The superhero in James Pradke's family
CHICAGO -- Thursday and Friday are big days for U.S. Army Maj. James Pradke. A first-time competitor at the Warrior Games, Pradke, 46, will ride a recumbent bike in cycling on Thursday and shoot in the prone air rifle finals on Friday. Best of all, his son, Ege, is coming up from their home in Kentucky to watch.
Ege, who turns 6 in August, is already a folk hero among Illinois-area first responders.
Almost two years ago, when Ege and his family were involved in a horrific accident on Interstate 55 in central Illinois -- a drunk driver in a Jeep, speeding and going the wrong way, crashed into their Dodge Town and Country van -- Ege was the only one conscious when first responders arrived. Ege pointed out where his injured mother, father and 9-month-old brother sat, identifying them by their full names.
And he did this with a right arm so badly injured it had to be amputated. Two months later the responders presented him with a firefighter's helmet, an honor usually reserved for firefighters and their families.
"He's been billed as a superhero by the first responders who came to the accident," Pradke said. "He's my hero every day. I'm raising a hero. It's like raising Superman. That inspires me each and every day to get up and keep going. I'm excited for him to come here."
They consider themselves lucky to have survived. Especially Pradke, who was asleep in the front passenger seat when the crash occurred.
The family was driving from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where Pradke was based, to Indiana to do music-related volunteer work. He had been a high school band director there before enlisting. At the time, Pradke's military career was soaring. He led a 100-person project team exploring ways for the Army to adapt and innovate for 2025 and beyond, working with Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, now President Trump's national security advisor. Big-time stuff.
The morning of the trip, Pradke traded in his Dodge Dart for the van -- big, comfortable and modern. He and his wife, Funda, planned to trade off driving. She was at the wheel when the accident occurred at close to 2 a.m.
Funda suffered a crushed ankle and a fractured right forearm. Ethem, the youngest boy, broke his right forearm. Pradke, though, took the brunt of the head-on crash.
Three broken bones in his right foot. Three broken ribs. Left femur broken in several places. A broken L1 vertebrae in his spinal column. Broken right hip. A traumatic brain injury. A right leg torn open so deeply Pradke could see bone. Right arm lacerations. And double vision. Pradke needed titanium rods and screws in his left femur and right hip.
"I should not have survived," he said. "I didn't read the medical records until three months ago, and it's truly miraculous that I survived. I'm grateful to be here."
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The physical injuries were bad enough. The entire family spent months in hospitals and rehab centers. Pradke's Army superiors ordered him to "heal in place," which meant losing his lead position on the project. One day he was going places, a highly regarded veteran with deployments to Bosnia, Iraq and Kuwait. The next, he felt mentally broken.
"I was getting 140 emails a day," he said. "Overnight, all of that is ripped away from you. The Army is very good at passing stuff off when it needs to, and you're just kind of left there with nothing. I went from working with Gen. McMaster, who's a brilliant man, to healing in place at the Rehab Institute of Chicago.
"I expected I was going to have a 30-year career, make one-star [general] at least. In a matter of seconds, your whole life can be flipped upside down. So what do you do when that happens? Once the accident did happen, it put me into a very, very dark space. I was on the verge of becoming a [suicide] statistic. I was basically in a bad spot."
Pradke felt like he needed a purpose -- something to tackle, study, take apart and put back together. About a year ago, the Army transferred Pradke from Fort Leavenworth to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and its Warrior Transition Battalion. Last February, remembering the Warrior Games, Pradke asked his physical therapist if it was too late to sign up for the Army's Games trials. It was. But Pradke had people in his corner who interceded, and on March 1, he learned he was in.
"I considered that day a momentous day because a little light went on, and that light was called the Warrior Games," he said. "From that day forward, I just marched my way into shooting, into archery, into cycling, and made it known I had to be a part of this team -- not just for myself, but to inspire others.
"When it comes down to it, that's what this becomes all about. It's not just self-healing, but healing across the board with your teammates, and them representing their own healing, along with mine, to the general population. In doing so, we're able to inspire and motivate those who think they're down and out, think they're at their end and hopefully drive them to a different motive and toward a different inspiration."
The family is still struggling emotionally. Funda lost her job in the hospitality industry, and Pradke may be facing medical retirement from the Army. Ege, though, seems to be thriving. Awaiting a prosthetic arm, he tumbles and plays soccer and baseball. "He can swing a bat better than Jim Abbott," said his dad, referencing the former major league pitcher born without a right hand. And Ege has learned to tell his friends how he lost his arm. Pradke said he signed up for the Warrior Games not only for himself, but for Ege.
"It's important for him to see me doing these things -- cycling and shooting -- because I want him to see anything's possible," he said. "You can recover from anything. The amputees out here are nothing but examples for him.
"So I had an agenda as a father. My original motivation, not only for the psychological aspect of needing this, but [also] my personal agenda is to better myself as a dad so I know how to work with an amputee son. I've learned how to coach adapted swimmers just by observing. I've learned how to coach adapted field guys and cyclists and track guys and the wheelchair bikes.
"It's just been fantastic, because all this has made me a better father for him. I'm able to show him, 'Hey, you've got to push really hard to get where you want to go. But it's not that you can't, but you just have to do it different. So your challenges are a little bit altered, but they're the same challenges as everybody else.' In doing that, he totally gets it."