Wounded soldier to receive new home in Winter Park

Sgt. First Class Bacary Sambou hopes to move into a new home in Winter Park on July 4.

Sgt. First Class Bacary Sambou hopes to move into a new home in Winter Park on July 4.

Tim Freed

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Sgt. First Class Bacary Sambou struggled to remain conscious. The blast outside his MRAP vehicle had thrown him to the steel floor inside. He couldn’t move his arms or legs.

The armored vehicle’s triangular, hull-like body helped divide the shockwave, but the improvised explosive device still devastated the metal box on wheels holding two soldiers inside.

Afternoon sunlight poured in through the narrow windows of the massive personnel carrier.

As the wind outside carried the desert sands of Afghanistan in sweeping circles, home felt so far away.

Winter Park City Commissioners played a part in giving Sambou a place to call home at their March 24 meeting as they voted to donate a parcel of land along Symonds Avenue to Hannibal Square Community Land Trust Inc., orchestrators of a plan to give the U.S. Army soldier a house of his own two years after combat wounds in Afghanistan changed his life forever.

The effort to build a new home for the wounded soldier came about when Land Trust joined forces with Palm Harbor Homes and Fairways for Warriors earlier this year.

They knew a current soldier or war veteran would make the perfect recipient for a new house – all they needed was a piece of land to build on. That’s where the city came in.

“I’ve met the veteran before and he has paid a tremendous sacrifice that we all may be free,” Winter Park Mayor Ken Bradley said.

“I can’t even comprehend that kind of commitment. I think our action was the right thing.”

Palm Harbor Homes will donate the materials and working hours to build the house on the donated vacant property, while Fairways for Warriors hopes to take a fundraising role by hosting a golf tournament on April 25.

Money raised will go toward making Sambou’s home wheelchair accessible, adding lower countertops and a wheelchair shower stall.

The three organizations learned of Sambou’s sacrifice through an official from Fairways for Warriors, realizing he would make the perfect candidate for a new house.

Sambou called a distant country home the first two decades of his life. He came to the United States at the age of 26 from Senegal, West Africa, hoping to get a quality education and live the American dream.

But by 27 he was already in a different classroom: Fort Jackson in South Carolina.

Sambou wanted to be a soldier.

“In October ’97 I joined the Army, because I think that’s the best army in the world,” he said.

“I wanted to be part of the best.”

Sambou completed his training at Fort Jackson and took on the U.S. Army as a full-time career. His training would be put to the test in 2003 when he got the call that he would be deployed to Iraq.

He’d be deployed there on three separate tours up until 2010.

The proud soldier’s fourth deployment brought him to northeast Afghanistan in 2011. There Sambou served as a convoy commander, heading a supply team on a daily basis that delivered ammunition, food, water and fuel to sister units at five separate bases.

The commander went about his job like he would any other day on March 17, 2012. His convoy of about a dozen trucks had just begun a 13-hour crawl from Kalagush U.S. Army Base back to their home base at Metarlam after dropping off supplies.

He’d led the team through the 500-mile trip twice already, bringing up the rear in a gunner tuck while a single-file line of supply trucks and gunner MRAPs pressed on.

But about two hours into the expedition, the convoy hit a snag.

“My first gunner called me and said ‘Sergeant, we’ve got a wire across the road,’” Sambou said. “’How should we proceed?’”

Sambou ordered the convoy to stop and maneuver around the wire. Each truck drove past the trap one at a time, keeping a distance of about half a mile between each vehicle in case one was hit.

The gun truck carrying Sambou went last, carefully easing around the wire.

That’s when a hostile flipped the switch early, setting off the IED.

“You heard this kaboom,” Sambou said. “Some of the Taliban was coming to us.”

Sambou’s disabled MRAP might have gone unnoticed to his men ahead of him had it not been for the helicopter flying overhead – the distance between each truck was too far apart to see.

The helicopter scattered a group of approaching Taliban with machine gun fire before radioing the convoy to turn back and rescue the final truck.

Sambou suffered a spinal cord injury, a broken leg, two broken ribs, a broken hand and a vertical cut across the right side of his face that split his eye.

He still deals with a traumatic brain injury today, along with post-traumatic stress disorder.

His driver and gunner both suffered broken bones as well, unable to stand after the impact of the blast.

Sambou only remembers the moment when soldiers came to his rescue, cutting the MRAP’s steel door off its hinges to reach him and his wounded driver. His gunner had been thrown from vehicle from his machine gun post.

“The only thing I remember is seeing my soldier crying,” Sambou said. “I said ‘Why are you crying?’”

“They just kept crying.”

His unit had him flown to Germany for a day before returning to the states for recovery.

Today Sambou calls the NeuroRestorative Center in Avalon Park his home, navigating the handrail-lined hallways on his electric wheelchair – a small American flag propped between the seat cushions behind his left shoulder.

His condition continues to improve since he arrived in December 2012, despite initially being declared paralyzed from the neck down by doctors. Daily workouts with exercise bands and arm bikes build back his strength each week. Today he can move one arm and one leg, progress that he thanks God for every day.

His next goal: standing up from his wheelchair.

Sambou remains an enlisted soldier – October marks 17 years in the U.S. Army. He hopes to return to the military someday to continue his service, though it’s up to the U.S. Army Medical Evaluation Board to decide whether he’s fit for duty or should be medically discharged.

The 44-year-old recently began his 10- to 18- month evaluation period.

His uniform still waits for him at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas – a Purple Heart fastened to the chest.

“I wanna go back, but I’ve got to be fit for doing,” Sambou said.

Fairways for Warriors President Tom Underdown said the house couldn’t have come at a better time if the U.S. Army decides to medically discharge Sambou.

“He’s still active duty, so the Department of Defense is still paying for his stay there at the rehab center,” Underdown said. “In six months he could be medically discharged and he needs a place to go.”

Sambou said he never expected to receive such a generous gift.

“For people to be really kind to me because I served the country … it’s a pleasure,” Sambou said. “I’m really thankful for that.”

“It was a pleasure to see people give up a lot of stuff for somebody like me, because I didn’t expect to get something like that.”

Sambou plans to live with his sister and brother at his new Winter Park home, as well his niece while she attends school in the area.

For now Sambou enjoys sitting outside the back entrance of the rehab center in Avalon Park’s downtown. He leans back in his chair to face the warm Florida sun shining down on him, his eyes closed in pure relaxation – shielded by the brim of his U.S. Army baseball cap.

Hannibal Square Community Land Trust Executive Director Denise Weathers said the house that Sambou will call home should be completed by mid-summer, when he’ll get to see it for the first time.

He still hopes to be who he had been for so long: a soldier, protecting friends who became brothers in a place so far from home. But just in case, a new home is rising from the ground in Winter Park. The “welcome home” date Palm Harbor Homes is aiming for: July 4.