The three of them bantered back and forth. They were soldiers in the Kentucky Army National Guard, returning in their Humvee to southern Iraq after running security for trucks delivering supplies outside Baghdad in late March 2005.
Chris Brunelle drove, Ricky Brooks rode shotgun and Eric Toth worked as the gunner in the back. They talked about what soldiers on long drives in Humvees usually talk about, which is to say little that can be repeated here. There was a ribald exchange about creative uses for the .50 caliber shells that Toth shoved into the weapon in the turret on top of the Humvee. It was funny enough that Brunelle remembers it 14 years later and profane enough to leave it out of a family website.
They were the fifth Humvee in a column of five. As the miles ticked off, the chatter ebbed and flowed. Brunelle peeled off his gloves to eat a muffin. He ate and drove barehanded.
And then he was flying through the air.
An improvised explosive device detonated under the Humvee, which jumped 20 to 25 feet in the air, rolled five times and came to rest 30 yards from the blast site. Toth was killed. Brooks and Brunelle suffered severe burns.
Brunelle says someone opened his door, pulled him out of the Humvee and laid him on the ground. The other Humvees immediately turned around and came back. Soon the convoy was surrounded by M1 tanks, and helicopters patrolled the sky overhead. When Brunelle asked soldiers from the other Humvees who had pulled him out, they said nobody had. They said he was already out on the ground when they got there.
That made no sense to Brunelle. The time between the explosion and the other Humvees returning was 45 seconds or a minute, tops. How could they not have seen whoever had rescued him? Not only had they not seen anybody open his door and pull him out, the door wasn’t even there. “When those doors are locked, you cannot open them from the outside. It’s impossible,” Brunelle said. “To this day, they never found the door.”
Brunelle’s hands and face were covered with burns, and he was sent back to Kentucky to recover. He and Brooks were awarded Purple Hearts.
RELATED: Full NASCAR Salutes coverage
“I came home, got married, had twin daughters,” Brunelle said. “I thought things were going OK.”
• • •
While Brunelle spent 2005 recovering, Kyle Busch burst onto the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series scene like a Roman candle in a nunnery. He was young and cocky and fast and wild, the kind of driver every NASCAR fan says the sport desperately needs, and they hated him for it. He drove every lap like it was the last, and on the days in which he could do that consistently, he was nearly impossible to beat. As his former crew chief Alan Gustafson once said, “he drives so hard for so long, his out of control becomes controllable.”
But too often, he either wrecked or used up his equipment. Off the track, he was nearly as inconsistent. For every good deed — he started the Kyle Busch Foundation to help children’s hospitals and Bundle of Joy to help couples struggling with infertility — he got in trouble for going 128 miles per hour in a 45-mph zone or for running his mouth during interviews.
He embraced his alter ego of “Rowdy,” named for a character in the movie Days of Thunder. Whatever their opinion of Rowdy, fellow drivers and longtime observers of the sport recognized that he owned generational talent. But as the 2015 season started, he had yet to turn that talent into a Cup championship.
MORE: Kyle Busch career stats
Busch entered the season-opening NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Daytona International Speedway that year. With nine laps to go, his car slid through the gas and sped toward the wall. When his attempts to slow and/or turn the car didn‘t work, Busch let go of the steering wheel, tucked his head and told himself to take his foot off the brake pedal, all safety precautions for the coming collision. But he could not stop trying to stop the car. He kept his foot on the brakes and hoped they would catch.
They didn‘t, or at least not much. He hit the wall going 90 miles per hour. The force of the impact sent the floorboard into his legs, breaking his left foot, which was on the brake, and his right leg, which hovered above the gas pedal.
The car spun 180 degrees and stopped with its front facing the track. Busch wanted to stay in his cockpit and catch his breath. Flames shooting out of the car forced him to evacuate.
Using his left heel to push off — it was the only part of his lower extremities he could put pressure on — Busch shimmied out of his seat and stopped with his butt on the door frame as emergency personnel arrived. With an EMT holding him from behind, Busch pointed down toward his legs — one of them was stuck. The EMT pulled him the rest of the way out of the car as other safety personnel used fire extinguishers to douse the flames.
If Brunelle‘s rescue had zero witnesses, Busch’s had thousands — fans in the stands and at home watching on television. Busch laid down outside the car for treatment. Later, he said, “I’m thinking to myself, ‘Man, I’m done.’ There’s no way I’m going to be able to come back from this.’ ”
He spent six nights at hospitals in Florida and North Carolina and had surgery on both legs. By the time he returned to his home in suburban Charlotte, his Kyle Busch Motorsports crew had already built ramps for him. At first, he couldn’t leave his bed, never mind walk or use a wheelchair. Shaken, he and his wife, Samantha, cried on each other’s shoulders.
