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NEWS | Oct. 21, 2014

Battle buddies for life

By Staff Sgt. Teresa J. Cleveland 633rd Air Base Wing Public Affairs

A U.S. Army Soldier checks identification cards at the gate at Fort, Eustis, Virginia. As he motions for vehicles to move forward, he only grabs identification from people with his left hand, and renders the occasional salute with a limp right hand.

While stationed in Camp Hovey, South Korea eight years ago, the simple task of rendering a salute was no issue for U.S. Army Spc. Robert Philman, 221st MP Det. patrolman.

In 2008, Philman was sent to Korea on an unaccompanied assignment, while Sgt. Avery Arrington, 221st MP Det. arms room noncommissioned officer-in-charge, was there with his wife and children.

"Philman was one of the first guys I met in Korea; my first friend," said Arrington,. "He became part of my family, he was always welcome."

After finishing their tours in Korea, the Soldiers made advancements in their careers, moved around the world and endured multiple deployments all during which they did not stay in touch. However, one event would later bring them closer than they had ever been.

During one deployment to Iraq, Philman's vehicle ran over an improvised explosive device. He fell from the vehicle and hit his head, suffering a concussion and neck pain. The injury did not stop him from completing his deployment and re-enlisting for another four years.

Every day, he worked through his usual neck pain. He didn't think the pain was serious enough to be put on a medical profile. When time came for his annual physical training test, he blew a disc in his neck, causing numbness throughout his left arm and hand.

Philman scheduled a surgery to repair the damage to his neck and left hand, but then, a last minute deployment slot opened in 2011. Philman put aside his personal medical issues to return to the Middle East, this time with a K-9 to Afghanistan.

"I knew the team needed me," said Philman. "I figured I would just push the surgery back to when I got back from Afghanistan. The feeling came back to everything except two fingers, so I didn't think it was that serious; I thought I would be fine."

Once he returned from Afghanistan in 2012, he received permanent change of station orders to Fort Eustis, Virginia, and scheduled his surgery. Just weeks before his surgery, he was shopping at the Shoppette, and heard a familiar voice call out his name. It was Arrington, who had been stationed at Fort Eustis for just a week.

"We went nuts when we saw each other," said Arrington. "It had been six years since we had last seen each other, and we had no idea we were both stationed here. "I brought him to my house that night and it was just like old times. He immediately fell right back into the role of a member of our family."

Once Arrington and his wife, Heather, heard about Philman's surgery, they insisted he move in with them.

"He lived alone off base and would have had no one to care for him while he recovered," said Heather of the single father of three. "We knew he was never the type to ask for help."

Philman went in for surgery with Arrington listed as his emergency contact. Once the operation was complete, Arrington received a phone call explaining that something was wrong.

During the operation, doctors fused two vertebrae in his Philman's neck and inserted a tube to drain blood. The tube did not work.

Philman quickly developed a blood clot, paralyzing his body from the neck down.
As the Arringtons sped down the highway to a hospital more than 30 minutes away, all they could think about was how scared their friend must be.

"I was in a complete panic when I got the phone call," said Arrington. "My first thoughts were, 'What is he going to do now?' 'What is going to happen to him?'"

Philman went in for emergency surgery to remove the clot, which would allow for blood to continue flowing to the rest of his body. This time his trip to the operating room was a success. As he awoke from the anesthesia, he moved his toes and bent his knees. He stretched his arms and moved his head. Philman was regaining control of his body.

"I was scared for my life before they took me back for the second surgery; I didn't want to spend the rest of my life not being able to do anything for myself," said Philman. "When I woke up, I was so happy I wasn't completely paralyzed that I couldn't stop wiggling my feet around like a madman. Then, the hard part came when they asked me to move my hands."

He could not move his right hand past his wrist. While he could control most of his body, Philman was still in for a long recovery process, and the Arrington's stayed by his side through it all. With three kids of their own, they helped with everything from taking care of Philman's three kids, to feeding and helping him use the restroom.

"It was a bit of an adjustment and it got pretty chaotic at times -- taking care of someone who just had surgery as well as six kids," said Heather. "But I knew he would have done the same thing for one of us; that's what you do for family."

Over the next several months, Philman endured hours of physical therapy and working with the Warrior Transition Unit to figure out his next steps toward medically retiring from the Army. During this, Philman's children spent half the time with their mother and the other with Philman at the Arrington's house.

The Arringtons were impressed with Philman's outlook throughout the onslaught of medical appointments and physical therapy sessions.

"It's amazing to see someone who has had to go through so much maintain such a positive attitude still joke about everything," said Heather. "He's not going to let this beat him and he's an inspiration to keep moving forward. I've never met someone with such a positive attitude before."

On the rare occasion that Philman got quiet or didn't joke as much and wanted to be alone, Arrington was there to cheer him up.

"We love to laugh in this house, so any time I saw him having a rough day, I would just say something ridiculous to get him to laugh," said Arrington. "I reminded him he had a lot to live for and he still had a lot of fight in him to keep going, but I managed to do it in a funny manner to turn his mood around."

Philman said he does not see himself as an inspiration, but just as another Soldier, using what he has learned from the Army throughout his recovery.

"The Army has taught me a lot about resiliency and not letting something like this bring me down," said Philman. "The reality is I'm probably never going to be able to use my right hand to the full extent again, but I have great people around me to help me figure out my next step, and what I need to do to support my family."

Now in the process of medically retiring from the Army, Philman is moving forward to find a job that will work around his inability to use his right hand.

"He's the type of person that is going to keep pushing, no matter what the world throws at him," said Arrington. "And no matter what happens, he's my battle buddy until the end."