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  • Writer's pictureMason Edwards!

White Star Veteran

By Mason Edwards, News Editor

Joshua Kapellusch poses next to Cheryl Koehler's bike. Monday, Jan. 29, 2024. Photo by Mason Edwards.

As Joshua Kapellusch flipped over the faded pages of his leather-bound bible, the bright flurries of yellow, green and pink highlighter marks seemed to jump off the page. His hand held the words back, revealing the inside portion of the back cover: two Erlanger hospital visitor passes, each for a different day. He almost didn’t go. He almost didn’t have a chance to say goodbye to someone who became like a mother to him.

“And then it dawned on me,” Kapellusch, 38, said. “I was like, I'm going to nursing school, but here's somebody that needs my help now, you know?”

Kapellusch hesitated. It’s hard for him to carry on when he’s missing part of himself, as if struck with a wound that can never fully heal. Indifferent to himself, as if soul numbed, and with no good options, he devotes himself to healing others as a way to find peace; however, because he’s trying to treat his depression, each setback or lost friend seems to wipe away all progress he’s made.

Over the course of two years, he had grown to love Cheryl L. Koehler as if she was his mother. They met in a field next to the Cowboy Church in Layfette, Georgia: an open barn whose congregation wore spurred boots and wide-brim hats. Koehler handed out pieces of retired American flags, and after she gave Kapellusch a white star, they bonded over what they lost in service to the country. Kapellusch, as an Air Force veteran, developed depression from moral complications related to his service. Koehler, as a Gold Star wife, lost her husband to an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan, the loss of which aggravated her complications from Crohn’s disease.

“That’s when my eyeballs started watering,” Kapellusch said. “Even though she was suffering tremendously with her sickness, she was still blessing people and being positive.”

Apart from church, Koehler, 57, loved riding her purple motorbike, with its streamers and ghost flame paintjob, and she dressed classily wherever the bike took her. She loved her tidy home, and often burned candles to make it smell like a wood cabin, but beginning in August, she reluctantly realized she needed help. Not wanting to burden her family or hire a stranger, she turned to someone who already understood her pain: Kapellusch.

“[My kids had] asked her to be their grandma because they didn’t have one nearby,” he said. “I couldn’t stand the thought of her being alone or not having somebody to take care of her.”

Kapellusch’s approach to her care reflected his precision-focused military training. Each day, he journaled a beginning and end of day report, and he took responsibility for her household chores, medications, bills and wellbeing. After noticing she kept bumping into her small table with her walker, he built her a brand new one. Koehler sometimes poked fun at him, lightheartedly calling him ‘the drill sergeant.’

On Saturday, Aug. 19, Kapellusch knocked on Koehler’s door to find her on her couch, fiddling with her phone. She couldn’t remember her passcode. He noticed her ruffled curtains, tipped over purse and fallen toilet paper stand. She kept repeating herself. She started experiencing an intense seizure. He reacted quickly, trying to keep her from hitting herself. He held her up with one hand, his thumb and finger on her forehead, and dialed 911 with the other hand. He thought she was dying.

They spent time in Erlanger’s Intensive Care Unit, where, as the doctors worked around the clock to figure out her prognosis, the two kept in high spirits. They prayed together and played gospel music, but as the night went on, she became increasingly unresponsive. Her complications from Crohn’s disease, which included sepsis, worsened until the doctors decided the best they could do was make her comfortable. Kapellusch helped bring her back home.

On Friday, Aug. 25, Koehler passed away in front of friends and family, less than an hour after arriving home from the hospital.

“The last thing she said to me was, ‘thank you, thank you for loving me unconditionally,’” Kapellusch said. “I told her I was going to take care of a lot of people in her honor."

In an instant, a red wave washed over his green eyes, and a steady stream of tears erupted like a geyser. His depressive disorder—that unhealing wound—held him down, but Kapellusch couldn’t deal with it—not when arrangements needed to be made, not when he had his kids to think about, and certainly not when he had class the next day. Except, after taking care of everyone else but himself, the boundary between his wound and sense of self vanished. His depression had stalked him before, but now, it attacked.

In anatomy class, Kapellusch’s mind wandered to thinking about death and decomposition—no matter how hard he tried to ground himself, the next impulsive image somehow disturbed him more than the last. Surrounded by skeletons, bones and skulls, he found it impossible to think about living cells whenever he spent so much time around decayed ones. Fourteen minutes into his first anatomy exam, he picked up a skull from the temple, using his thumb and finger like he did with Koehler. The act triggered flashbacks and a panic attack, completely wrecking his emotional state.

“I think I got the worst score on the history of that exam,” he said. "Basically, it had more tears on my paperwork than answers, and I was trying to hold it together through that test without leaving.”

Kapellusch finds it difficult to travel to Chattanooga, leaving his dog and chickens behind. He lives in Calhoun in an off-grid tiny home, surrounded by trees and an entire clothesline full of American flags. Still, as his depression wrapped tighter around him, he pushed himself to travel to Chattanooga—where he attended counseling in a room surrounded by grey walls. Even as he wanted to stop counseling—stop speaking to a stranger, stop the horrible white noise machine and stop crying—his desire to stop his depression overruled his anxiety over traveling to the city.

“I leave the most peaceful place to come to the most chaotic place, like a busy town full of people who would try to run you over,” he said. “It’s been a really big challenge.”

During his first counseling session, he spilled everything all at once. Even though depression wrapped around him tightly, making it hard to want to get better, he didn’t let go of his desire to heal others. he wanted to keep serving homeless veterans—a charity he used to do with Koehler. Yet, last year, when winter brought freezing temperatures, Kapellusch tried to distribute water to everyone during last year’s cold snap, but after only a few minutes, the bottles froze solid. When one of his friends nearly froze to death, his counseling helped him realized his uphill battle with homelessness sometimes fed his wound, rather than treating it.

“I had to take a step back because it was really aggravating my depression,” he said. “I’m learning to take care of myself.”

While slowing down his charitable service, Kapellusch searched his heart for something he could do for him to help treat his depression. He reflected, and remembered that in lieu of payment, Koehler gifted Kapellusch her purple bike. As he explained it, few things in civilian life replicate the visceral military lifestyle—except for the raw, exposed power of motorcycles.

In early January, temperatures plunged again, and soft snowfall froze overnight, icing over every inch of countryside and city. Kapellusch still had class, and while he could take his truck, he knew Koehler’s bike would be more efficient on gas. After noticing other vehicles left tire tracks in the road, he dusted the snow off the bike’s fuel tank, seats and saddlebags. It started up without issues, and the Honda’s thump, thump, thump roared—waking up the forest around him.

“I kind of like, have this peaceful grounding ceremony where I’m just breathing, getting one with the motorcycle,” he said. “As soon as I start riding, it’s like, I don’t know, just this beautiful symphony of motion.”

The action keeps him engaged, feeling alive, and from the worst thoughts in his head. Most importantly, it helps him remember Koehler. She may no longer physically inhabit the world, but he wants to keep her memory alive as long as he can.

“When people ask about the bike, I’ll get the chance to say something about her,” he said. “I think telling her story is going to help with the healing.”

Kapellusch closed his bible, and he tucked it away into one of the pockets his dust-covered backpack. He paused for a moment. His hand reached into another pouch, softly grasping a small, clear plastic bag with a piece of fabric and notecard. In it: a finely stitched white star set on a blue background.

“If you are a veteran, please keep this memento,” the back of the card reads. “Please carry me as a reminder that YOU are not forgotten.”

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