Hope emerges after war Hometown nativefocuses book on Wounded Warriors

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Joe Macenka, formerly of Hometown, has written a book detailing the aftermath of traumatic combat injuries.
By KATHY KUNKEL kkunkel@tnonline.com

As politicians bicker about funding and troop levels for America's military, questions abound about just how the armed services will adapt to one of the largest drawdowns in history.

While cuts to manpower are to be expected in response to troop reductions in Iraq and Afghanistan, proposed changes in benefits are hot topics in the military community.

A new book, written by a Virginia man with local ties, paints a stark picture of just how some of those veteran benefits impact a somewhat overlooked segment of the military community Wounded Warriors.

"Hope Emerges" is a collection of first person accounts providing an intimate look at the lives of some of America's wounded heroes and the people who care for them. Joe Macenka, son of Joseph and Dorothy Macenka of Coaldale, was given unlimited access to the patients, families, physicians and staff at the Polytrauma Rehabilitation Center at McGuire Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Richmond, Va. What he discovered there ran the gamut of emotions sadness, depression, heartbreak, inspiration and hope.

Macenka's 370-page book (available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble) details the aftermath of war, as seen through the lives and struggles of individual wounded warriors after they return home. It also focuses on the people who care for them, individually and collectively, as they try to find their way back to "normal."

The author spent part of his formative years in Hometown before the family moved to Hershey. After graduating from Harrisburg Community College, he earned a degree in journalism from Western Connecticut State College in Danbury. He currently resides in Richmond and is employed by the Richmond Times-Dispatch, covering police and court cases for the newspaper's website. His more than 35 years in journalism has had him covering everything from sports to the mass shootings at Virginia Tech.

A former employee of The Associated Press, he was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for his three-part series on the shooting death of a Virginia Commonwealth University student.

After years of "summing up news stories in four to six paragraphs," Macenka was looking for a writing challenge, "something he could sink his teeth into, that involved peeling the layers of an onion, as opposed to quickly summarizing a set of basic facts."

But after years of covering sports and crime, he was also looking for a "positive people story."

An Associated Press article on Christmas Eve 2011 gave him his topic. That article concerned a news photographer embedded with a U.S. Marine combat unit in Afghanistan. After an Improvised Explosive Device critically injured one of the Marines, the photographer held his hand, offering comfort as the young man slipped into a coma. Months later, the photographer went through hoops trying to determine what happened to the injured Marine. Her account of that search, which led her to McGuire, was the "positive people story" Macenka was seeking.

Over the next 18 months, the "Hope Emerges" author left his day job and traveled to the polytrauma unit, where he spent hour upon hour sitting and talking with patients, families and staff members. Although he initially planned to spend six to eight months conducting his research, Macenka discovered the lives of these Wounded Warriors to be so "compelling, redeeming and inspiring" that he had to keep visiting to see how the "story played out."

"I expected our service personnel to inspire me with their courage and determination. What I wasn't prepared for, but what took my breath away on a daily basis, was the incredible teamwork, skill, passion and tender care provided by the amazingly talented professionals at Richmond's Polytrauma Unit," he said.

"I hope my book helps the public understand the long road back from traumatic injuries, the effects of those injuries on family and friends and the realization that there are wonderfully talented, caring, gifted people who can help along the way.

"There is hope out there, and it's emerging where you might not expect it."

Note: A donated copy is in the library of St. Mary's Orthodox Church.