At the Adrian College vs. Kalamazoo College game last weekend the band played the Star Spangled Banner as it always does. Spectators on both sides of the field rose to their feet as the flag was raised, as is expected.
But at this game a wave of patriotism larger than usual swept over the stadium when Joe Piersante walked onto the field and held his right hand over his heart as the national anthem was played.
Adrian College proudly claims Special Agent Joe Piersante as its hero and honored him at the game and two nights previous at the annual president’s dinner. Joe graduated in 1991 from Adrian with a degree in criminal justice. According to Coach Mike Duffy, Joe was a valuable linebacker on the team and still holds the four-year tackle record.
To be accurate, Joe is every American’s hero for what he did for our country and for what he must endure the rest of his life.
Joe was blinded by gunfire in Afghanistan when he was serving as a special agent in the Drug Enforcement Administration on Oct. 30, 2011.
During the short time I chatted with Joe at a pre-game reception before his football pals crowded around him, it was clear that he was honored to be back on campus and appreciates the attention from his alma mater, but he does not want to be drenched with sympathy. Only once did he refer to his blindness.
“I do wish I could see the field,” he lamented. “When we played here we had to use the Adrian High School field.”
Would he do it all over again? Would he make a third tour to Afghanistan?
“My team is going back to Afghanistan Dec. 15,” he said. “I hate to think of them going without me. Half of them are in Australia right now, but in December they will be together again.
“I know I would do a good job for the team if I could go.”
His one negative remark about the military is that he sees the younger men and women having a sense of entitlement instead of “keeping their heads down and proving themselves.”
Joe was one of 12 men selected in 1997 for the foreign-deployed Advisory Support Team, commonly referred to as FAST. The FAST mission was to search through bazaars for information on counter terrorism and for narcotics.
At the president’s dinner, Joe joined college president Jeffrey Docking on stage to tell the heroic story.
While his and other international teams were working through the bazaars searching for drugs Oct. 30, 2011, they fell under heavy Taliban fire, he recalled. When the units were forced to retreat they were picked up by helicopter.
Joe covered for the other team members as they boarded, making him the last in line to board. It was then that a bullet pierced his helmet, penetrated his temple, and exited the opposite side.
He was carried to safety by teammates before being picked up by Medivac. With all of the equipment he estimates he weighed 350 pounds.
The medical journey for the severe traumatic brain injury was long and painful, but filled with hope. Both eye orbits were destroyed. The corneas were severely damaged, and the retinas were detached. After a craniotomy in Germany, he was transported to the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington.
Despite several pending surgeries, good fortune did come Joe’s way. Because he was unable to talk, his fiancée, Ashley McCuen, took the initiative and asked him if he would like to get married before the next series of surgeries. They were married at the medical center with little fanfare before surgeries were performed to reconstruct his frontal bridge and ophthalmologists reattached the retinas, and later installed a titanium plate in his forehead. Silicone has also been placed behind both eyes to give him a more normal appearance.
“He had asked me to get married before his second tour in Afghanistan,” said Ashley, a 27-year-old registered nurse. “But, I wanted to wait until he got home so that we could have a big wedding.” Joe and Ashley live in Fredericksburg, Va., where he works for the DEA and she hopes to find a fulltime nursing position. “I am told I can have a job there as long as I want,” he said. He is learning Braille and said he is as far as the letter I.
Joe’s study of criminal justice in college was natural. His father, Joe Piersante of Chesterfield Township, Michigan, is a retired Detroit police sergeant and young Joe was on the Detroit police force from 1993 until 1997 when he joined the DEA. The senior Piersantes were among the relatives who attended the Adrian reception and game. Several Michigan police units also attended. Rick Woodall of Adrian, who planned the event with Peter Mazzoni of Livonia, Mich., explained why they decided to roll out the red carpet for their buddy.
“He’s a good guy. Just because the years go by, doesn’t mean you forget a friend, “ Mr. Woodall said.
Mary Alice Powell is a retired Blade food editor.
Contact her at: email@example.com.