FORT DRUM, N.Y. -- To get through tough times, Soldiers rely on their training, their leaders and their comrades.
But for a Fort Drum Soldier injured in a training accident just before deploying to war in 2009, a young girl from his Antwerp, N.Y., neighborhood became a unique source of strength during his long year of recovery.
While a squad leader with 110th Transportation Company, 548th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, 10th Sustainment Brigade, 10th Mountain Division (LI), Staff Sgt. Gheorghe Banaduc Jr. broke four bones in his ankle and tore the ACL and meniscus in his knee performing a fireman's carry during training.
Banaduc underwent four surgeries, and because of recovery time, he spent much of 2010 alone in his home nearly 20 miles north of post, where 12-year-old Michaela LaMont heard of her neighbor's troubles.
Michaela was friends with Danielle, the oldest of Banaduc's four daughters. As a Type 1 diabetic, Michaela had always appreciated the extra care and understanding the Banaduc family had shown her.
Aside from prayer, Michaela said she just wanted to lend a hand to the Soldier living across the street in any way she could.
"He is the kind of person who helps others all of the time," she said. "I was very happy to (help)."
When Banaduc returned from his surgeries, Michaela cheered his spirits by asking for every unpleasant detail of the procedures, which he gladly shared. And while Banaduc's wife, Jessica, was at work, Michaela came over and offered to walk the dog, reminded Banaduc to take his medications, balanced him on his crutches, brought over soup, snacks and homemade smoothies, and helped with any other needs.
"To me, it was so cool to know a real Soldier," Michaela said. "I was so sorry that he was hurt (while) doing his job trying to protect all of us."
Despite his own challenges during recovery, Banaduc said he never stopped sympathizing with someone who had been giving herself insulin shots since the age of 8.
He recalled scary moments when Michaela's sugar levels spiked or plunged, including one time when she was found in a diabetic coma in the playhouse behind her house.
"For me, having four daughters myself, it was easy to connect with her right away," he said. "I felt sad (in that) she had to grow up so quickly. She wasn't able to have a true childhood."
Michaela's Wounded Warriors
In central New York, more than 1,200 children suffer with juvenile diabetes, also called Type 1 diabetes.
Barbara LaMont recalled being shocked to hear the doctor diagnose her daughter with the disease in 2005. She remembers having to force herself to give Michaela her first insulin shot while also reading up on the many dangers she would likely face throughout life.
"Michaela accepted the seven shots daily and strict meal times like a trooper," she said.
LaMont said it was heartbreaking to entrust Michaela to others' care, especially in socially difficult environments like school. But she said she never needed to worry about Michaela's well-being with the Banaducs as neighbors.
"They weren't afraid to take care of her while she played with their girls," she said. "They invited her over, and (they) made sure she had the right amount of food and insulin when she needed it and took care of her very well."
Banaduc said dealing with Michaela's condition was never an inconvenience for his Family.
"Michaela is like one of my daughters," he said. "It's just the way I look at it."
As his leg continued to improve, Banaduc got ready to return to duty in late 2010. He said he requested orders to become cadre with 3rd Battalion, 85th Infantry Regiment (Warrior Transition Unit) because of the tremendous help he received during recovery.
"While I was a patient at WTU, my squad leader really took the time to take care of me," he said. "So I wanted to give back to the organization that gave me so much to recovering and to being able to return to duty."
Banaduc said he not only wanted to help his fellow Soldiers but also the young girl who pushed him to successfully transition back to duty.
"As I started recovering, Michaela's mom mentioned a diabetes walk they all did to help raise money," Banaduc said. "Well, I am an avid motorcycle rider. To help her out, I decided to organize a motorcycle benefit ride."
With that conversation, "Michaela's Wounded Warriors" was born. Banaduc used his connections at WTU and assembled a team of Fort Drum Soldiers and others to walk or ride a motorcycle during the annual Walk to Cure Juvenile Diabetes event in Watertown.
During the last three events, the team has raised more than $4,000 for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF).
"I was very happy that Staff Sgt. Banaduc wanted to be involved with the walk," Barbara LaMont said. "We had no idea how huge of an impact (his) involvement would mean for the North Country walk."
WTU receives award
The impact even extended to the commander at Fort Drum's WTU, who last week was presented with the JDRF's "Golden Sneaker" award, which recognizes any individual or team that raises more than $1,000. Michaela's Wounded Warriors has done that for three consecutive years.
Lucienne Cole-Dargan, executive director of the Central New York Chapter of the JDRF, presented the award to Lt. Col. Celia A. FlorCruz, WTU commander.
Later, FlorCruz said she was grateful for the opportunity her Soldiers have had to participate on Michaela's Wounded Warriors team.
"So much of what we do in the military has to do with helping other people," she said. "Helping one another has a way of really lightening the load on our wounded warriors.
"It might sound a little bit odd," FlorCruz added, "but it is healing for them to contribute to the healing of young people."
The commander also praised Banaduc for his initiative and determination.
"Staff Sgt. Banaduc is one of our strongest leaders," she said. "As such, we have given him many of our most challenging cases. He can carry a lot on those broad shoulders, but sometimes we fail to notice that maybe he has too much on his plate.
"One of his ways for dealing with that stress is by finding something like JDRF, which really gives him some wind under his sails," FlorCruz continued. "We see the positive effect it has on his spirit."
For his part, Banaduc said he simply asked Soldiers and others to help out. He noted the success of Michaela's Wounded Warriors comes from the hundreds of contributions of a battalionwide effort.
"They gave willingly, and because of that, I am thankful," he said. "The fact is that a lot of people don't realize so many children suffer with this disease. They don't realize how debilitating this disease is towards children. These kids have to work so hard, every day, just to be a child, and it's not fair."
In July, Banaduc sold his home in Antwerp to prepare for a permanent change of station. He still volunteers with the Antwerp Fire Department and the Indian River Ambulance Squad, and his Family still remains close with the LaMonts.
"Michaela's mom is pretty much the grandmother to my youngest daughter," he said.
Banaduc's passion for making a difference in people's lives spills over into everything he does. He takes the lessons and values of the past three years and encourages his Soldiers to reach out and befriend the people around them.
"The main point is to not be afraid to become involved in your community," he said. "Be friends with your neighbor. When Soldiers go out and leave, our Families rely on whoever is nearest to them."
Those nearest include many North Country neighbors, good people who are modest about the help they often offer others instinctively.
"I didn't really feel like it was any big deal helping him -- anyone would do that," Michaela said. "He is always so grateful for what I did for him, and I feel like it was nothing."