U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. – Emotions were high as the two brothers stood side-by-side on the stage. Kyle Kauppila was about to pin lieutenant’s bars on his younger brother, Garrett, in a moment that almost never happened.
Two years ago, Kyle was enjoying a Sunday morning ride with a local motorcycle club when an accident left him crumpled on the side of the road, clinging to life. He was rushed from the scene by helicopter as word trickled out to his friends and family.
Garrett, then in his junior at the Academy, had just returned from playing with the Air Force football team at Michigan Stadium while their parents, who had stayed an extra day, were still on the flight back.
“There was a 45-minute window of time when I didn’t know if my brother was even alive,” Garrett said.
Kyle had fractured several ribs and vertebrae, both shoulders and his wrist. He had a collapsed lung and lacerated spleen. Although he had no memory of the accident, he was alert and able to take a call from his worried brother.
“Kyle was himself at that time. He told me how proud he was of my performance at the game and also how beautiful the ride had been,” Garrett said. “Coach Calhoun called [to check on me], and in that brief blip of time, with everything sounding so normal, I took Kyle for granted and got off the phone to take that call.”
None of them knew Kyle had a tear in his carotid artery depriving his brain of oxygen. One day shy of his 22nd birthday, he suffered a stroke that left him paralyzed on his right side and unable to speak or walk.
“When we first found out that our son had pretty severe brain damage, my husband and I had a really good cry, and then we said, ‘this is it, knock the rear view mirrors off and look forward,’” said Andrea, their mother.
Garrett’s parents encouraged him to finish out the semester and his football season. He returned to school the same week after the accident and traveled to San Diego State with the team. Garrett dedicated the game to his brother and was glad to be surrounded by his Air Force brothers.
“There was an unexpected monsoon in the middle of the game, which caused a long delay, and honestly, was a bit of an omen,” Garrett said. “In the fourth quarter, only six days after my brother’s accident, I ended up snapping my collarbone as I attempted to block a punt.”
He required surgery to repair the break, which impaired his ability to write. He said the family took it as a sign that he should take some time to come home and recover. The Academy allows cadets take up to two semesters off to recover from injury or illness, or for family emergencies.
“I know that I made the right choice coming to the Academy because I had so many amazing people here who supported me and took care of the paperwork to help me get home as soon as physically possible,” Garrett said.
As soon as Garrett was cleared, he flew home to his brother – who he was afraid might not even remember him.
“When I got to the hospital, and I saw his eyes light up, and I knew he still knew me; that was a moment that I will never forget,” he said.
The two bothers embarked on a months-long road to recovery that saw Garrett become Kyle’s primary caretaker. He lifted his brother in and out of bed, bathed him and shuttled him to the many medical appointments that became his new routine.
In the spring of 2018, Garrett returned to the Academy, where he juggled his rigorous academic standards with returning to the football team.
“It was hard. I felt like I was abandoning them in their time of need, but I hung my hat on the fact that I knew it’s what Kyle and my family wanted for me,” he said.
Garrett would go on to graduate from the Academy with a 3.85 GPA and earn a scholarship to attend grad school from the management department. He also battled to be a part of the most successful Falcon football team in years. In accordance with NCAA rules, he will get the chance to play in the upcoming Cheez-It Bowl in Arizona – his first opportunity to play in a bowl.
“Garrett has always been very, very driven,” Andrea said. “He is someone who lives by the idea that you should be the best that you can every single day, and we couldn’t be more proud of him. Seeing him on the stage with his brother was a special, special moment.”
Meanwhile, Kyle has slowly regained his ability to speak and walk, although his right arm remains paralyzed. He lives at home with his parents, but works hard to be as independent as possible, including taking classes at a community college to improve his reading and writing skills.
Garrett said the entire experience has greatly influenced how he lives his life and his leadership philosophy.
“I would say it’s a bit of the ‘glacier theory.’ You only see the tip of the iceberg, unless you take the time to get to know people and you ask what matters to them and why they serve,” he said. “And also, that maybe your uphill battle isn’t quite as big as it seems in the moment, and you just need to make those small adjustments to realize your goals.”