Two years ago, Matthew Hanes graduated from Northeastern High School.
Two weeks after that, he was off to the Army, which had always been his dream.
Two years later, he was shot while on patrol in Afghanistan in June and suffered critical, paralyzing injuries.
Two days ago, his father, Lee Hanes, returned from visiting Matthew at James A. Haley Veterans Hospital in Tampa., Fla., a hospital that specializes in spinal cord injury rehabilitation.
Matthew, 21, can't use his two legs or hands yet, but has some motion in his two arms.
To many of the third-graders at York Haven Elementary who
But they nodded along with teacher Erin Kline as she further explained what a spinal cord injury means and why it's important to help support Matthew. Lee Hanes was on hand to answer questions, too.
"It's hard for the (spinal cord) messages to get up here," Kline said as she pointed to her head.
Students and staff around the district have been making cards to give to Matthew's family.
"He gets so excited to read them," Lee Hanes said, adding that local churches have also written cards.
It's been an arduous few months to say the least. Since Matthew was shot -- it was on his last patrol and just a few months before he was supposed to come home -- it's been a whirlwind of hospitals, Lee said. Matthew spent his 21st birthday being flown to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, and has since moved to Tampa.
Lee said his son is able to whisper and recently started to eat solid foods.
"The first thing he asked for was a cheeseburger and a chocolate milkshake," Lee told the students as they giggled.
Matthew has begun getting some sensation back in his hands, and there's hope he'll eventually regain more motor function throughout his body. For now, Lee said, the family is preparing for how to ease the transition upon their son's eventual return to Manchester Township, including the possibility of building a handicap-accessible home on their property.
Until then, the outpouring of support from students has buoyed Matthew's spirits, Lee said.
"I know one thing. You're going to make my son very happy," he told the students.
Kline said she has tried to use the unfortunate event as a teachable moment, telling students about the Army, Afghanistan, and what it means to serve. Kline's brother served in Iraq, and her best friend's brother, Red Lion's Dan Zerbe, was killed while serving in the Air Force in Afghanistan last year.
Students have been asking her tough questions, such as why people would shoot at Matthew, she said. One asked if Afghanistan was bad.
"And I told them no, it's just some people there are making bad choices," she said.
Students wrote personal messages. Arabella Butera, 8, wrote "I love that you help our country. I hope you feel better."
"Not very many people do that," Arabella said of serving in the Army.
Shane Crumling, 8, said he thought Matthew was brave for going overseas.
"I heard you were hurt and I hope you feel better," Shane wrote.
Those who want to read more about Matthew and leave comments for his family can visit www.caringbridge.org/visit/matthewhanes/
-- Reach Andrew Shaw at email@example.com