NY Post: Army Ranger Joe Kapacziewski had volunteered to “take care” of the Taliban snipers who had ambushed his platoon in the pitch darkness on a Hindu Kush mountain ridge in Afghanistan in 2009.
But as he raced down the mountainside, aiming to cut the enemy off at the pass below, he was caught in an avalanche of loose shale and tumbled down. To stop his fall and save himself, he grabbed a tree — and came face-to-face with one of the Taliban snipers who had been hiding behind it.
With his free hand, the staff sergeant aimed his M4 rifle and shot the sniper dead. “Kap,” as he was fondly nicknamed, then dashed back up the steep slope to his men under fire.
It was a Herculean feat even the fittest soldier would have been hard-pressed to pull off. For Kapacziewski, it was something miraculous.
The 30-year-old Dunham, Conn., native is the only amputee in Army Rangers history ever to return to combat. He has served in five tours while wearing a prosthesis that replaced his right leg below the knee.
In his gripping new memoir, “Back in the Fight” (St. Martin’s Press), he describes hunting Taliban targets, leading a squad and even saving a wounded soldier — all without a leg.
All told, Kapacziewski has served 10 tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and has received three purple hearts, an Army Commendation Medal with a V for valor and a bronze star.
Kap was wounded in Iraq in 2005 after a grenade was tossed into his Stryker vehicle. It ripped apart his arm, which eventually healed — though his leg did not. He resisted losing the limb, despite the excruciating pain. Two years later, he finally made the decision to allow doctors to amputate.
“When I first got hurt it was my goal all along to go back to the squad to lead the Rangers in combat,” he told The Post. But when his leg wouldn’t heal, a superior told him he couldn’t stay in Alpha Company anymore, that he was out of the fight.
“This was the most devastating day of my life,” he recalls. “I felt the ground fall out from underneath my feet.”
Signing up straight out of high school, he says, the Rangers were “all I had ever known. “Just because I am missing a leg I do not see this as an excuse not to serve my country. As corny as it sounds, I had signed on the dotted line before 9/11 and it was all I had ever known and wanted to do.”
There were darker days when he could only confide to his wife, Kimberly, that he too had doubts.
The long road to be reinstated as a combat-ready Ranger — with the help of a high-tech shock-absorbing Pathfinder II prosthetic leg — was the hardest fight he had ever waged. “No Ranger in my condition had ever qualified to return to direct combat operations,” he says.
He had to prove to Army brass that he was up to the task of jumping out of planes, fast roping from helicopters, running five miles in under 40 minutes, marching 12 miles with a 45-pound pack in under three hours and all in the 80th percentile or higher.
“Even within a Ranger Regiment, seeing me as an amputee, the question was whether I am capable of doing the job,” Kap says. “There was a little apprehension. I felt, ‘I am under the gun to prove myself.’ I had to show that I could kick in doors.”
Within 10 months of his amputation he completed the full Army physical test. Even after exceeding the standards, Kap could sense some resistance at his return to fighting. “It wasn’t until the chain of command switched out that I was allowed to go back into combat,” he says.
He then faced life-threatening attacks all over again. When an enemy grenade went off on a 2010 mission in eastern Afghanistan, Kap took shrapnel in his left leg — but his carbon-fiber limb withstood the blast. That earned him his third purple heart.
“It worked out really well for me,” says Kapacziewski, who will be on his 11th rotation next year and has since run two New York City Marathons and three triathlons.
The father of two boys, Kap currently works at Fort Benning, Ga., where he is part of a Ranger training and assessment program. One Ranger was so impressed after a grueling training run he asked how Kap got a leg like that. “Made in Iraq,” the platoon squad leader quipped.
Kapacziewski recalls that night, four years ago, when he and his troops came under Taliban fire. As he was quick marching back up to the ridge, his prosthetic leg came loose from his stump and plummeted down the rock face. This was one time Kap hadn’t brought along a spare. He had no other choice but to slide down and retrieve it. “I just put it back on and was back in the fight,” he says.