BRANFORD — Al Meadows still remembers the first time he saw fellow Purple Heart recipient Sergio Cano at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. It was summer 2011. Cano, a 22-year-old Army sergeant, was in bad shape.
“He was in a wheelchair, his left leg was severely injured, and his shoulder and arm were also damaged,” said Meadows, chairman of Operation Gift Cards, a group that personally delivers Post Exchange gift cards, as well as other assistance, to wounded soldiers at Walter Reed.
It’s to recognize the service of veterans like Cano — as well as Meadows, a Vietnam veteran — that, on Sunday, Nov. 10, the town of Branford will hold its annual Veterans Day parade.
In Cano’s case, it was, by any measure, heroic service.
During a reconnaissance mission on a Taliban training camp in June 2011, he and his six-man team were ambushed, Cano, now 30, recalled at a recent Take A Vet Fishing event at the Branford Yacht Club.
The shrapnel from a Rocket Propelled Grenade left a gaping wound in his left side. He tourniqueted himself, then got his team back on line, and returned fire.
“Almost everyone on my team got hit,” he said, as he relaxed at a picnic table after a morning fishing for stripers.
“Our radios were down. No one could get ahold of us so they thought we were dead. I had to get my team a quarter mile up the ridgeline to re-establish contact, so we crawled and hopped, did whatever it took.”
Cano, a Bridgeport native, had served in the Army for five 1/2 years, including 14 months in Samarra, Iraq, when he was approached about trying out for the recon-sniper team.
It was an honor. “Out of 10,000 in my battalion, 150 got asked, and out of those, 30 got selected,” said Cano, a track star at Seymour High School.
For a year, he endured the rigors of training in the Army’s Sniper School, Ranger School and Reconnaissance School, then was designated leader of a six-man team that was attached to Special Operations. He was 21.
In early May 2011, a month before the fateful mission, his team was dispatched on a mission to support the Osama bin Laden raid on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
“We waited there for three days,” he said. “We didn’t know what was going on and then we came back and realized bin Laden was caught.”
And then it was June 11, 2011 and Cano and his team were struggling under heavy fire up the ridgeline to regain radio contact when he took a bullet wound ricochet to his left arm, he recalled. It ripped through his left side. Having used up his tourniquets on his left leg and thigh, Cano duct-taped his arm.
Somehow they got up the ridgeline, he said. Cano called in the coordinates, securing enough firepower to save the lives of him and his team.
“The firefight was so heavy that they couldn’t get to us for over an hour, so I designated .8 mg of morphine to all my guys even though I was the worst hit,” said Cano, who remembers drifting in and out of consciousness.
At the Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, he got a blood infusion and then passed out, he recalled. He woke up on a plane on the way to Landstuhl Military Hospital in Germany.
Cano spent the next three years recovering at Walter Reed. Early on in his stay, he met Meadows who, along with other Connecticut veterans and volunteers, was making a monthly Operation Gift Cards visit.
A few months later, Meadows recalled, “you could see a noticeable difference. He was still in a wheelchair but his shoulders and arms were bulked up.” Whereas his mother had always been by his side, he was now wheeling himself.
Meadows made a point of seeing Cano every month during his years at Walter Reed. “It was very rewarding for us to visit him, to follow his progress and also the setbacks,” he said, referring to the grueling limb salvage process that Cano endured over his first year-and-a-half there.
In all, he underwent over 30 surgeries to save his left leg. In April 2013, he decided to have it amputated.
All throughout, Meadows and his cadre of volunteers were dispensing gift cards as well as information on the veterans organizations Cano and other soldiers might contact once they returned to their home states and, crucially, on the importance of being proactive.
“Federal privacy laws prevent veterans groups and other groups anxious to provide assistance from identifying returning veterans, so you have to notify them,” Meadows said.
Another byproduct of Operation Gift Cards has been re-uniting with Cano and other Walter Reed veterans at extracurricular events like the annual TAVF fishing expedition at the Branford Yacht Club, Meadows added, noting that, a few years ago, Cano won the trophy for the largest fish.
“Al helped me get involved in events like this,” said Cano, who now works at BAE Systems, an electronics and defense industry company in New Hampshire, and spends his leisure time running and rock-climbing with his girlfriend Danielle Frost and his Giant Schnauzer Maverick.
“I’m still working on life,” Cano said, as a gull sounded amid the heady aroma of burgers in the salt air. “Danielle has been a huge inspiration. I’m on the right track.”
Branford Veterans Day ceremonies will take place on Sunday, Nov. 10 at 1 p.m. on the town green, followed by the parade, which steps off at 1:30 p.m. on Main Street.
For more information about Operation Gift Cards, contact Al Meadows at 203-929-3357 or firstname.lastname@example.org.