Adding to the emotional severity of the time after the crash was the fact Samantha was pregnant with their first child. They had tried for years to have children and eventually turned to in vitro fertilization. The experience had been heartbreaking and uplifting, full of both sorrow and, eventually, joy.
RELATED: How Kyle, Samantha give back
Busch wanted to be able to stand in the hospital room and hold his son on the day he was born, and that thought pushed him through three painful months of rehab. His physical therapists at OrthoCarolina walked a delicate line, pulling back his efforts when he pushed too hard and pushing him to work harder when he needed to.
When Brexton Busch was born on May 18, Kyle indeed stood at Samantha’s bedside and held him. He returned to racing for the Coca-Cola 600 on May 24, far ahead of even the most hopeful timetables for his return. He won four times in his first nine races back and won the championship that year.
It was and remains one of the most incredible comebacks in NASCAR history.
And the story doesn’t end there.
• • •
Enter Parallax Text
The explosion in Iraq haunted Brunelle. He couldn’t sleep without noise. And when he had quiet moments — time to sit back and think — his mind immediately put him back in that truck or back in the explosion or back on the ground outside of the Humvee that had no door.
He chased the memories away with alcohol — a half gallon of whiskey and 30-pack of beer each week. His marriage fell apart. “I turned into an ass—-,” he said. “I didn’t want anybody’s help.”
One day in 2015, he grabbed his pistol and walked to the bar in his backyard. He planned to drink one last beer, put the gun to his head and pull the trigger. “That was it. I was going to be done with it,” he said. “I got halfway done with my beer, and my daughter came out. She said, ‘Daddy, I love you.’ ”
He put the gun away.
Four years later, he marvels that she picked that moment to say those four incredible words. It was like someone pulling the door off the Humvee again to yank him away from death’s grasp. He walked back into his house and turned on the TV. Now came another bit of fortuitous timing, as he stumbled upon a story about Busch’s comeback from the injuries suffered in Daytona.
He recorded it and watched it again.
He had known many soldiers injured in the war who fought to return to normalcy. But something about Busch’s story stuck with him. Busch didn’t have to come back — he had all the money he would ever need. He could have just said the hell with it and retired. And yet there Busch was, pushing himself through excruciating physical therapy with an inspiring drive to become well again.
If he can come back from that, Brunelle thought, I can come back from this. Brunelle wrote Busch a letter, packed his Purple Heart along with it and sent both of them to Kyle Busch Motorsports.
• • •
The mail that arrives at KBM goes from there to the laundry room at Busch’s home near Charlotte. He often goes through it in the kitchen. One day, Steve Sarcinella, Busch’s father-in-law, was visiting and saw Brunelle’s Purple Heart on the island in the kitchen.
What is that doing here? Sarcinella asked. Busch didn’t know. He gets a lot of fan mail, but nothing as profound as the medal that lay before him. They read the letter that came with it. “I have suffered from PTSD for years,” Brunelle wrote, “and it has cost me a lot in life. I am trying to get it under control. Watching you fight back after your injuries and get to where you are has motivated me.”
Busch and Sarcinella discussed what to do with the medal. Busch didn’t feel worthy of such a gift and thought maybe he should send it back. They also talked about putting it on display in Busch’s trophy case.
Watching you fight back after your injuries and get to where you are has motivated me.
Moved by the letter and curious about what kind of man sends such a gift, Sarcinella called Brunelle. Brunelle’s head injury has stunted his memory, and he had forgotten all about sending the Purple Heart to Busch, so at first, he thought Sarcinella was trying to scam him. After Sarcinella convinced Brunelle that he was legit, Brunelle told him his story about pain, suffering and recovery.
Sarcinella’s heart broke.
They were struggles he could relate to.
• • •
In 2012, Sarcinella worked for a construction company in Chicago. He had enjoyed a long career in that industry, working his way up from an entry-level grunt to a supervisor over 35 years. But when his company shuttered the unit he worked for, he was out of a job.
At first, he welcomed the change. It was summer, he was given a nice severance, so he figured he‘d golf and fish and go to races and find a new job in the fall. He thought things were going OK.
When he started job hunting, nobody would hire him. Like many employees who lost their jobs in the economic crash of the late 2000s, he found that his previous salary as a supervisor priced him out of the market. But even when he applied for labor jobs, nobody was interested. He thought he knew why: As a supervisor, he had been demanding. He expected his guys who were scheduled to work eight hours to work hard for eight hours. “I wouldn’t say I burned a few bridges in the unions … but I did.”
