EZ Does It: Ex-Plano hoopster continues recovery from life-altering accident
Two months after the fact, Plano Senior alum Eric Zastoupil remembers the details of Aug. 22 all too vividly.
The weeks of meticulous planning that went into the ambush mission he and his soldiers embarked upon.
Having to think on the fly in the midst of a foot patrol just outside the Panjwai Village in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
The walk down an alleyway in search of an antenna needed to disable enemy communication and the smallest of steps off course that nearly cost the first lieutenant his life.
"When I got blown up, sand went everywhere and you couldn't see anything," Zastoupil said. "I kept trying to stand up and I'd fall down. Then once the dust settled, I saw the lower half of my left leg separated and sitting on the ground."
Wildcats faithful will remember Zastoupil as a key reserve for Plano's Class 5A State Championship boys basketball team in 2005-06. The 6-foot-6 forward nicknamed "Nasty Zasty" went on to play college ball at the U.S. Military Academy, where he averaged 2.5 points and 1.7 years in four seasons with Army.
Upon graduating in 2010, Zastoupil's military career took form as a graduate assistant with the men's basketball team for eight months. From there, he began training at Fort Benning in Georgia and then went to Fort Lewis in Washington where he would be promoted to first lieutenant in November 2011.
In March, Zastoupil was shipped off to Afghanistan.
"It was a bit of a culture shock," he said. "You go from your big air-conditioned house made of wood and metal to this area where all of their houses are made out of mud. It's 120 degrees everyday; it's a desert."
Initially serving as a battalion communications officer, Zastoupil was sent to be a platoon raider in the Kandahar province in April. He oversaw nearly 40 soldiers and was in charge of mission planning, mission execution and training. As Zastoupil put it, he was "sent down to the line."
That understanding took effect quickly.
"The day I showed up to the base I was staying at, we got hit by indirect fire from some enemies nearby," Zastoupil said. "It was a very quick realization that I was in a warzone."
After weeks of gathering information and crafting the blueprint for a mission to occupy a checkpoint just north of a small town in Kandahar, Zastoupil and his unit were given the go ahead. Executing that plan would prove trickier than expected though, with javelin missiles overheating and a sniper waiting just a bit too long to attack.
"We really didn't get to hit this target with as much firepower as I had anticipated," Zastoupil said. "My plan then was to come in with a bulldozer because there were IEDs (improvised explosive device) everywhere in this town. The bulldozer scrapes off the top layer of Earth and will crush any IEDs in its path."
The bulldozer began spewing fluids everywhere, throwing a wrench into that operation.
Given word from his commander to push on, Zastoupil and his soldiers worked their way toward the tree, where they found an antenna. Among the mission's secondary objectives was to pull down the two antennas being used to broadcast communications. With one antenna in hand, Zastoupil moved through an orchard to an alleyway where the second antenna was located. There, he had an Explosive Ordinance Disposal team on hand. They used mine detectors to move down the alley before Zastoupil went back to briefly talk to his commander.
And then there was the walk back to his team.
"When I went back towards the front, one of my squad leaders pointed up in the air and noticed the other antenna," Zastoupil said. "I took a little step off the cleared path with my left foot and there was the explosion."
Still fully conscious, sand clouded Zastoupil's view, only to give way to the sight of the lower half of his left leg sitting in front of him.
"I was awake for the entire thing," he said. "... The medic that was with me quickly ran over to my position and worked like an absolute pro."
The medic, Curt DiCristina, applied tourniquets high and tight on the leg, wrapping away to bandage any wounds. Tending to him in the soldier's direst of times, it was during that moment when Zastoupil's sense of humor shone brightest.
"While [DiCristina] was wrapping me up, I started going in and out and he was trying to keep me awake, "Zastoupil said. "He asked me what my full name was and I responded, 'Thomas Eric Zastoupil.' He said, 'Alright Thomas, we're going to keep you alive.' I looked at him and said, 'Doc, don't ever use my first name' with a bit of a smile on my face.
"That calmed him down and he did an awesome job. I fully account the fact that I'm alive and doing so well to him."
Within the next 30 minutes, Zastoupil was on a helicopter to the Kandahar Hospital. His left leg was completely separated halfway down the shin and his right leg had gaping wounds in various places from the shrapnel.
