with this and we’ll see what happens, but there’s the thought of what if I don’t wake up. I was like, ‘Man, my mom’s going to be really pissed. I told her I was OK and this happens.’” He recalled, “Even with the pain rushing back to me, I continued to fight through blacking out.”

He said pain shot through entire body down to his leg, with every heartbeat bringing intense agony. 

Through the smoke, Andrzejczak started crawling towards the back of the truck to check on his fellow soldiers. That’s when the pain in his leg intensified. 

“I looked down and I knew I wasn’t going to have a leg anymore. The bottom of my boot was facing me while I was sitting down,” he said. “I looked down and it was just a bloody mess.”

Andrzejczak considers himself both “lucky and unlucky” and noted other soldiers who face injuries suffer long-term consequences.

“I’ve seen guys years later who were unable to cope with it. They want their old life back so much, but they’re not willing to make the change with their new predicament,” Andrzejczak said. “I didn’t go through a phase where I was depressed or anything like that because of losing my leg.”

 

Road to Recovery

 

The hardest thing he’s ever done was calling home and talking to his parents after losing his leg. Following the attack, Andrzejczak was airlifted to several bases in Iraq before being flown to Germany, where he woke up in a hospital. 

“That’s where they did the initial amputation,” Andrzejczak said. “They said ‘We had to amputate your leg.’ I said, ‘You didn’t have to do much because the Iraqi guy did a lot more for you.’ They were surprised I was OK with that.”

Andrzejczak said he was in “generally good spirits” while in Germany, and asked if he wanted to call his family. He said the Army contacted his parents and offered to give them an emergency passport for their trip to Germany.

“Being in Germany and being in the hospital bed and being hooked up to everything and having the IVs was the hardest phone call. Every phone call was ‘I’m fine. Everything is good. I’m coming home.’ This was ‘I’m not fine.’ I was really trying to pull myself together to make it through the phone call. I said, ‘I’m not fine but I’m going to be fine.’ At that point I just broke down. That was easily the hardest thing,” Andrzejczak said. “I still feel that no child should ever leave Earth before their parents. That’s like one of the worst things you could do to a parent… Whether I was dying or not, the thought of making somebody else suffer that much was heartbreaking to me.”

A segment featuring Andrzejczak’s physical therapy at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center was featured on a February 2009 episode of “Oprah,” with Oprah Winfrey interviewing him as he stood up sans his left leg. 

Andrzejczak was on active service for five years, including 17 months in Iraq. 

For his service, he was awarded a Bronze Star with Valor and the Purple Heart. 

He also received two Army Achievement Medals, an Army Good Conduct medal, a National Service of Defense Medal, a Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, an Iraq Campaign Medal with a campaign star, an Army Service Ribbon and a Combat Infantry Badge. 

His homecoming to Cape May County was a celebrated event, as friends, family and residents gathered to greet him in Lower Township. 

Upon his return, Andrzejczak joined the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 286 in West Cape May and became post vice commander. While rubbing shoulders with his fellow veterans, he told his story, of the attack that cost him a limb, and of his physical therapy and recovery. 

 “Going from military leadership to VFW leadership, you’re still dealing with veterans and you still have that sense of responsibility on you,” Andrzejczak said. “The ability to lead never left me from the military. I’m just continuing the skills I honed in the military.” 

The VFW gave him an opportunity to share his experience with kindred spirits, and fostered a desire to help all veterans from various conflicts. 

“To me, a veteran is a veteran. If you need help, I’m going to do what I can to help you,” he said. “It’s not just Iraq war, it’s not just Afghanistan war. Dealing with veterans is World War II guys, Vietnam guys, Desert Storm. It’s all different generations, but at the same time it’s literally all the same issues we’re all having…By helping them, I’m helping all veterans in general.”

It’s this zeal for veteran’s issues that drew the attention of the Cape May County Democratic Party and paved his way into public service. 

 

Family Man

 

Andrzejczak and his wife Trisha have been married for three years. They originally met in high school through a mutual friend. They reconnected after he returned home from the Army, and their friendship blossomed into romance. 

 “I guess we were both always interested in each other but nobody made the move, which was frustrating for a long time,” he said. “We ended up waiting seven years. Seven years where we never shared that with each other. Once I broke the ice, it turned into marriage.” 

He said his happiest moment was the birth of his son Robert John Jr. in July 2012. 

“I very much love my wife. I love my family. But I didn’t know that there was another level of love until my son was born,” he said. 

Andrzejczak and his family lives in Middle Township. 

He takes his family with him when he goes to political events throughout the district, treating them as family road trips. 

“I bring them with me as much as they’re willing to go,” he said. “Trips to Trenton usually I’ll let them stay home and do their thing, depending if my wife has work or not. If it’s going to be a short committee day, we’ll find something to do up there or we’ll find something on the way home where we can stop somewhere and have a family outing.” 

Andrzejczak is a Millennial, part of a generation born in the early 1980s to the early 2000s. He said he sees Millennials as apathetic towards politics, and wished they’d participate in the political realm.  

