Seven-year-old Denali Casara was never much for praying. Most evenings he’d just plop down on his knees and do what he had to do. But one evening when his Grandma asked him and his sister to pray, Denali folded his hands and prayed in earnest.
“Don’t let my daddy get shot,” Denali prayed. The next day, Denali’s dad, Sgt. Dan Casara, was injured when his tank rolled over a bomb in Iraq, killing two crew members and wounding four.
Life in the Casara household changed that day in September 2005. Dan went from being an active dad to Denali and his stepdaughter Destiny Caverl, 11, to being in a wheelchair and currently on crutches. He has endured 24 surgeries. And his family has learned that even simple things have taken on a new meaning.
“They’ve seen hurt veterans and they’re more compassionate and aware. A lot of kids aren’t aware of the veterans’ contribution. My children are,” says Dan’s wife Gabrielle. “It gives them another outlook on America and what makes it great. Other kids don’t have a clue when they say the Pledge of Allegiance. Mine do.”
Dan’s outlook on life has changed as well. “I’m a lot more understanding and receptive to a lot of things. I don’t look at situations as life altering as I would before,” he says. But the trauma also left Dan struggling with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, so he sometimes finds himself trying to explain to the kids why he has a shorter fuse.
Their new reality as a family with an injured veteran has required patience on Gabrielle’s part. “I see the struggle of the veterans. It’s invisible to a lot of people, but seeing his struggle and trying to heal, it’s been rough. The after effects of war will stay with them for the rest of their life.”
As he heals, Dan has kept busy with his family and with speaking to groups about his experiences. Although one group asked him to speak because they wanted the children to meet a real hero, Dan denies that he has done anything special.
“I don’t consider myself a hero. I did my job and my job was to help a nation fall into the democratic process,” he says. “In the process I got hurt and lost two friends. But this is what we volunteered to do.”
While Dan is comforted by his family’s love and patience, he knows some returning soldiers don’t have that same support. He is involved in several organizations for veterans and he asks that all Americans reach out to the troops.
“I’m a big believer that if you’re gonna say it, do it. If you say you’re going to support your troops, don’t just slap a magnet on your car,” he says. “There are so many organizations trying to help families when they (soldiers) return, but they need help. We need the support of each and every person. To the parents, teach your children what freedom really means and that someone paid a price for that freedom.”