Classified as V.S.I. or Very Seriously Injured -- the highest level in the military -- Zastoupil's prognosis was unknown at the time. Following the initial surgery, Zastoupil would wake up at Baghram Air Force Base later that night.
It was there he called to speak with his family for the first time since the accident.
The army informed Zastoupil's mother Harriet at 10:17 a.m. on Aug. 23 of her son's accident and that he was in surgery for an amputation below the knee of his left leg. The details were scarce, but Eric would quell any of his family's concerns with that first phone call.
"I just knew from the way he said my name," Harriet said. "It goes back to when he was young and taking French, he'd always say 'mama' differently when he joking around or kidding, and when he called and said my name that way, I knew that he was going to be OK."
Eric was then transported to Germany to undergo further procedures to clean the wounds.
That would become standard fare, with Eric having an estimated 12 surgeries performed on his legs.
"The main thing they were concerned about was cleaning the wounds because the dirt and soil in Afghanistan is filled with disease and viruses," he said. "It's so dirty that most of the procedures I went through were just to clean the wounds and get the infections out."
The Social Network
By Aug. 26, Eric was sent back to the U.S. and placed in Walter Reed Hospital in Bethesda, Md. By the time Eric arrived stateside, word had spread about his accident and an outpouring of support followed.
"The support has been overwhelming, insane and incredible," Eric said. "People coming out of the woodworks from elementary school and people who knew someone who knew someone who knew someone that I knew that just wanted to wish me well."
Much of that response can be credited to the Team EZ support page on Facebook (facebook/EZsupport), an idea hatched by Harriet and a couple others close to Eric.
"At first, I wasn't a big Facebook fan," Harriet said. "I happened to get on Eric's Facebook page when people were starting to talk about [the injury] and there was a lot of misinformation, so I posted something on his page and the response was so huge that I enlisted the help of his girlfriend and one of his best friends and they helped start the Team EZ page."
The page was created Aug. 24 and currently has 2,437 likes, with Harriet posting detailed updates, photos and videos of Eric's recovery.
"When we put up some information on the Facebook page, the instant encouragement and support was really motivating and keeps me going everyday," Eric said. "I've had visitors flying out and calling from all over the place. I can't believe I've touched so many people that I could get that kind of overwhelming response.
"It's more than words could describe."
The response received throughout Facebook mirrored the support shown from Eric's hospital bed where he received a wealth of visitors in the coming weeks, including President Barack Obama, who paid Eric and others a visit on Sept. 11.
"We had no idea that [Obama] was coming," Eric said. "With it being Sept. 11, a lot of people are wondering why he's not meeting with diplomats or ambassadors. Well, he's in the back taking care of his guys. For him to take the time to come see me was wonderful.
"It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and he was so incredibly generous and nice."
Eric would meet Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta plus more generals than he could name, he said. Among those visitors was Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, who chatted with Eric for a while before asking him a very poignant question.
"He asked me what my goal was," Eric said. "I said it was to be able to play basketball again. With a straight face, he said that when I was able to do that, to come play at the White House. I laughed at first, but he was 100 percent serious."
The two have been in touch since and Eric plans on taking up the offer when the time comes.
The basketball tie-ins weren't done there as Plano head coach Phil Parlin -- an assistant while Eric played for the Wildcats -- paid the former forward a visit in late September.
"The school really rallied around him as soon as we all found out," Parlin said. "They were interested in sending me up there, which was such an incredible honor. It was so humbling to go there to represent our school and get to see Eric.
"It was one of those experiences that I'll never forget."
The Plano PALs (Peer Assistance Leadership) collected money at lunch for the Wounded Warrior Fund, while a number of students and faculty signed a large banner for Eric that Parlin took with him. During his stay, Parlin helped decorate the hospital room with a bevy of Wildcats garb, including maroon Christmas lights.
The support helped ease a difficult transition for Eric.
"It was very tough because I went from a life where I'm in charge of people, commanding, directing and executing plans," he said. "I went from that life to one of survival. That was very difficult for me because I loved being a platoon raider and I loved my soldiers. Just being taken away from them was the hardest part."
Eric's surgeries continued, with all signs of bacteria and fungus steadily disappearing. In mid-September, Eric had a skin graft performed on his right thigh.
"There was a little gap that they couldn't sew up," he said, "so they had to take skin from my left thigh and put it on my inner right thigh. Since then, 100 percent of the graft has taken and it looks great."
