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Proud American

Dear soldier on a train from DC to NYC

A few months ago I said “I’m sorry” in an open letter to one of your brave brothers in uniform flying from Washington, D.C. to Seattle. I shared my regret at crossing paths several times that day and not thanking him for his service. I don’t know whether he ever stumbled on the column, but I promised I wouldn’t make the same mistake again and I couldn’t wait for another opportunity.

On a train recently from D.C. to N.Y.C., you, Jason Ehrhart, gave this writer a chance to edit away the lingering regret with two much happier words: Thank you.

You were riding in a Humvee when an IED blast launched you from the vehicle and killed your sergeant and an Army canine. Your body was badly burned, one leg needed amputation and the other was horribly mangled.

I was on Amtrak’s Acela making our first stop in Baltimore on the way to New York’s Penn Station when I heard commotion and laughter over my shoulder. A moment later, I watched your father lift and transfer you from a wheelchair into a handicapped accessible seat next to me.

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I learned a lot about you over the next three hours. You’re a friend to all, an optimist, a comedian, and a veteran of the Iraqi War. You and your wonderful parents were honored to be traveling to the Wounded Warrior Project Courage Awards at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City.

More importantly, I learned that December 2005, at barely 19 years old, you were part of a personal security detail sweeping buildings that would be used for the first free elections to be held in the country in over 50 years. You were riding in a Humvee when an IED blast launched you from the vehicle and killed your sergeant and an Army canine. Your body was badly burned, one leg needed amputation and the other was horribly mangled.

Thanks for your courage.

The Army rushed you to Fallujah, then Germany, then Texas and for three months, due to a traumatic brain injury, you slept in a dark coma that baffled doctors and your parents. You survived nearly 40 surgeries and skin grafts and no one knew whether you’d ever open your eyes again.

Then, on an otherwise uneventful day, your mother Pam and her sisters sat in your hospital room and laughed at a joke. Without warning, but not surprising to anyone, your reentered the world the way you'd left it. You laughed, and you haven’t stopped laughing since.

Thanks for your attitude.

As our train sped north to New York, we spoke about you’re remarkable ability to maintain a smile. With your well-worn grin, you turned to me and said, simply, "Life's too short.”

Your father explained the blessing of your sense of humor. “It was completely intact when he awoke.” Often when soldiers recover from injury, particularly after comas, families discover a different loved one than who they said goodbye to at boot camp. “He’s been so fortunate, no PTSD, no significant change. He’s still Jason.”

I asked you what you've learned about yourself since awaking from the coma and your response drew a groan and eye roll from your mother, Pam.

“What have I learned? I've learned that I love myself even more than I did before.”

“Oh, stop it,” your mother said.

“Hey, if I don't love myself, who will?”

I wondered aloud whether you would do it all again. “No regrets,” you said, bluntly. Then, fatigued from travel and conversation, you dosed off.

You don’t know this, but as you slept peacefully next to us, your father spoke openly about the tremendous life changes he and your mother have experienced as full-time caregivers. “It would be so easy to become bitter,” he said. “But you just can’t. Bitterness can ruin you.”

Your dad also shared your family’s mission to advocate for critical reforms at the Department of Veterans Affairs. They’ve spent many hours on Capitol Hill lobbying for better care for you and the thousands of other injured vets who deserve much more than they often receive. Your family's work has been hailed by the Wounded Warriors Project and you were featured in a short film to raise awareness of veterans' needs.

Thanks for your dedication.

When we arrived in the city, I said goodbye and acknowledged the privilege of being on the same train, the same car and the same row with the young man with the big smile.

Soldier, America thanks you and your military brothers and sisters for your courage, your sacrifice and your willingness to risk it all so that July 4th will always be a day not for apologies, but for thank yous.

Happy Independence Day.

Jason Wright is a New York Times bestselling author, columnist and speaker. Subscribe to his weekly columns, join him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter. His columns are also available as ebook compilations.