Etched into Donleigh Gaunky’s memory is his promise to his mother that he would bring younger brother Alex back from the Mideast war zone, where the siblings served in different units.
That memory is bittersweet now, even though Gaunky fulfilled the vow.
Donleigh, who goes by Don, acknowledged his mixed feelings during an interview this week.
“I’m grateful because I was the one to bring him home, but sad because it was not the way we would have preferred. I was supposed to keep him safe,” Don said of being assigned the task of accompanying Alex’s body after he died from severe head wounds and other injuries suffered in Iraq in November 2005.
The extra duty was an exception to protocol. It is rare indeed that a relative — let alone a sibling — escorts a fallen soldier home.
Don, a 34-year-old Sparta native who now lives in La Crosse, recalled his promise to his mother, Lori Friske, in advance of the publication today of his book, “The Hardest Journey Home — A True Story of Loss and Duty During the Iraq War.”
“Mom said, ‘You don’t have to do that,’” Don said. “I said, ‘I know, but I’m just letting you know I’ll keep my eye on him.’ Mom never made me promise that.”
Don, a packaging associate at the La Crosse Tribune, said the book came to him in fits and starts, from the time in 2006 when he first thought it might be a good story to tell.
“Well, the story was a nice snapshot, but I thought I wanted to give the whole picture,” he said, adding that he was leaning more toward a memoir of his own military career, with the trip home with Alex as an element.
“Dad kept on me for a while, but I pushed back,” he said.
Don’s decision to proceed with writing the book came quite by chance, after he saw the TV movie “Taking Chance,” based on an experience similar to his, a few years ago. The 2009 production starred Kevin Bacon as Marine Lt. Col. Michael Strobl, who escorted the body of Pfc. Chance Phelps because they were from the same hometown.
Strobl’s encounter with a sergeant who told Strobl that he was accompanying his brother home struck a chord with Don.
“I looked for the other sibling for years” to no avail, he said, so he read Strobl’s own account of that transport in a quest for clues — only to discover that it was a fictional plot twist to an otherwise factual story.
“OK, it was Hollywood playing with sympathies,” Don recalled. “I thought, ‘Crap! Now I really need to tell the story.’ Originally, I thought I was going to tell this, then I thought of a memoir, then back to this.”
The result is a detailed account in a simple narrative style that can make readers feel as if they are taking the journey along with the Gaunky boys.
Asked about that the simplicity of his prose, Gaunky said, “It was a conscious decision to be able to explain what happened.”
Many parts of the book inspire chills, such as when he was on duty Nov. 17, 2005, in Baghdad, reviewing reports on enemy encounters and happened upon one that he knew involved Alex’s unit.
He left repeated texts and messages on Alex’s phone to determine whether he had been involved. Repeatedly checking for a response and finding none, Don assumed Alex was asleep or on another mission. He discovery Alex had sustained a severe head injury came in an email from his dad, David, which began:
“This is a letter I hoped I’d never have to write ….”
The email informed him that Alex was being moved to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, a military hospital in Germany. After forwarding the message to his brother Dave, who was on his second Navy tour in the Persian Gulf, Don went outside.
“I finally caught my breath, and the reality of what I was going to have to deal with in terms of my little brother being, at that point, severely injured,” he wrote in the book. “My arms shook violently. It wasn’t a cold night either, so I knew enough that this was a sign of my body going into, most likely, a state of shock.”
Don was able to call parents and learned that military officials were trying to expedite passports for them and Don's twin brother, Bob, so they could go to Landstuhl to be with Alex.
Before Don boarded a plane to Germany, a first sergeant told him she had received word that Alex had arrived at the hospital. When she asked about Alex's condition on Don's behalf, she was told to contact Alex's family, Don wrote in the book.
Even though Don was closest to Alex’s geographic location, “basically, I was the last to find out” he had died.
“Technically, he didn’t leave the theater alive — basically, he was brain dead, but they were keeping him alive with machines,” Don said in the interview.
Don described his assignment as Alex’s escort home as “a matter of circumstance. They usually don’t try to have family members do it because of the emotions,” he said. “I heard about a Gold Star father (and a service member himself) in the States who requested several times to take his son home, and it was denied.”
In Gaunky’s case, however, his superiors realized that he would be left to his own devices to arrange flights on civilian planes to get home. Because it was the holiday season, it would have been nearly impossible to get to Sparta in time for the funeral.
“The easiest way was for me to fill (the escort) role and go with him,” Don said.
