Reposted from Northampton Magazine, Summer 2019
Dan Lasko ’08 remembers two loud explosions, and the ringing in his ears. He recalls the dark cloud of smoke that engulfed the vehicle, and grabbing his M203 grenade launcher, sticking it out the window of the ruined vehicle, and trying to pull the trigger. But the weapon wouldn’t fire. Then he tried to stand up, but couldn’t.
“I thought, ‘I’m stuck’ and I looked down at my foot and it was just mangled,” Lasko recalls. “My Achilles tendon on the back of my foot was pretty much ripped. I couldn’t move. Then it hit me that I was pretty badly injured. I lost consciousness for a couple of seconds. When I came to, it was like fast-forward and there was yelling and screaming and gunfire.”
His buddies managed to pull him out of the crumpled vehicle and get him onto the back of a Humvee. They drove for an hour or two (“I swear that Humvee drove for three days,” Lasko says.) to a location where a helicopter could land. He was medevacked to the main base in Kandahar, where his leg was amputated and cleaned up.
He was then flown to a U.S. base in Germany, where another surgery amputated the leg a bit higher because of infection that had set in. After that, he was put on a C-130 for the flight to Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.
That plane ride home is one Lasko will never forget. The C-130 was packed with injured service personnel. “People screaming, people crying for their moms, quadruple amputees, burn victims — you name it. It was a total nightmare. Each service member had a nurse and I was like, just put me out. I can’t take this.”
Sometimes, childhood dreams do come true. But perhaps not in the way anyone would — or could — have predicted. That’s Dan Lasko’s story.
“Growing up, I wanted to be an athlete,” Lasko recalls. “I was really big into sports — baseball, football, you name it.”
Now 36 years old, a married father of two young boys, Lasko has spent much of the past 14 years competing in an exacting array of athletic competitions around the globe, from Washington, D.C., to California to Japan. Marathons in cities from Boston to Denmark. 5K, 10K and half-marathon races too numerous to count. Triathlons, including the grueling Escape from Alcatraz.
He’s also played football against former NFL stars, including Green Bay Packers running back Ryan Grant and many others.
Lasko’s inspiring feats have led to speaking engagements, a TV commercial for Pedigree Dog Food, and a stint as co-host of Discovery Channel’s “Saving Heroes” show, among other opportunities.
What’s most surprising is that he’s done it all since losing his left leg below the knee in February 2004, when his U.S. Marine Corps convoy hit a Taliban bomb while on a reconnaissance mission in a rugged ravine in Afghanistan.
A HERO IN THE MAKING
An ambulance took Lasko to Bethesda Naval Medical Center in Maryland after the plane landed at Andrews Air Force Base. The next day, Lasko’s high school sweetheart, Jessica — a 2003 Northampton Community College graduate — arrived at Bethesda and helped care for him through the summer.
The couple had met at a Friday night football game as freshmen at Easton Area High School in 1998. Dan needed 35 cents for a pay phone to call for a ride home, but only had a quarter. Jessica provided the dime. From that simple encounter bloomed a love that has endured more pain and joy in 20 years than most couples experience in a lifetime.
Dan and Jessica dated throughout high school, and when Dan decided during senior year that he wanted to join the Marines, Jessica was supportive.
“I was happy that he had found something he was into and really excited about,” Jessica recalls.
The weekend before he was due to be sworn in and report to boot camp, Dan and Jessica went out to eat and said their goodbyes until they could be together again. On Monday afternoon, Sept. 10, 2001, a recruiter picked up Dan and drove him to Harrisburg, where he was scheduled to be sworn in the next morning.
The morning of Sept. 11, a spectacularly crystalline day, the recruiter picked up Dan at a hotel at 6 a.m. and drove him to the recruiting station to be sworn in. After he raised his right hand and vowed to defend and uphold the U.S. Constitution, Dan was scheduled to take a plane to boot camp at Paris Island, South Carolina.
It was while waiting for his bus to the airport that Dan, along with the other newly sworn-in service members, saw footage of the first plane flying into the World Trade Center on the TV in the recruiting station. As the events of 9/11 unfolded, and all plane traffic was halted, Dan’s recruiter was recalled from Easton to drive back to Harrisburg to pick up Dan and bring him home.
Just a few hours earlier, Dan had been sworn in as a Marine in peacetime. Now, he and the rest of the recruits knew they would be going to war.
Meanwhile, Jessica heard the news. Cell phone lines were jammed, and she was unable to reach Dan. But he managed to get to a pay phone and call her, and let her know what was going on.
When he got home, Dan recalls, “I remember my dad was sitting on the couch, watching what was going on. And he came up to me and said, ‘Listen, if you want to change your mind, you can register at Northampton Community College and take some classes if that’s what you want to do.’ And I told him, ‘I already made my commitment. From what we know now and what we saw happen, I think our country needs volunteers to go over and take care of business.’”
After a few days home, during which he got to see Jessica again, Dan took a long bus ride down to Paris Island to start boot camp. He finished in December, allowing him to come home for the holidays before heading to Cherry Point, and later Camp Lejeune, for intensive training over the next two years.
“Everybody knew they were getting deployed,” he says.
Dan earned his E-4 corporal rank in less than three years, and felt like, “This is what I think I’ll be doing for the next 20 years of my life.”
