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|Army Sgt. Michael Buyas, who lost both his legs in the Iraq war, enjoys a memorable wrestling experience with his three young sons|
By Craig Sesker USA Wrestling
It is a powerful image.
The image of Army Sgt. Michael Buyas and his sons, Jaiden and Justin, curled up on a bed sleeping together in their Lake Chelan, Wash., home. Five-year-old Jaiden is nestled against his father's right side. Ten-year-old Justin is on the other side, tucked in so close to his father that their heads are touching on a pillow they share.
The image - splashed across the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle on Sunday, March 26, 2006 - also shows Michael wearing shorts and reveals that part of Michael's left leg is missing.
Michael's world was turned upside down when the Army Ranger's legs were blown off by an improvised explosive device just before Christmas 2004 in Iraq. Michael was injured when the explosive device blew up the 16-ton armored Stryker in which Michael was riding.
The explosion also broke every rib on his left side, ruptured his spleen, collapsed his lungs, burned his hands and torso, and cracked open his skull. He was in a coma 12 days. When he awoke he thought he was still in Iraq, but he actually was at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. It's a place the Army sends its most seriously injured soldiers.
The gripping, heart-wrenching four-part series in the San Francisco Chronicle - "War without end" - was written by Joan Ryan. It tells the story of Buyas and Sgt. Brent Bretz, and how the war will be with them and their families forever. It details and chronicles the story of how Buyas has struggled to move on with his life after being among the 450 U.S. soldiers who have lost arms, legs, hands or feet during the war in Iraq.
In the caption that accompanies the story, it says Michael still dreams he has legs. It also states that in waking moments he worries about how he will teach his three boys wrestling, his favorite sport in high school. He and his wife, Carrie, have three sons. Julian, the middle son, is 8.
The photo and story caught the eye of 76-year-old Tom Dougherty, a former wrestler and long-time fan of the sport who was a successful Division I wrestler for Franklin and Marshall more than half a century ago.
"I read the story in the newspaper and it really inspired me," Dougherty said. "The story and the photo were really poignant. I wanted to do something nice to help some people, so I went to work on finding a way to help."
Dougherty contacted the Buyas family and went to work trying to raise money to send the boys and their father to the Ken Chertow Gold Medal Camp on July 6-11 in San Jose, Calif. Dougherty said total cost to send the family to the camp - including air fare for the five family members - was around $4,000.
"Michael committed to it right away," Dougherty said. "I think he was pretty excited about it. We arranged for the whole family to go. We made sure his wife was going along as well."
Dougherty contacted USA Wrestling Director of Development Larry Nugent and USA Wrestling provided $200 scholarships to each of the three boys. The USA Wrestling camp scholarships are provided through Jeff Levitetz and the JRC Memorial Scholarship Fund. The JRC Memorial Scholarship Fund, through USA Wrestling, awarded 251 camp scholarships this year.
Dougherty, who lives in Napa Valley, Calif., also received a $2,000 donation from Trinicaro Family Estate Winery to enable the family to travel to San Jose. He also contacted his old high school, Upper Darby, located just outside Philadelphia, and his alma mater raised close to $2,000 so the family could attend the camp.
"It's amazing to see how the wrestling community will rally together for something like this," Dougherty said. "It was great to see people step up to help with something like this. Wrestling people are very dedicated to helping each other."
The Buyas boys took part in a camp that included instructors in Chertow, a 1988 U.S. Olympian, along with Olympian Heath Sims and NCAA All-American Gerry Abas.
"Oh man, we had a great time," said Michael, who is 31 years old. "It was amazing how much the kids learned. They are way better wrestlers for having gone. It was a great, great experience. Wrestling taught me a lot of values and taught me determination when I was growing up. I'm hoping wrestling will point my boys in the right direction and teach them values where they can grow up to have a great life and be successful. We were totally immersed in wrestling for the four days we were there. It was a great opportunity for us."
While the boys received instruction at the camp, their father typically sat at matside and watched the sessions closely. He also took notes and tried to absorb as much information as he could. He also bought some instructional videotapes that he plans to use to help teach his boys.