In the book, Don lists many intricate details about the process, including efforts to acquire the uniform escorts are required to wear, observations at the airport and other fine points throughout the journey, including the fact that he had been upgraded to first class on the civilian flight, as Bacon’s character had been in “Taking Chance.”
Similar to the movie scenario, in which Chance Phelps’ mother and father each received a flag in memory of their son instead of just one between the two, the same was the case for Alex’s parents.
At each stop and every turn, Don chronicles how carefully he followed procedures — as both a soldier and as a brother — to ensure that Alex’s body was treated with reverence during the trip home. They arrived in Sparta on Thanksgiving Day.
He recalled during the interview that he was numb most of the time, with activities seeming to be in slow motion, because “I was so busy on autopilot, there was no way for emotions.”
He also outlines the family’s discussion of funeral preparations, when Lori informed them that one song in particular had been selected in advance — picked by none other than Alex himself.
During Alex’s last visit home, the song “My Immortal” had come on the radio, their mother told the family.
“It was a beautiful but sad song, and at some point, I had to turn it off,” Don’s book quotes his mother as saying. “I told Alex, ‘That’s a beautiful song, but it’s a little bit too sad. It always makes me cry.’ After telling him that was the reason I had to turn it off, Alex said, ‘Yeah, I know. I can hear it being played at my funeral.’”
Don’s narrative continues, “The room went silent for about a minute. No one said a word, but it felt as though everyone was in agreement on this. Alex, for whatever reason, felt as though he knew something. Therefore, we knew that the decision was made that this song would be played.”
After the funeral, the procession of mourners encountered a stunning scene, Don writes.
“What I saw, and everyone behind us saw, was something unexpected. On turning that corner, we found that all along both sides of the road were people holding up American flags. Parents. Kids. Veterans who broke out their uniforms and put them on in order to pay their respects.”
During the interview, Don said he isn’t sure exactly what Alex had aspired to for his life, although he had shown interest in construction and architecture.
“He was in the Engineer Corps, and he was proud of it,” Don said. “I think he was interested in re-enlisting, maybe making a career of it.”
Asked about the recent controversy over President Donald Trump’s comment to Myeshia Johnson after her husband, Sgt. La David Johnson, was killed, that he “knew what he signed up for,” Don said opinions were divided even within the Gold Star community, which is made up of immediate family members of fallen U.S. troops.
“Initially, they were split over whether it was appropriate or taken the wrong way,” Don said.
After White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, himself a retired Marine general whose son, Lt. Robert Kelly, was killed in Afghanistan in 2010, addressed the issue, Gold Star families became more unified, Don said.
“Gold Star families are not monolithic” and often disagree on issues, he said. “But when Trump came out again and defended himself, they (Gold Star families) turned on him.”
Don talked of the strain on his family of having a band of four brothers in the military — he and Alex in the Army, and Dave and Bob in the Navy — including one period during which three were in the same region at the same time.
The family doesn’t come from a strictly military tradition, he said, although his dad was an Army medic during the Vietnam War era but not in the war itself, and stepdad Brad Friske was in the Navy.
“Dad used to say we rolled the dice so many times,” he recalled. “My parents had to deal with six deployments.”
Don suggested the scenario when his dad went home for lunch one day, and a phone message awaited him.
He probably thought, “OK, this is bad — I just don’t know which one,” Don said.
Don has a tattoo on his right arm in memory of Alex. It depicts the traditional symbol of a Battlefield Cross, with a helmet atop a rifle, dog tags dangling and boots at the base. Don’s tat is modified with wings on each side, as well as the symbol and the motto of his unit, “Ne Desit Virtus,” Latin for “Let Valor Not Fail.”
Don, who was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division in Fort Campbell, Ky., and later, to the 205th Military Intelligence Battalion at Fort Shafter, Hawaii, served two tours of duty in Iraq between 2003 and 2006.
After leaving the military, Don earned his bachelor’s in political science from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. He is an advocate for veterans and survivor issues, with an emphasis on veteran suicides.
He is more comfortable talking about his brother and their journey home these days, although he often doesn’t because it seems to make some people uncomfortable.
And some things haunt him, such as “Taps and the 21-gun salute. I have a lot of a shivers with that. It’s probably also hypersensitivity from the military.”
Invoking his dad’s mantra again, Don said, “We rolled the dice so many times, there always was a possibility.”
As La Crescent Police Officer Ryan Quanrud walked up to the idling car, saying “Hey, how’s it going?” he noticed the shotgun barrel pointing out the window. A split second later the gun fired, sending a slug whizzing past his head.
The muzzle blast is visible in video captured by his squad car’s dash cam.