 “I would love for the younger generation to get in to the process of politics only because you have people that complain. You shouldn’t be complaining unless you vote. Not only that, if you really want to get involved, run. Run for a position. Get involved with the political party of your choosing,” Andrzejczak said. “If you’re young and you want to see a positive change, get involved.”

 

Political Life

 

The biggest problem facing the world today, in Andrzejczak’s opinion, is terrorism. 

 “Being able to live peacefully, we take it for granted here in this country. When you go to other countries, to other parts of the world, we take the sense of freedom definitely for granted,” Andrzejczak said. 

Simple things, such as going to the store or simply driving, while mundane in the United States, are fraught with danger in the Middle East, he said, due to random spasms of violence that erupt at frequent intervals.

“Driving on the roads is a hazard; there’s bombs everywhere, not only on the long country roads, but in the m iddle of the cities as well… You could be driving around and it’s gruesome but you have heads and bodies and parts laying all over the place. You have people attacking and who are blowing themselves up,” he said. 

While he opined that politics on the national level is “broken,” with Congress “not working well together,” his outlook for New Jersey’s state Legislature is somewhat rosier. 

“At the state, we’re a little bit different. We’re not quite that bad,” Andrzejczak said. “I don’t care what party you’re in. If there’s something wrong with the state and there’s a way of fixing it, I’m going to work with you to get it done.”

He said what scares him most about the future is the continuing gridlock in national politics, with both parties recalcitrant and refusing to compromise. 

 “We need people in there that are really willing to make the sacrifice whether it be something easy or something difficult that is not very popular,” he said. “It’s easy to go along with what everybody wants and what’s easy to do. It’s a lot harder to be brave and say ‘this is not good at all and it’s not going to make a lot of people happy, but at the same time it’s the right thing to do.’”

Andrzejczak said if he could choose to have any career besides politics, he would have liked to remain in the military. If not the military, he said he would have liked to teach history. He noted his admiration for several American presidents, as evidenced by the pictures in his office. 

 “For the most part, they were men who were able to put party differences aside and still be able to get the job done and work with everybody,” he said. 

There are “a billion projects” and “a billion improvements” Andrzejczak would like to make in the district and the state. He cited the downturn in the economy and the way taxes are raised and the exodus from New Jersey.

The First Legislative District is a tapestry of rambling farmlands, rural backwoods towns and popular coastal resort communities. Stretching from Cumberland County to the west and hugging the Atlantic Coast with Cape May County to the east, the district was hit hard by the economic recession. 

He said New Jersey set itself up for failure long before he entered the Assembly, with unemployment and taxes rising. 

“Right now the goal is to turn everything around, put us on the right track, put us as far as the economy goes, bringing people back to the state, not only the seniors who are going down to Florida and retiring because it’s cheaper but the younger generation as well. My generation left to go to college and are not coming back because they can’t afford to come back and there’s no jobs,” he said.

One of the biggest exaggerations bandied about the political arena in his opinion, is that politicians create jobs. 

“The state doesn’t create jobs, the Legislature doesn’t create jobs. They create opportunity for businesses to come in and then they create the jobs,” Andrzejczak said. “If we created an opportunity for 20 huge businesses to come to New Jersey and put thousands of people back to work, you’re not creating jobs, you’re creating that opportunity. That’s really what politicians should be taking credit for; not creating jobs.”

Part of his quest for bolstering economic opportunities for the district is the formation of a nonpartisan First District Economic Task Force that will examine ways to improve the district’s economic conditions. The task force will take two years to study the district’s economy and provide recommendations to enhance the economy in one of New Jersey’s poorest regions. 

Andrzejczak said he was instrumental in including Cape May, Atlantic and Cumberland counties in the New Jersey Economic Opportunity Act of 2013. The act streamlines the state’s five existing economic development incentive programs into two: the Grow New Jersey Assistance Program and the Economic Redevelopment and Growth Program, which provide economic incentives for businesses. 

Looking ahead to five years, Andrzejczak hopes to be serving the people in some political capacity. 

“Literally I’m very happy from where I’m at. I think it’s an amazing opportunity to be where I’m at. I’m very happy people voted for me and gave me the opportunity to really represent them,” Andrzejczak said. “I feel I’ve been able to get a lot accomplished in a very short amount of time compared to other legislators.” 

He said a politician’s role is to listen to the people and be their voice.  

“We very often vote against our own party,” he said, noting compromise was essential. “If it’s a good idea, I’m going to support it. If it’s a bad idea, I’m not going to support it. The people come first before the party.”

A politician, according to Andrzejczak, must not brush off criticism but instead learn from it. 

“As far as criticism goes, I deal with it very well, almost as a tool,” Andrzejczak said. “If somebody’s going to criticize me and they have legitimate reasons why they feel the way they do, even though they may be yelling at me, if it’s a legitimate theme, it’s easy to sit down and listen.”

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