The aftermath of the skin graft meant weathering a bit of a hurdle as Eric's body didn't respond well to a surgery shortly afterward to remove a wound vac over the skin graft, which fluctuated his electrolytes and dropped his blood count. But with the wound vac removed, he was transferred to physical therapy in the Military Advanced Training Center -- an experience that was as abundant as any in righting the ship.
"I went through this terrible two days," Eric said. "I was throwing up, shaking and cold. I felt miserable and then I make it to the MATC and I just have half of my leg missing. With some of these guys, both legs are missing as well as an arm, half their faces are blown off and they're smiling and having a good time.
"They're pushing each other during workouts and it's a place where you walk into it and your eyes light up."
It helped put Eric's recovery into perspective, particularly when meeting another amputee who assured him he was in the "armpit of the experience."
"(He said) that this was as bad as it gets and his advice was to get out of here when I could and talk to people," Eric said. "That was without a doubt the best piece of advice I got. After that, I started setting goals like what's the next best thing I can do?"
Road to Recovery
In order to go workout at the MATC, Eric had to prove he was stable enough to do that.
To get out of the hospital, Eric had to show he could move around in his wheelchair and transfer to places like the toilet or shower.
He and his mom now reside in an on-campus two-bedroom apartment.
Wanting a prosthetic leg, Eric had to strengthen his core, get his legs right and indicate that his body was ready.
He used his prosthetic leg for the first time on Oct. 2.
"It was pretty neat," Eric said. "They slipped the prosthetic on and you actually have to stand up to get your leg to feed itself into the prosthetic. I stood up, put weight on that leg and just stood there for a second. I was standing on two feet again. That was the coolest part to me.
"I started walking forward and my mom was going crazy because she's watching me walk for the first time -- again."
It's part of the routine Eric has settled into, with a normal day starting with an hour of occupational therapy at 8 a.m., where he learns things to further integrate himself back into society like how to stand up if he falls down or how to drive. Afterward, it's on to physical therapy at 9 a.m., with the afternoons spent at appointments with social workers or doctors.
The process is still in its infant stages. Given that all the ligaments in Eric's left knee were blown up, the amount of physical therapy needed in preparation for an eventual reconstructive surgery requires an additional few months.
Physical therapy is where Eric gets to primarily use his prosthetic leg, doing exercises to develop balance and coordination, or making laps around the MATC with crutches.
Eric also gets to integrate basketball into some of his exercises.
"They have different kinds of prosthetics for just about anything," he said. "They have swimming feet, hiking feet or the curved running ones the Olympian (Oscar Pistorius) wore. There are special feet that allow you to stop and go and provide you with a bit of spring if I wanted to jump. One of my thoughts was how high could it make me jump because I could definitely use a few extra inches to my vertical."
Assuring that goal comes to fruition means continuing to work on getting his legs strong enough to run, stop and jump.
"I hope to be up and walking around Christmas time and then they'll do the surgery when I get back," Eric said. "Hopefully after that, it'll be around March or April that I hope to play basketball again."
Eric's invite to play ball at the White House is just one example of a contact he's established, having developed no shortage of networking connections as he works toward immersing himself back into the real world.
He's even had a couple job offers, from positions at U.S. Cyber Command or back at West Point to help at the Cyber Defense headquarters.
"I've got a couple options that are dream jobs for a nerd like me," Eric said, "so I really have to figure out what I want to do."
Eric anticipates spending most of his recovery in Maryland as he continues to start anew.
And he'll do so with the same outlook that has guided each phase of his recovery.
"I try to make it all seem as positive as I can," Eric said. "I do have a positive, hopeful outlook, but there are days when it's terrible and I'm having a tough time because of the medicine I'm on or not. It really is a test for your will and it allows you to make decisions that affect me further down the line, rather than immediately. I'm looking into the future a lot better and with all the support, it's been incredible and I've been extremely humbled with just how many people want to be part of my recovery."
"I'm extremely proud," Harriet added. "You can look at it and it would be so tempting to be disillusioned and bitter about it all, and I've never once seen Eric approach it that way. He said from the very beginning that he and his friends from West Point go over there knowing that this or worse is a possibility. They do that willingly, so he was very accepting of his injury and appreciative that it wasn't anything worse.
"He just views it as another challenge where anything that's of value is worth fighting for."
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