(MiamiHerald) Before he joined the Army, Ariel Ramirez-Dominguez gave little thought to Veteran's Day.
"I was like 'Veterans Day is just a day to get off work,'" he said. "Now I appreciate it. I'm a veteran now."
He's much more than that - Ramirez-Dominguez, 22, suffered severe head injuries July 26 when an improvised explosive device blew up his Bradley fighting vehicle as he drove over a Baghdad bridge as he went to pick up some detainees.
He is among more than 1,300 Florida servicemen and women who have been wounded or injured while serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. More than 170 Floridians have been killed.
So after seven surgeries and three months of rehabilitation, Ramirez-Dominguez considers himself one of the lucky ones.
"It was pretty stupid the way I was thinking," said Ramirez-Dominguez, who is from Morriston, a town of 3,900 about 100 miles northwest of Orlando. "Now I'm glad for the veterans who come back home like I came back home."
He was in a coma for five weeks; his 22nd birthday coming midway through the blackout. He was heavily sedated and strapped down when he arrived in mid-August at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa.
"He basically was laying, staring up at the ceiling, moaning once in awhile," said Dr. Steven Scott, who said the Cuban-born soldier suffered multiple fractures and other injuries, nerve problems and brain trauma. "You see him today...he has that spirit."
Only moments before a seventh surgery to clean out some of the metal parts inserted to hold him together, Ramirez-Dominguez was not only grateful for his care, but optimistic about his future.
"My speech therapist told me I'm coming around," Ramirez-Dominguez said proudly, albeit somewhat haltingly during a recent half-hour interview. "I can remember the day, you know. Like today is the first of November ... 2007? Yeah, 2007."
Pete Herrick, a carpenter and cabinet maker from Fort White, was a member of a Navy Seabee reserve unit based out of Naval Air Station Jacksonville. He was left a quadriplegic May 2, 2004, when shrapnel ripped through his body during a mortar attack in Ramadi, Iraq.
After nearly a year of treatment and rehabilitation at the crowded Haley facility, Herrick returned to his north-central Florida home, using a wheelchair to get around.
"I've discovered since I've been wounded that so many people will help someone who served their country, to deal with adversity," Herrick said. However, that's sometimes easier for the victims themselves than their families or friends.
Herrick was wounded a month before his daughter's high school graduation and his wife, Diana, was at his side at Bethesda (Md.) Naval Hospital instead while he was in the intensive care unit.
"That whole first year was 'is he going to live or is he going to die?'" recalled Diana Herrick, who like Ramirez-Dominguez had previously barely thought about the Veterans Day observance.
"I don't do that anymore," she said.
And there are still challenges for families.
"When he's in pain and I can't do anything about it is probably the hardest thing," she said. "He's paralyzed, but he's still my husband. The same guy I married 21 years ago in every way but physically. He's always had a great sense of humor and he didn't lose that."
Asked once during his recovery if he'd ever asked himself, "why me?" Herrick mouthed to his wife, "Why not me?"
Ramirez-Dominguez's mother, Bertha Lowe, missed two months of work after the youngest of her two sons first returned to the U.S., unconscious and broken.
"It was a bad time," she related. "I was crazy all that time. It's very hard for the families."
With her son now recuperating just a couple of hours away, Lowe visits him on weekends and will have him home briefly for a long weekend over Veterans Day.
In Tampa, she can stay at the Fisher House on the VA grounds, only steps away from the main hospital and adjoining spinal cord injury center. The new 21-suite facility is one of 38 Fisher projects across the country that provide families of hospitalized veterans a cozy and free place to stay.
And despite the attention to victims of the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, most Haley patients are Vietnam vets, many now in their 60s.
And the current battles are far from over on this Veterans Day.
"It's a long war," said Scott, who often puts in 15-18 hour days at Haley. "A long war has its own problems and complications."
And many trying to recover from devastating injuries and rebuild their lives.
"I'm pretty much speechless that I lived," Ramirez-Dominguez said. "I'm glad God gave me a second chance. I'm pretty much going to take it."