FORT BRAGG, N.C. (AP) — When Sgt. Daniel Fienco broke his leg on an airborne training exercise, most paratroopers didn’t think he’d ever get on an aircraft again.
But Fienco — fueled by his passion to serve and a little bit of anger — pushed himself to heal in about nine months.
“Things happen,” he said. “Things go wrong, but you get back up and get after it.”
Now, the Iraq veteran who’s a senior parachutist, is training to run in the TCS New York City Marathon this fall. The donations he collects will go to the Ranger Lead the Way Fund, which provides money for disabled Army Rangers and the families of injured or fallen Rangers.
“Running is one of my favorite things,” he said. “And the other part is helping other guys out. It supports Rangers.”
Fienco has been a runner since he was 16. He said he never took it seriously until he joined the 82nd Airborne Division, where running is a part of daily training.
Running has helped Fienco relieve stress and keep his body able to conduct rigorous training during airborne operations and field exercises.
Inspired by Fienco’s recovery, and later by his completion of a half marathon, his cousin signed up to run the TCS New York City Marathon in November. Fienco missed the deadline to register for the race, but discovered he could still sign up if he pledged to raise money for a charity.
Fienco chose the Ranger Lead the Way Fund.
Fienco enlisted in the Army as a utilities equipment repairer, which is similar to an HVAC technician. He has served with the 82nd Airborne Division’s 307th Engineer Battalion, 3rd Brigade Combat Team for almost 10 years.
He first met soldiers leaving for airborne school when he was going through advanced individual training. The soldiers bragged that they would jump out of planes, wear maroon berets and get paid extra money.
That piqued his interest. He thought the status meant he’d occasionally be called to jump out of aircraft.
He was 26 when he made his first jump from a C-17 aircraft at Fort Benning, Georgia.
“It didn’t hit me until the doors opened up that this was for real,” he said. “The roar of the wind kicked in. It’s like being on a roller coaster. It went from loud and windy to quiet and peaceful. I knew then that’s what I wanted to do.”
Fienco would continue jumping. The rush and excitement has never waned, he said.
He said he’s had a few rough landings — especially at Holland Drop Zone — but never an injury that sidelined him. That changed on his 34th jump on March 12, 2013.
It was a routine night jump with all of his combat equipment.
He said he never felt the aircraft slow down as the jumpers exited. He had to straighten out twists in his risers.
“I realized I was coming down fast,” Fienco said. “I’m headed right for a hill.”
He landed feet first.
Fienco told himself that he was OK. He called for a medic when he realized he wasn’t able to stand.
The ground medic inspected Fienco’s body and popped his knee cap into place. Fienco was placed on a litter and waited in the back of an Army ambulance with about two dozen other injured while they waited for the exercise to end.
Once at Womack Army Medical Center, X-ray technicians consulted with a doctor who determined his left femur had been snapped in half. Fienco was told it would take two years for him to walk normally.
“I was angry,” he said. “People told me, ‘You’ll probably never jump again.’ I re-directed that anger to getting better.”
For the next nine months, Fienco added two workouts to his morning physical therapy, which included laps around the hospital with a walker. He progressed to using a stationary bicycle and leg presses.
His physical therapist pushed him each week.
“I was determined to make each moment of pain become the past and testament of my progress,” he said. “I didn’t want to give up, and I didn’t want to waste any time with each session.”
His doctor was surprised to learn Fienco’s femur had healed cleanly. He asked Fienco if he wanted to jump again.
Fienco was ecstatic to get back into an aircraft and over Fort Bragg’s drop zones.
Exactly nine months after the jump that broke his leg, Fienco confidently jumped again.
“I was told by several people I wasn’t going to jump again,” he said. “I wasn’t going to let that stop me.”
Information from: The Fayetteville Observer, http://www.fayobserver.com