"It was neat to see how happy the family was to be there together learning wrestling," said Chertow, who also helped offset the family's expenses for the camp. "I believe it was a tremendous bonding experience for their family. The camp ignited some passion for wrestling for the boys, and their father and mother were very proud of them. The kids did very well. All three showed a lot of potential."
Michael appreciated the opportunity to take his sons to the camp.
"The amount of support we received from Tom Dougherty, Ken Chertow, USA Wrestling and everybody was just amazing," Michael said. "Words can't describe how great what they did was for me and my family. To have a moment in time with my children was great, especially after all I've been through. What a great person Tom is to put in the time and effort to help our family have a great experience like this."
Michael said his boys "learned the basics" at the camp.
"They learned how to wrestle in all three positions," Michael said. "My oldest likes the single-leg takedown and my middle son likes the double-leg takedown - they are pretty efficient with it now because of the camp. My youngest son is only 5, but he has a good stance now and he'll do better next year with that stance. I've noticed the difference in all three of them. Plus the boys are a lot more disciplined after going through the camp."
Since he was injured, Michael has spent a considerable amount of his time focusing on his recovery and rehabilitation at the Walter Reed hospital in Washington, D.C. He said it was tough being away from his boys for extended periods of time.
Michael said his own experience as a wrestler helped him pull through some difficult periods during his recovery.
"I lost both my legs, but I never quit," Michael said. "I attribute my never-quit attitude to wrestling. I started wrestling in junior high. Before that, I didn't have any guidance and my wrestling coaches taught me to never to quit. That's stuck with me all those years and that's helped me handle all the struggles I've had in my life.
"I can walk now, with the help of the (prosthetic) legs I have, and I attribute a lot of that to wrestling because it was a sport that taught me to never quit. I hope wrestling gives my boys the same attitude. Once you've wrestled, you can make it through anything in life. I'm convinced of that."
While in Washington, D.C., Michael had an opportunity to meet Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
"We started talking about wrestling and he told me he wrestled for Princeton," Michael said. "That was pretty cool. I think all wrestlers kind of belong to the same fraternity. There is definitely a bond there when you know somebody else who has wrestled."
Donations from people in his community back home in the state of Washington have raised $40,000 for a new home for the Buyas family. Michael said the house is in the process of being built.
"People have been so generous - they've just been great," Michael said. "The house looks great. It's going to be a beautiful home."
Michael spent seven years in the Army and receives disability payments from the government after being injured. Through his military service, Michael's entire college education will be paid for. He is planning to start taking classes. He said he has an interest in making jewelry and guitars. He has written a number of songs and also hopes to pass his love for music along to his sons.
Even with all he has endured in the last two years, Michael said he is not bitter about what happened in Iraq.
"I planned on making a career out of being in the military, but now that's not going to happen," he said. "When I signed up for the military, I knew I could be injured and possibly die. Sometimes you think you're Superman and you're invincible and nothing will happen to you. I just happened to be one of the people it happened to. A lot of soldiers have lost their lives over there. I'm fortunate to still be alive. I lost my legs, but I can still be a full-time dad and be with my family and experience life."
Dougherty said he was more than happy to help the Buyas family.
"Michael Buyas is a hero for this country and he loves the sport of wrestling and loves his kids," Dougherty said. "That's why I wanted to do something for him and his family. Wrestling is such a great sport - you learn discipline and work ethic, and you learn a lot of life lessons. It's a sport that can teach you a lot. I wanted the Buyas family to experience that."
Michael Buyas said the experience was fulfilling for his entire family. His wife also was involved in the experience, taking numerous photos of the boys during the camp.
"I'm not an emotional guy, but to see my kids wrestling and following in my footsteps is a huge source of pride for me," Michael said. "Being at that camp with them was one of the happiest times I've had in a long, long time. To see them rolling around out there on the mat was inspirational to me. The kids had so much fun. When the last session ended the last day, they didn't want to leave because they were having so much fun. I couldn't stop smiling the whole time we were there. We are very grateful to the people who made this happen."