Bay native comes home to share life story, lead Fourth of July parade
Accident left Air Force major with traumatic brain injury
Whitefish Bay — "I am an author completely by accident. No kidding," writes Whitefish Bay native Steven Hirst in the intro of his memoir "Still Standing."
Hirst, a retired Air Force major, writes of the life which was halved by a tragic accident into the "before" and "after" eras. Before, he was a basketball star at Whitefish Bay High School and the United States Air Force Academy, a fighter jet pilot who, strapped into the cockpit of an F-15, regularly shattered the sound barrier, and a family man.
On Jan. 13, 1996, while returning from a grocery trip to the Air Force base in Anchorage, Alaska, Hirst hit a patch of black ice while taking a turn, careening off the road and wrapping his car around a pole. Outwardly Hirst was fine, almost without a scratch, yet inside his brain had been seriously damaged.
That day began the long and arduous battle with a traumatic brain injury which at first confined Hirst to a wheelchair, that has hindered his speech and even at times precipitated mistreatment and ridicule from strangers.
Surrounded by family
Since then, owing to therapy and the loving support of his wife, retired Air Force Lt. Col. Susan Hirst, and his daughters Stacey and Stephanie, who herself is an Air Force captain, he has fought back against the injury, gaining step by step on what he lost — standing, then taking a few steps at a time, and now exercising regularly with the aid of a trainer.
"I'm still recovering and I'm not stopping. I've been working on this a long time now, and so the story has evolved beyond just me and my accident," writes Hirst. "It's about the lessons I never would have learned, despite my previous and privileged education, my perfect life, my very acceptable free throw, my service record and my certain future."
Those lessons, publicized by Hirst's memoir, are meant to help raise awareness of traumatic brain injuries, says "Still Standing" editor Ann Ryan Solomon, who graduated alongside Hirst from Whitefish Bay in 1977. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that 1.7 million traumatic brain injuries occur annually, causing nearly 1.4 million emergency room visits, 275,000 hospitalizations, and 52,000 deaths. A 2008 study by policy think tank RAND Corporation found that 20 percent of soldiers returning from Iraq or Afghanistan screened positive for a traumatic brain injury.
"To get the story out from his head has been remarkably important to him and he wants to help others who have TBI," Ryan says. "TBI is such a huge issue right now. It's a public health epidemic."
Learning the 'big lessons'
Hirst is making the trip back to his hometown from Colorado to serve as parade marshal in Whitefish Bay's annual Fourth of July celebration. At the conclusion of the parade, following a rendition of the Star Spangled Banner, state Rep. Jim Ott will present a proclamation from Gov. Scott Walker which names July 4, 2013 "Still Standing With Maj. Steven R. Hirst Day" in Wisconsin.
Hirst will sell and sign copies of "Still Standing" at Klode Park after the celebrations, and again at 2 p.m. July 5 in the community room at the Whitefish Bay library.
As Hirst tells his readers in the last paragraph of the "Still Standing" intro, his book transcends more than just his own experiences.
"As you read this, please know how grateful I am for the all the love and support that surrounds me, allowing me to tell you more than just my bad-luck tale. It's really more about the big lessons in life — some more accidental than others."
IF YOU GO
WHAT: Whitefish Bay Fourth of July parade and book signing
WHEN: 11:30 a.m. July 4
WHERE: Parade begins at 5500 N. Kent and ends at Klode Park
Fans of Still Standing facebook page
"Still Standing" amazon page
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