Jessica enrolled at Northampton, earned her associate degree in liberal arts, and then went to Penn State. The couple wrote letters, talked on the phone and got together any weekend their schedules allowed. They each took turns making the long drive south or north to see the other. Sometimes, they would meet halfway in Virginia.
“We made every effort to see each other, call each other, everything,” Dan says.
In February 2004, Dan deployed via ship to Afghanistan with the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit. He hadn’t even been on land for 30 days when the explosion took his leg.
A NEW NORMAL
Back in the U.S. at Bethesda Naval Medical Center, Lasko — just 21 years old — made the difficult decision to undergo complicated Ertl reconstructive surgery rather than conventional surgery. That decision made much of what he has done since possible.
“They connected my tibia and fibula together with a bone bridge and then wrapped the remaining calf muscle around, making a buffer on the bottom of my residual limb,” Lasko says. “It meant a longer recovery, but a better outcome with being active and doing what you want to do for the rest of your life.”
Among his first visitors at Bethesda were a couple of female volunteers wearing red Semper Fi Fund T-shirts, asking, “What can we do for you? What do you need?”
The organization, founded in the fall of 2003 by military spouses at Camp Pendleton, is dedicated to providing urgently needed resources and support for combat wounded, critically ill and catastrophically injured members of the U.S. Armed Forces and their families.
Throughout his almost five months of surgeries and recovery at Bethesda, and about six months of rehab at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., the Semper Fi Fund volunteers were a constant, comforting presence.
As devastating as his injury was, seeing what fellow service members had to go through at Bethesda and Walter Reed helped Dan see things in a different light.
“I’m just surprised and thankful that I got away with the injury that I have because it could have been a lot, lot worse,” he says.
When Dan was discharged from Walter Reed in May 2005, he was also medically retired from the Marines. He didn’t have a choice. At the same time, Jessica graduated from Penn State with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, with a business option and minor in human development and family studies.
“We both were at a turning point in our lives, so we said, ‘All right, next step in our lives, what are we going to do?’” Jessica recalls.
Whatever it was, the one thing they knew was that they would do it together.
They moved into a small apartment in Nazareth, and married in 2006. Today, they live in Hanover Township and have two sons: Lucas, 8, and Benjamin, 4. After working in human resources for two local health-related companies for several years, Jessica took a similar position with Semper Fi Fund five years ago. To avoid any conflict of interest, Jessica works in human resources with the charity’s employees, not directly with the injured service members Semper Fi Fund supports.
“It’s my honor to support the employees who take care of our service members,” she says. “I would do anything for them, knowing the work they do.”
Under the GI Bill, Dan earned an associate degree in criminal justice from Northampton. He learned firsthand about the court system and probation working as a paid intern for a year in the Northampton County adult probation department, and also got a prestigious two-year Congressional fellowship through the Wounded Warrior Program as a veterans’ affairs representative in the office of former U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz. He worked toward a bachelor’s degree from Kutztown University, but his academic career has been repeatedly interrupted by other opportunities.
For more than a decade, Dan has competed for Team Semper Fi, which supports injured service members to go around the country running races and participating in other athletic endeavors to raise money and awareness.
He also has traveled around the country competing with the Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball and Football teams. One particularly memorable experience came on Veterans Day 2018, when Dan and his older son, Lucas, got to play in a Wounded Warriors flag football scrimmage on Lambeau Field at halftime of the Green Bay Packers game. “Luke got a chance to go on the field and he scored a touchdown and did the Lambeau Leap, which was amazing,” his proud father says.
FEEDING THE GOOD
When Pedigree put out a call for a disabled veteran to star in a commercial, Dan got the part. His costar was Maggie, a shelter dog.
“After filming the first Feed the Good commercial with Pedigree and meeting Maggie, I knew I needed to bring her home with me. She had been through a rough time already, as had I, and I felt bringing her into our family would not only help her, but would continue my journey to healing.”
Maggie joined Wally, a service dog given to Dan through America’s VetDogs in 2008. The Laskos welcomed their second canine family member with open arms. Due to her age and illness, Maggie’s
time with them was short, but her passing left a desire to help other dogs. Two other rescue dogs are now part of the family.
The commercial led to yet another opportunity, an almost 5-minute mini-documentary on Dan and Wally, who helps ease Dan’s physical disability and anxiety.
In addition, Dan worked with Northwell Health to help develop the first 3D-printed, amphibious, prosthetic leg that amputees can wear on land and in the water.
Jessica is not at all surprised that Dan is in high demand for his ability to inspire and motivate others.
“Dan makes it look easy and he’s a good guy,” she says. “He’s a good role model for a lot of people, but he’ll never complain, he’ll never show the negative side of things. At the end of the day, yeah, he has a disability and things he suffers through. But he makes sure he always puts up the best front and people get the best of him.”
Whatever the future holds, Dan says doing what he can to help others overcome obstacles in their lives needs to be an integral part of it. That’s the legacy he wants to pass on to his children.
When they get older, Dan says, he wants Lucas and Benjamin to know “that I didn’t feel sorry for myself for what happened to me in my life and I went out and did some really cool things. I want my kids to see that. I want them to see their dad’s pretty badass.”
[Published in the Summer 2019 Northampton Community College Magazine.]