Sgt. Carl Russell is proud of his service to his country. He says he'd go back tomorrow if he could. Life has not always been easy in the years after his service, but the support of his wife, Lea, and a Veterans Court team made that transition a little easier.

Lea Russell saved her husband’s life.

Call it a miracle if you want; call Sgt. Carl Russell’s return from the edge of death a fluke if you want. But he’s here today because of his wife’s emotional appeal to doctors to try one more time to resuscitate him.

Carl was clinically dead of a heart attack, one of 13 he endured after returning from two tours in Iraq shot, blown up and mentally damaged from the horrors he endured and the horrors he inflicted.

According to Carl and Lea, doctors were ready to sign his death certificate when Lea demanded – with 6-month old and 2-year old daughters in hand – that doctors try one more time to resuscitate him. At first they refused, but then relented at the frantic insistence of Lea.

And back to life he came.

Today, he lounges in his recliner at in the rustic and remote Laclede County home he shares with Lea and his daughters Bethaney, 12, and Abbi, 11. A son, Trevor, 20, from Carl’s first marriage is in the Missouri National Guard.

Yes, he’s a wounded warrior confined mostly to a wheelchair. But he’s also an accomplished taxidermist with many of his accomplishments adorning the walls of their family room.

He manages well with the help of Lea, his full-time caregiver.

Like many soldiers of war, Carl is vague when he’s asked to share his experiences. The memories are painful. The mental, emotional and physical injuries he suffered – including multiple severe concussions -- are to blame for his heart attacks, the most recent of which was a decade ago this fall.

Yet, he’s proud of his service to his country. He’d go back tomorrow if he could, he says. Lea might have something to say about that, though, as she’s been by his side either in person or in spirit -- as a dedicated wife and companion since they were married on Dec. 29, 2006, between his two deployments. 

The backstory

Carl was born in St. Joseph, Mo., but moved with his parents to Mason, Ill. He graduated from Seneca, Ill., High School in 1993, and worked with his dad in the home construction business before deciding to enlist into the Army at 27 years old. His dad, himself a Korean War veteran, discouraged Carl from enlisting, but Carl had his own life to live.

After training at Ft. Campbell, Ky., he was deployed to Iraq in 2005 as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Carl was an infantry sniper. And he was a good one. Some of his targets were high profile, though he can’t name names or locations. His tenure as a sniper is classified. The missions he completed remain sealed, but he thinks much of what he did will be declassified in another year. The U.S. Government typically holds such information in its vaults for 10 years, he explains. Until then, because of the sensitive information he knows, he can’t travel out of the United States for fear of capture and interrogation.

Carl was in Iraq 18 months as a floater, although he was assigned to the 1st. Brigade, 327th Infantry. He and his spotter were shipped all over Iraq to acquire their targets. Typically, they were taken to an undisclosed location where they would hike through the rugged Iraqi landscape – sometimes for days – to their targets and then reconnect with other soldiers to return to base.

During his first deployment he was shot in the back and the chest. The armored plates that protected his body saved his life. Another time shrapnel tore into a leg and he used his combat knife to dig it out, he matter-of-factly explains.

Soldiers did what they had to do to survive.

Carl’s contract with the U.S. Army ended and he came home in 2006 to end his first deployment.

Lea, from Popular Bluff., Mo., and Carl met while in high school at Seneca. After Carl’s first deployment, they reconnected and talked about getting married.

But Carl had another itch that needed scratched.

During his first deployment, Carl watched many of his friends and fellow soldiers die because they lacked adequate care in the field. Carl wanted to help make a difference, and decided to re-enlist as a combat medic. Lea came home from work one day only to find that Carl had re-enlisted. They had two weeks to get married before Carl begin medic training.

They were together awhile before he left. Lea was pregnant with Bethan0ye by then, not knowing if she would see her husband alive again.

Was she upset by his decision?

No.

Lea says even today she respects her husband’s dedication to his country and his fellow soldiers. She’s proud of his character and his integrity and would not stand in his way. Two days after they were married, Carl left on Jan. 2, 2008, to become a combat medic – a position he describes as roughly the equivalent to a physician’s assistant.

Carl says it was hard to live knowing others were dying because they weren’t getting medical care.

“I wanted to go back and save lives,” he explained simply.

Again, war took its toll on Carl. Four times, maybe more he tries to recall, a Humvee in which he was riding struck Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). Hence, the concussions he suffered. His body and mind were beaten up by then.

Carl Russell was medically retired on Feb. 22, 2011.

Any regrets, Carl was asked?

Taking so many lives, he lamented.

Veterans Court

While in Illinois, suffering from his physical and emotional injuries, a doctor finally prescribed medical marijuana after other, more clinical options didn’t work. He was issued a Medical Marijuana Card there.

As time passed, Carl and Lea wanted to get away from where they lived in Illinois, wanted to escape the disrespect some in their community had for Carl’s service and his commitment to his job in the Army. A friend suggested they consider somewhere near the Lake of the Ozarks where communities were more inclined to welcome heroes rather than condemn them.

They reached out to lake-area real estate agents and eventually found their retreat at the end of dead-end gravel road between Camdenton and Lebanon.

But the possession and use of marijuana – medically prescribed or not – was illegal in Missouri at the time. Word eventually reached law enforcement officials of alleged marijuana use and possession and Carl was arrested and charged.

Through the court process in Laclede County, Carl’s attorney learned of a Veterans Court program that accepted qualified veterans for rehabilitation. Successful completion of a 14-step program would lead to a clean record. Camden County was beginning a similar program about that time and Carl’s case was transferred.

Judge Aaron Koeppen and a Veterans Court team took over Carl’s case and guided him through the process. Carl became the first graduate of the Camden County Veterans Court in June 2020.

“How it happened stinks,” Carl says of his arrest. “It should never have happened for the reason I was using it, but I was breaking the law. Now, today, I’m thankful for Judge Koeppen. He’s such a wonderful man.”

Carl and Lea heat their home with wood. During the Veterans Court process, Judge Koeppen learned that the Russells were behind in cutting wood for the upcoming winter because of Carl’s physical limitations.

Judge Koeppen arranged for a group of his church family to come to the Russell home to cut, split and stack enough firewood for the winter. The judge was right in there helping, Carl said.

“He’s such a wonderful man. He would literally do anything for you,” Carl said.

Carl and Lea both praise the Veterans Court team, including Danielle Malone, the Veterans Treatment coordinator.

“The entire team wants to see you succeed,” Carl said.