Out of work for months, Sarcinella fell headlong into depression. He tried to keep himself busy by fixing up his house. But it was small and in good shape besides. He wasted hours sitting on the porch, watering the flowers and crying. “My wife would go to work in the morning. There’d be nobody in the house except the cat. My only job for the day was to feed that cat and make coffee,” he said.
One day he walked across the street to talk to his neighbor. In the middle of the conversation, he started sobbing. She suggested spiritual and motivational readings for him. A friend in Michigan did the same thing. The reading helped him and so did the fact his friends cared enough to notice.
He and his wife moved from the Chicago area to Charlotte to be near son-in-law Kyle, daughter Samantha and grandson Brexton. He started working at KBM, and the depression dissipated, though it‘s not completely gone.
“I still catch myself getting up in the middle of the night, feeling a little bit of anxiety,” he said. “I get a bottle of water or turn on the light. Hey, it’s OK. You’re OK. You’ve got a great life.”
As bad as he felt at his lowest points, he says he had “amateur depression.”
“It was a terrible, terrible place. And as terrible as I had it, I can’t imagine what the soldiers went through. I lost a job, and I went through this terrible place in my head. They lost lives and limbs, 40,000 miles away,” he said. “They’ve seen s— that you and I will never see.”
That’s why, after that initial phone call with Brunelle, he decided that one conversation was not enough.
He did for Brunelle what others did for him.
Since that first phone call, Brunelle and Sarcinella have become modern-day pen pals. They talk or text nearly every day. Just about every morning, Sarcinella sends Brunelle an encouraging Scripture verse or a motivational thought or quote from a book. Brunelle has visited Sarcinella in Charlotte and attended a race with him in Kentucky.
“Having a rough day?” read one text in early May. “Place your hand over your heart. Feel that? That’s called purpose. You’re alive for a reason. Don’t give up. Have a great Monday.”
I think that’s why we’re put here — to help others.
Brunelle says those texts have saved his life. Knowing there are people out there fighting, like Busch, and people who care, like Steve, helps Brunelle keep going when he revisits dark places. “I honestly feel if I didn’t see that story and meet Steve, I would be a statistic,” he says.
Brunelle retired in 2010 after 23 years of combined service in the Marines and the Army National Guard. His struggles are not over and never will be. But those texts, and the friendship behind them, are both offense and defense for use in his fight against PTSD. “I know if I had to, at 1 o’clock in the morning, I have friends I could call,” he said. “I know I could call Steve.”
Brunelle has a fire in him, just like the driver to whom he sent his Purple Heart. He cuts an intimidating presence.
But beneath that gruff exterior is a man with courage to share his troubles, transparency to admit he needs help, gratefulness to give credit to the people who give it to him and compassion to remember others who are struggling.
He volunteers for an hour at his kids’ school every day, tutoring a pair of brothers from China who are struggling to learn English. “I think that’s why we’re put here — to help others,” he said.
“If Steve didn’t help me, I wouldn’t be here to help them.”
• • •
One day last year, Brunelle asked Sarcinella how teams decide which soldiers’ names are placed on the car for the Coca-Cola 600, held every year on the Sunday before Memorial Day. He had a name to suggest: Eric Toth, the gunner who was killed in the IED attack in Iraq.
Sarcinella took that suggestion to officials at Joe Gibbs Racing, and they put Toth’s name on Busch’s car in the Coca-Cola 600. Busch won the first two stages and appeared to be running away with the race in the closing laps.
Watching from home, Brunelle thought to himself, “please, no yellow.” From the cockpit, Busch thought the same thing. There was no caution flag, and Busch climbed out of the car into Victory Lane to a raucous celebration.
Any Monster Energy Series win is sweet. This one was sweeter because it was Busch’s first Cup victory at Charlotte Motor Speedway, and it made him the only driver to have wins at every track on the Cup circuit.
Busch patted Toth’s name on his car, as if to say, “thanks for watching over me.” A photograph of that moment hangs in Brunelle’s backyard bar, the bar in which he had planned to kill himself.
Sarcinella watched the race with friends at Kyle Busch Motorsports. He almost couldn’t believe the sequence of events that led to the win. He thought about the explosion in Iraq, discovering the Purple Heart in Busch’s kitchen and the friendship with Brunelle that developed.
His phone rang late that night after the race ended. It was Brunelle, calling to celebrate. These two men, bound by their shared depression, had by then enjoyed hundreds of conversations together.
But that win rendered both speechless.