Return of a Hero

At times over the past eight years Dominic Annecchini wondered if he would ever see Santa Maria again.  A staff sergeant with the Army’s 1st Ranger Battalion, he has spent most of the last decade in war zones — four tours in Iraq and six in Afghanistan.  But on Tuesday, when the plane carrying Annecchini and his wife Melanie touched down at Santa Maria Public Airport and they were greeted by dozens of well-wishers, his relief at being back was as evident as the wide smile on his face.

“When the bullets are flying your training kind of kicks in,” said Annecchini, his left arm wrapped tightly around Melanie. “In the moment, you’re not really thinking about it. It’s usually after missions when those thoughts come into your mind.”

While all military members are considered “heroes” today, the word clearly fits Annecchini.  On May 16, Annecchini saved the lives of two fellow soldiers in a fire fight in Eastern Afghanistan. He didn’t have the chance for those post-mission reflections because he suffered a severe head wound during the battle.

“The last thing I remember is pulling security at the door,” he said, recalling his actions. “The next thing is waking up in Germany.”  When he woke up, his right eye was swollen shut from a wound and his right side was paralyzed.

His actions earned him a Silver Star for valor and the admiration of his comrades. Recover from his wounds sent him to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., and the Veterans Affairs hospital in Palo Alto.

On Tuesday, it was just great to be in familiar surroundings.  “It’s nice to be home and I just appreciate everybody coming out,” he said to a crowd of around three dozen people who welcomed him home.

Wearing a helmet to protect his wound and still working his way back from paralysis that still affects his right leg, he returned to the Central Coast to visit relatives — parents Dan and Joanne Annecchini of Orcutt and sisters Kendall Martin of Carpinteria and Nichole Sexton of Santa Barbara plus their families.

It’s a vacation stop in a tour that Melanie said has altered their lives.  “The recovery phase is pretty rough, recovering from a traumatic brain injury,” said the Georgia native who knows a lot about physical and mental challenges. Before Dominic’s injury, Melanie worked with autistic and developmentally challenged children.  Dominic calls Melanie “his rock” and credits her for helping him along every painful step of recovery. 

A 1997 graduate of St. Joseph High School who played center field on the Knights’ 29-0 CIF Southern Section champion baseball team, Annecchini plans on reuniting with some classmates over the Thanksgiving holiday.

Dan said it’s just nice to have his son safe at home.  “When he went in the (Army) Rangers, he said it was ‘Dad, don’t ask, because I won’t tell,” Dan said explaining when he questioned his son about his duties. “We had very mixed feelings. We knew it was dangerous work.”  While Dan called the day he and Joanne found out their son was wounded in action “traumatic” and “the worst day of our lives” he also couldn’t hide his pride in his only son.

Following a warm welcome from the organization “Welcome Home Military Heroes,” which has welcomed home more than 300 members of the U.S. armed forces to the Central Coast, a motorcycle escort accompanied the Annecchinis from the airport to their Orcutt home.

“Dinner at Far Western tonight,” Dominic said when asked about their plans. “Just being home with family. Have a good turkey day, a class reunion and just being home again.”

11/21/12  By Brian Bullock/Staff Writer/bbullock@santamariatimes.com

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