Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/washington/news.aspx?id=75979
Story Retrieval Date: 5/22/2013 10:21:14 AM CST
WASHINGTON -- Army Spc. Chris Gross of Oswego remembers a doctor's crushing prediction that he would never serve again after a rocket-propelled grenade exploded a few feet away from him in Afghanistan.
"I was devastated," Gross said. "I hate not working."
But Gross has recovered enough to rejoin his unit soon, to get married on Valentine's Day and, on Monday, to attend President Bush's final State of the Union address as the guest of Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.
Durbin has a tradition of inviting wounded warriors for each State of the Union address. This year his guests were Gross, 20, from Oswego, and Staff Sgt. Matthew Ritenour, 32, from Chicago's North Side. The two were wounded in separate incidents in Afghanistan in September.
"They deserve our thanks," Durbin said Monday afternoon. "We want to let them know we're going to stand behind them."
Gross, dressed in his military fatigues, didn't have any advice for Bush on his seventh State of the Union address, but said he hopes Americans don't lose sight of the soldiers fighting in Afghanistan just because the war in Iraq gets more attention.
Although honored to be invited to the annual event, Gross did not appear nervous as he and Durbin answered reporters' questions in Durbin's office. He said he was a soldier who did his duty and didn't want to comment about politics or legislation.
However, a slight smile snuck onto Gross' serious visage as the president talked about honoring troops in Iraq and Afghanistan during his address. The GI also shot up from his seat, one of the first to stand, when Bush pledged to make sure the troops had enough resources to protect the country.
Rachel Heitz, his 19-year-old fiancée, accompanied Gross through the marble hallways of the Capitol on their way to the House chambers to hear the speech. They also had dinner with Durbin and Ritenour.
While fighting near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border last September, Gross was tossed into the air when the RPG detonated. He sustained a brain injury and broke numerous bones. He's been recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington and soon will rejoin his unit in Italy before it returns to Afghanistan.
"I hope to get back in the fight as quick as I can," he said.
Heitz said she will miss him. When asked what specifically she would miss about her fiancé, she paused before replying
"Everything, just everything," she said.
Gross' grandmother, Joann Orth, already had plans to watch the president's speech before she learned Monday afternoon that Gross would be there.
"I think it's the most exciting thing in the whole wide world," said Orth, an Aurora resident. "I am so proud of him."
Gross has been injured twice, with the second incident being the more serious of the two. For it, he's received two Purple Hearts, Orth said.
Before enlisting as a 19-year-old, Gross wanted to be a "famous musician" and volunteered to battle wildfires in California, his grandmother said. His father had served as an Army paratrooper.
"Chris loves excitement," she said. "He's not a rock star, (but) we got him in the limelight."
Beacon News staff writer Dan Campana contributed to this story.