“I thought I was dead,” Quanrud later told state investigators. “I honestly thought I was gonna get shot right in the head.”
Quanrud and another officer emptied their guns into the back of the Ford Taurus before the driver fled at speeds of up to 100 mph while his passenger fired at the pursuing squad cars.
ROCHESTER, Minn. — Standing in a stately Mayo Clinic library, Lilly Ross reached out and touched the face of a stranger, prodding the rosy cheeks and eyeing the hairless gap in a chin she once had known so well.
“That’s why he always grew it so long, so he could try to mesh it together on the chin,” she told Andy Sandness, as he shut his eyes and braced for the tickle of her touch on new nerve endings in the face that had been her husband’s.
Sixteen months after transplant surgery gave Sandness the face that had belonged to Calen “Rudy” Ross, he met the woman who had agreed to donate her high school sweetheart’s visage to a man who lived nearly a decade without one.
The two came together last month in a meeting arranged by the Mayo Clinic, the same place where Sandness underwent a 56-hour surgery that was the clinic’s first such transplant. With her toddler Leonard in tow, Ross strode toward Sandness, tears welling in her eyes as they tightly embraced.
Ross had fretted before the meeting, fearful of the certain reminders of her husband, who took his own life. But her stress quickly melted away — without Calen’s eyes, forehead or strong cheeks, Sandness didn’t look like him, she told herself.
Instead, she saw a man whose life had changed through her husband’s gift, newly confident after 10 years of hiding from mirrors and staring eyes.
“It made me proud,” Ross said of the 32-year-old Sandness. “The way Rudy saw himself ... he didn’t see himself like that.”
Sandness and Calen Ross lived lives full of hunting, fishing and exploring the outdoors before their struggles consumed them, 10 years and hundreds of miles apart.
Sandness put a rifle below his chin in late 2006 in his native Wyoming and pulled the trigger, destroying most of his face. Ross shot himself and died in southwestern Minnesota a decade later.
By then, Sandness had receded from contact with the outside world, ashamed of his injuries — surgeries to rebuild his face had left him a quarter-sized mouth, and his prosthetic nose frequently fell off.
Hope first came in 2012 when the Mayo Clinic started exploring a face transplant program and again in early 2016 when he was wait-listed for the procedure.
Ross already had agreed to donate her husband’s lungs, kidneys and other organs to patients. Then LifeSource, a Midwestern nonprofit organization that facilitates organ and tissue donations, broached the idea of a donation for a man awaiting a face transplant at the clinic.
Ross and Sandness’ ages, blood type, skin color and facial structure were such a near-perfect match that Sandness’ surgeon, Dr. Samir Mardini, said the two men could have been cousins.
Ross consented, despite her hesitation about someday seeing her husband’s face on a stranger. Eight months pregnant at the time, she said one reason to go forward was that she wanted the couple’s child to one day understand what his father did to help others.
More than a year after a surgery that took a team of more than 60 medical professionals, Sandness is finding a groove in everyday life while still treasuring the simple tasks he lost for 10 years, such as chewing a piece of pizza.
He’s been promoted in his work as an oilfield electrician and is expanding his world while still prizing the anonymity that comes with a normal face.
“I wouldn’t go out in public. I hated going into bigger cities,” he said. “And now I’m just really spreading my wings and doing the things I missed out on — going out to restaurants and eating, going dancing.”
Life with a transplanted face takes work, every day. Sandness is on a daily regimen of anti-rejection medication. He’s constantly working to retrain his nerves to operate in sync with his new face, giving himself facial massages and striving to improve his speech by running through the alphabet while driving or showering.
“I wanted to show you that your gift will not be wasted,” Sandness told Ross.
Mardini and the rest of Sandness’ medical team have delighted in seeing their patient and friend open up since the procedure, going out of his way to talk with strangers whose gaze he once hid from.
“It turns out Andy is not as much of an introvert as we thought,” Mardini said. “He’s enjoying these times, where he’s missed out on 10 years of his life.”
Ross and Sandness say they feel like family now. They plan to forge a stronger connection, and Sandness said he’ll contribute to a trust fund for Leonard’s education.
On the day of their meeting, the boy stared curiously at Sandness at first. But later, he walked over and waved to be picked up. Sandness happily obliged.
For Ross, just meeting Sandness felt like a huge release — a way to get past a year filled with grieving, funeral planning, childbirth and gut-wrenching decisions about organ donations.
“Meeting Andy, it has finally given me closure,” she said, her voice choking as it trailed off. “Everything happened so fast.”