Injured soldier's friends plan fundraiser

January 12, 2007|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN REPORTER

Ryan Major was lying in a hospital bed, connected to monitors and a feeding tube, his arms broken and his legs amputated. But the 22-year-old soldier, who was critically injured in Iraq, still wanted to buy his friends Christmas presents.

"That's just how he is," says Jen Feeney, one of Major's friends.

When Feeney and other friends decided to raise money for some of Major's additional medical expenses, they said they knew how the 2003 Towson High School graduate would want to spend the proceeds -- on someone else.

Now, as Major's friends coordinate a fundraiser tomorrow night at St. Pius X Parochial School, they're already planning to establish the bull roast as an annual event that could help other injured soldiers.

"We knew this couldn't be just one bull roast," says Corey Fick, 21, who attended St. Pius with Major and graduated with him from Towson High.

Major has a dozen or so close friends from his Towson school days, when he played football, ran track and wrestled. His laugh is one of the features that drew people to him, says David O'Malley Jr., who has been friends with Major since second grade.

"It's kind of a high-pitched, Urkel laugh," O'Malley says. "You meet him once and immediately love him. Everyone does."

Coaches, school administrators and his parents' friends similarly describe him as being an especially warm, friendly kid. Even in his official military photo, his friends point out, he looks like he's going to smile.

Major still has difficulty talking and couldn't be interviewed for this article, his friends and family said.

He joined the Army the summer after high school graduation. The core group of friends kept in touch through e-mail and visited when he was on leave.

Major holds the rank of specialist, and is part of the 36th Infantry Battalion of the 1st Brigade of the 1st Armored Division, Army officials said. In January, he was deployed to Iraq, his brother Mike said.

The soldier last saw his friends in August, when he surprised them with a visit. "He loved seeing the expressions on people's faces when they saw it was him," Feeney says.

A month later, Major was hit by a fragment grenade and shrapnel pierced his leg, his friends said. But, they said, Major quickly recovered from the injury.

In early November, Major was walking down an Iraqi street as part of a mission to find a cell of bomb-makers when an improvised explosive device blew up, his friends said. He lost one leg in the blast, and later his other leg. He also lost a thumb, two other fingers and part of another.

Still, according to a letter Major's mother received from a squad-mate, Major insisted the emergency responders care for his fellow soldiers first. "He thought they were worse off," says O'Malley.

Major's friends back home began to rally. Although they are all in their early 20s, at a stage when they're still living with parents -- some holding down their first jobs, others finishing college degrees -- they quickly began researching disability benefits and the kind of long-term rehabilitation their wounded friend faced.

They learned, for example, that Major's military benefits probably won't cover the expense of having a ramp installed at his mother's house in Silver Spring because Major himself doesn't own the home, O'Malley says.

"To have to worry about something like money after this just isn't right," Fick says.

Figuring that former classmates and others might also want to help, the group began planning a fundraiser. St. Pius school administrators provided the gym space. O'Malley's father helped them establish a foundation for Major. One friend created a Web site, www.ryancmajor.com. Others solicited donations from businesses for a raffle and auction, arranged catering, and more recently, scrambled to find large-screen TVs to show the Ravens-Colts game.

Members of a local band, The Objections, saw an article about the event and volunteered to play. "When you see someone who ... is from around here and whose life has been so horribly changed, you want to do something," says Jane Santoni, the lead guitar player.

Meanwhile, Major was transported from a hospital in Germany to Walter Reed Army Medical Center and then to the Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore.

The group has told Major about the bull roast and plans to set up a Web camera so that he can watch the festivities from his hospital bed.

At first, O'Malley says, Major tried to refuse the offer of financial help. "I don't think he realizes what he has ahead of him," O'Malley said. "I think he does realize that while this first event is just for him, that this could get bigger and benefit others."

Major's friends say they're optimistic about his recovery.

"He asked for a Whopper the other day," O'Malley says. "He's going to be OK."

laura.barnhardt@baltsun.com

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