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Always a Patriots Fan, Now a Patriot

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U.S. Army National Guard PFC (Private First Class) Richard Laarhoven.

It started with a letter.

A single plain white envelope with an American flag stamp crushed between an autograph request and someone begging Tom Brady to cut his hair.

Return address is some guy from Norwood:

To whom it may concern:

This letter is in regards to my good friend PFC (Private First Class) Richard Laarhoven, who was serving in Afghanistan for the U.S. Army National Guard. While on deployment, his vehicle was engaged by the enemy, which left him seriously wounded.

Andrew

"When somebody in your family, when somebody in your town gets injured, you rally around them," Andrew Doyle said, recalling why he wrote to the New England Patriots about Laarhoven. "We're three miles from the stadium, he grew up loving the Patriots, and the Patriots became part of where we belonged."

On the night of July 25, 2010, Laarhoven was at his post on the back of a MRAP (mine resistant ambush protected) vehicle running a security detail outside the Afghan city of Bagram, which houses the largest air base in the country - a prime target for terrorists to focus their attacks.

Using rocket-propelled grenades (RPG), local militants ambushed Laarhoven and his unit, leaving him and several others severely injured.

"We got back to base and had to get checked out. Two of our guys were pretty bad," Laarhoven said. "They did a CAT scan on me and the surgery team is saying that I have air in my stomach. They ended up going in, found some shrapnel, and took out my appendix, part of my colon, and part of my large intestine."

Laarhoven was flown to Germany en route to a final trip home to the United States. While there, however, further tests showed that not all the debris had been removed and further operations were needed.

"Germany was not pretty," Laarhoven said. "They had to go back in because my stomach was bleeding out. I had to stay longer than the rest of the guys that were in my truck. No one had answers for it."

A series of surgeries, transfers, and uncertainty followed. Trapped in a hospital bed more than 3,000 miles from home.

The trend continued when he landed in Washington almost a week later. More surgeries. Five days in the Intensive Care Unit. Closer to home now than he had been in seven months: Four hundred and fifty miles away.

No matter the distance, New England was never far from his mind. Apparently, it's closer than anyone realized.

Patriots programs and magazines tucked around his room, Tom Brady's jersey at the ready, a Patriots koozie keeping a St. Pauli Girl non-alcoholic (the military has a no alcohol policy) cold, Laarhoven's room was more sports bar than barracks.

"As soon as I'm done for the day, I'm throwing on a jersey and walking around the barracks," Laarhoven proudly said from Walter Reed Memorial hospital outside of Washington D.C., where he has been rehabilitating for the past three months. "My platoon sergeant was a huge Patriots fan. He'd just open the door, look at the stuff, and close the door back up."

Here Tom Brady's jersey is not just a jersey, and the Patriots football from when Laarhoven was a kid that traveled with him to the Middle East is more than just a football.

Much more. Simple articles serving as a sense of home halfway across the globe. A manifestation of joy and safety that even the strongest weapons cannot destroy. A bulletproof ideology woven with blue and silver stitching.

In a time of danger and unrest, in a place where football is a game played with the feet, the Patriots tradition was with him.

A common ground in a foreign world. It was present in the trash talk with the Steelers fan stationed at the base, and it was definitely present when the New Orleans Saints paid a visit to Walter Reed several months ago.

"I'm wearing a Patriots hat, Patriots t-shirt and we got to jaw-jacking, talking trash," Laarhoven said of when the Saints defensive line walked into his room at Walter Reed. "I think they actually got a kick out if because I wasn't sucking up like the rest of the people. I was standing my ground."

A Patriot never wavers.

While his embodiment of the Patriot Way remained steadfast, his service overseas changed Laarhoven.

"I had taken so much for granted before I got overseas," Laarhoven said. "Getting hurt, when I heard the beeps going off, and saw doctors rushing in, throwing more tubes in me."

He pauses, searching for the right words. "Scary," he said.

Laarhoven is 24 years old.

He's a kid, Doyle said.

Yet that kid has battled, and conquered, adversity and challenge that would make many men crumble. Even now, especially now, as his rehab comes to a close, he refuses to surrender.

If I think I'm having a bad day, you look at the amputee clinic, he remarks.

"You just see those guys who have gone through losing a limb, and they're working harder than I am," Laarhoven said. "I've learned to take nothing for granted."

Funny, Doyle said the same thing:

"He is going through probably one of the toughest things that not a lot of people have ever faced. And he's going through it with a mindset of: I'm going to get better. I will get better. So my tough day, what's that compared to his?"

The most telling sign of Laarhoven's character, however, is not in the commitment of his girlfriend, who stuck with him throughout the process. It is not in the continual love and support of parents. And it is not in a letter written by a friend.

It is his drive to keep going, to keep serving, to keep fighting.

"What the kid did is fearless," Doyle said. "He got in [to Walter Reed], and the first thing he said was, 'I can't wait to get better, so I can go back over with my unit.' It speaks to who he is. I want to be where my brothers are. If they're in harms way, I want to be out there."

Always a Patriots fan, now a patriot, Laarhoven is closer to home now than he had been in nearly a year: three miles.

Laarhoven and Doyle will be at this week's game against the Minnesota Vikings.

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