‘I live it every day’

Local veteran recalls service ahead of Veterans Day

Dane DeGrace remembers his service in Afghanistan as an explosive ordnance disposal technician with the Army as he looks at a framed display in his office in Saranac Lake. The display includes the Purple Heart ribbon he earned on the day he was caught in an explosion. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

SARANAC LAKE — There’s a framed collection of photos, medals and ribbons Dane DeGrace hangs on the wall of his office at North Country Home Services — memories of his time in Afghanistan with the Army’s bomb squad, reminders of the “brothers for life” who died over there, and a Purple Heart ribbon, an award he earned on a day he’ll be thinking about on Thursday.

Tomorrow is Veterans Day, a time DeGrace said Americans should be thankful for their freedoms and a time for everyone to think about the people who served in the country’s military. Memorial Day is to remember those who died in military service. Veterans Day is for anyone who served in the armed forces. For those lucky enough to return, many carry the scars, mental and physical, of war.

“I live it every day … every day,” DeGrace said.

Called to serve

DeGrace grew up in Saranac Lake. A few years after graduating, he was looking for direction in life and saw a cousin from Tupper Lake enlisted in the Army.

“I wanted to find something meaningful,” he said.

He enlisted in 2010 and chose to become an explosive ordnance disposal technician. EOD’s, as they’re called, are the Army’s bomb squad. Their job is to disarm or safely detonate improvised explosive devices. DeGrace said it’s a very mental job. Each situation was uncertain.

“I knew when I joined the Army that I wanted to do something positive,” DeGrace said. “I wanted to do something helpful.”

He said when he joined, the battle was less about firefights and more about protecting soldiers and Afghan civilians from the Taliban’s IEDs.

DeGrace deployed to Afghanistan in October 2012. It wasn’t like “The Hurt Locker,” he said. That’s Hollywood.

Explosions and loss

DeGrace was seven months into a nine-month deployment when he was caught in an IED explosion.

It was May 14, 2013. DeGrace’s squad got a call that soldiers on patrol had been injured by an IED explosion. This was the first time he had encountered an IED that injured a fellow soldier, he said.

“It was time to go to work,” he said.

When they arrived, three soldiers were dead and several were injured.

There were explosives buried all over. Using a metal detector to find safe passage, DeGrace walked into the unknown. A medic behind him, Sgt. Adam Hartswick, unknowingly stepped outside of the two-foot path DeGrace was paving, triggering an explosion.

Hartswick, now a double-amputee, gave others instructions on how to tie off tourniquets on his legs.

“He saved his own life,” DeGrace said. “He’s the man.”

Moments later, a Black Hawk helicopter landed, and eight minutes after that, they were back in safety at a base. Four soldiers were dead, 16 suffered long-term physical injuries and many more had lasting traumatic brain injuries or hearing loss.

DeGrace was wounded badly. His left side was hit by the explosion and shrapnel. In his office on Tuesday, he rolled up his sleeve to show the scars up and down his arm. He’s lucky to have his arm, he said.

DeGrace knew the men who died well. They went to the gym every day together and played cards every night.

Their names were Cody Towse, 21, Jeffrey Baker, 29, Mitchell Daehling, 24, and William Gilbert, 24.

DeGrace said moments of his life are colored with the memories of these friends and fellow soldiers.

With tears in his eyes, he said Baker had just had a daughter before being deployed.

“When I had my daughter … that’s the part that kills me,” DeGrace said. “He doesn’t have time with his daughter, but luckily, I do.”

Photos of these four, and others injured on that day, hang on the wall by DeGrace’s desk. He said he’ll always remember them, and he tries to let them live through him.

He said he’s fortunate to be able to cope with the post-traumatic stress and survivor’s guilt better than others. He knows what happened and knows they did everything right that day.

“We didn’t misstep,” DeGrace said. “It’s the nature of the beast. It’s war.”

He said he feels more empathetic for those who didn’t anticipate the threat of injury from explosives.

“We signed up for it,” he said of the EODs.

Still, he struggles with the questions of why he survived when others didn’t. It’s healthy, he said, to talk about it with others and be comfortable sharing his emotions.

He keeps in contact with the other soldiers injured that day, including Hartswick. A few years back, another soldier, Ryan Smith, organized a tough mudder race, run in full bomb gear, to raise money for the families of the people injured or killed in the explosions.

Beneath his physical scars, DeGrace still carries shrapnel from that day. There’s a rock lodged in a finger on his left hand that he said needs to be removed.

“Eight years later, I still have rocks falling out of me,” he said.


DeGrace was hospitalized for 30 days, having surgeries and skin grafts every other day. During this time, then-President Barack Obama visited Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and shook hands with DeGrace.

He had a year of physical therapy, but his progress “plateaued.” To this day, DeGrace has nerve damage in his hand and arm. But he still wanted to serve.

Stateside, he worked with the Secret Service, serving on two missions to protect President Joe Biden, who at the time was Obama’s vice president.

DeGrace wanted to rejoin the EOD force, but the nerve damage was too severe. DeGrace medically retired from the Army in July 2015.

He and his wife Brittany moved back to Saranac Lake to be close to family and he attended North Country Community College and Paul Smith’s College.

DeGrace is now a fiscal and business assistant for North Country Home Services. He said he wanted to do something “meaningful” in his civilian life, too. He wasn’t trained to work with HCHS’ elderly clients, but he could support the team by running the finances and technology.

DeGrace said he keeps the many fond memories of deployment in mind, to help him stay positive and reconcile what happened. He knew he had an important job to do, and carried it out with all of his energy.

“I’d do it again in a heartbeat,” DeGrace said. “At the same time, I’m glad to be done, too.”

On Veterans Day, he’ll spend time with his wife Brittany and his two children, who are 5 and 2 years old, and pay respects to his brothers and sisters at the Veterans Day ceremony at Riverside Park in Saranac Lake at 10:45 a.m.


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