War in Iraq Comes Home to South Kitsap

Today I met Cpl. Adam Poppenhouse and his wife Amanda, a South Kitsap High School graduate. Poppenhouse was visiting the fifth grade class of his wife’s brother, Adam Hayman, at Sunnyslope Elementary School. Poppenhouse, an Army soldier with the 3rd Stryker Brigade out of Ft. Lewis, was severely injured Dec. 5 in Iraq by an IED (Improvised Explosive Device). The class has followed his recovery closely and sent him a large care package earlier this spring. What struck me was the way these two kids, 21 and 20 respectively, are dealing with this monumental change in their life with incredible grace and strength. Their visit brought the war home to Mrs. Laferriere’s class in a way no news story or television broadcast ever will.
Here’s the story.

By Chris Henry
South Kitsap
Cpl. Adam Poppenhouse walks precariously down the hall at Sunnyslope Elementary School, navigating a river of small children heading in from recess. The prosthesis on his right leg has taken some getting used to.
Poppenhouse, 21, is a member of B Company 520th Infantry 3rd Stryker Brigade out of Ft. Lewis. He’s on leave from rehab at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Washington D.C., visiting family in South Kitsap for the next 10 days. His wife, Amanda, 20, is a South Kitsap High School graduate.
Poppenhouse, his wife and infant daughter, Rylee, make their way toward the fifth grade classroom of Amanda’s brother, Adam Hayman, who, after Poppenhouse was injured Dec. 5 in Iraq, provided regular updates to his classmates on his brother-in-law’s condition. The class got together in the spring and sent a large care package to Poppenhouse at Walter Reed.
Adam, who is surprised by his brother-in-law’s visit to Barb Laferriere’s classroom, greets Poppenhouse with a big hug. Then he proudly introduces him to the class.
“I want to tell you guys ‘thank you’ for the letters. I read every one of them,” says Poppenhouse.
“Did you like the poker set?” one student asks.
“I use it all the time,” says Poppenhouse. “But I don’t win all the time.”
Then Adam opens it up to questions, and the students satisfy their curiosity about this larger-than-life guy, now so real before them. No, he didn’t play for the Red Sox, but he was on an A-1 team affiliated with that club.
“What’s your favorite vegetable?” asks a student.
“Tomatoes,” says Poppenhouse. “Is that a vegetable or a fruit?”
“What’s you favorite animal?”
“Probably our dog,” he says. “We have a Chihuahua. She’s pretty cute.”
“Can I see your leg?”
Poppenhouse knows which leg they’re talking about, although his left leg was severely inured, too. He hoists his fatigues and displays the stainless steel prosthesis.
“Oh, wow. … Cool,” say the students. “You’ve got the cool one on.”
Poppenhouse amazes the class by twisting the prosthesis 180 degrees, up toward the ceiling.
“This is my cup holder,” says, pointing to his boot heel.
What’s it like to walk on?
“I’m still not used to it,” says Poppenhouse. “I fall all the time … As long as it’s flat, I’m OK. I can go up stairs all day, but I can’t go downstairs. I still can only walk about an hour a day.”
“Can we see your tattoos?”
Poppenhouse shows off the elaborate tattoo covering his left arm, which also was injured in the attack on his Stryker Brigade that day in Taji, outside of Baghdad. On his right arm he has one that looks like a handicap parking decal.
“Did you ever know a best friend in the military who passed away or got shot?” a student asks.
“Yeah,” says Poppenhouse quietly.
“Remember our conversation from this morning,” says LaFerriere, reminding the students to stick to non-sensitive questions, but Poppenhouse seems OK with being an object lesson on the impact of the war they mostly hear about on TV.
What he doesn’t get around to telling the students is that the homemade bomb that blew up his vehicle left a crater across two lanes of traffic. He doesn’t mention that his left arm was broken and “filleted on both sides.” He doesn’t show them the scar as long as a football down his left calf. And he he doesn’t mention the 25 surgeries it took to put him back together.
Principal Bob Leslie asks if Poppenhouse has any advice for students who may be thinking of a military career.
“I’ll tell you honestly, the Army is a great job,” says Poppenhouse, adding he probably would have made a career of it if not for the war.
Then Poppenhouse poses with the class, his clean shaven face blending in almost seamlessly among those of his young friends.
Outside the class, he says the press have it wrong about Walter Reed. He’s gotten top notch care there. And he talks about the counseling he received after coming back from Iraq.
“You need it,” he says. “Even if you don’t get hurt, you come out of there scarred. You see and do things nobody should have to do.”
And he talks about meeting President Bush.
“We talked a little bit, just more or less small talk,” he says. “He just shook my hand and thanked me and said he was proud of me.”
Poppenhouse doesn’t take counseling anymore. He’s getting through with the support of his family. After rehab, he’s looking at moving with Amanda and Rylee back to his home state of Ohio and getting on with his life.

2 thoughts on “War in Iraq Comes Home to South Kitsap

  1. Great story, thanks.

    I know someone who was at Sunnyslope yesterday & told me that the entire office staff was in tears. One of them said the tears were a combination of joy at the heartwarming reunion and sadness at what’s happened to this fine young man.

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