Next weekend, the La Crosse community and especially those at UW-L will rally around one of their own, a true American hero.
UW-La Crosse graduate and Second Army Lieutenant Jason Church was badly injured last year in Afghanistan. Now, his former teammates on the UW-L football team are working to make sure "no eagle is left behind."
From almost the moment Jason Church stepped on the football field at UW-La Crosse, he was making an impression on those around him. "Even as a freshman, he was kind of a leader to a lot of people, because he was an 18 year old he was one of the strongest, hard working guys on the team," said former teammate Nate Ward.
Ward was his teammate and roommate freshman year. "Just touched a lot of people with his work ethic, time management and his leadership skills in general," said Ward.
But Football wasn't Jason's only passion during his college years, he wanted to be part of another team as well. "I was born on a military base so for me, it was definitely a great influence in my life I think it taught me values at a young age that would eventually lead me to going into the military myself," said Jason Church.
Church was part of the ROTC program at UW-L for all four years of college, and was then put on the fast-track. "I had gone from graduating college to being in Afghanistan in under a year," said Church.
But just a few short months into his deployment, "there was a loud explosion," said Church. He was leading a platoon through an abandoned village, "right next to the wall, the IED went off." His world went black in an instant. "I don't remember the first few seconds, I don't know how long I was knocked out for or dazed, I remember coming to, you see the white light and come and realize, one, I'm not dead and two I looked and my legs were obviously gone at that point."
The blast blew off both of Jason's legs below the knee. "The real thing that I'll always remember is how one of my medics responded to the incident. He came up to me, saw right away obviously I was missing both legs and that he applied tourniquets up here (points to legs) and I really think saved my life."
The news spread quickly to Jason's friends back at UW-L. "I was speechless, we heard it actually on the football field. I just had to walk away a little bit, I just couldn't do anything really for the entire day because we didn't know the severity of the situation. We didn't know that he had lost his legs below the knee, we just knew he was in extreme condition, almost on the side of death," said Ward.
Since the accident, Jason has made remarkable progress in his recovery. He's undergone at least 18 surgeries and is rehabbing at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. "I'm a man of faith and I believe this is a way God can use me to inspire other people," said Church.
And inspire is just what he is doing. In November, Jason was presented the Purple Heart by his father during a very emotional ceremony at half-time of the UW-L football game. Church says, "I just kind of lost it there. It was kinda tough there on the PA system." "He has so many people that he's touched here being a part of the football team and obviously in division three, you become brothers with your teammates so a lot of the alumni as soon as they heard, they wanted to first make sure he was OK and then once they figured that out, what we could do for him to raise money to support his family through his recovery and down the road of course," said Ward.
Several of Jason's former teammates are planning a benefit in his honor. They're calling it "No Eagle Left Behind." Ward says, "if you play on the football team here at UW-La Crosse, you'll always have a brother, no matter what happens to you so that's why we wanted to put that name in there without a doubt."
And while Jason is the one benefiting from the generosity of others right now, he hopes others can learn from him about the value of life. "There is no limitation on what you can do, I'd at least like to be an example that I'm a bilateral amputee, but I've been able to do this, I've been able to overcome this, this is just a hurdle in my life so when hurdles come up in your life, you're able to jump over them too," said Church.
The benefit for Jason Church is set for Saturday, January 26th at the Mitchell Hall Field House on the UW-La Crosse campus. Doors open at 3:00 p.m. Tickets are $10 and include a dinner and entry into a special cash drawing.
There will also be a silent and live auction with a lot of really great prizes, including autographed jersey's and footballs from NFL players, restaurant gift cards and golf packages.
The guest speaker is a member of a the 2012 Wheelchair Olympics rugby team.
For more information, head to noeagleleftbehind.com.