Determination, the will of an ROTC cadet

By Luke Nozicka

 

The SIU ROTC program is full of hard-working men and women, but one cadet has proven strength and resilience is what becoming an Army Officer is all about.

Born in Milwaukee, Wis. and raised in Morton, senior MS4 cadet Zach Kodatt, 22, has been through a lot and some would say is a fairly lucky guy. He is a criminal justice major, and is minoring in sociology and military science.

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Growing up he enjoyed football, baseball, Boy Scouts, Cub Scouts and getting into trouble. Zach’s parents, Bruce and Teresa, have owned a small jewelry shop for the past eight years, and raised him to be an All-American young man. Over the next several years, Zach would receive news that would change his perspective on the world.

On January 6, 2008, in spring semester of his junior year in high school, Zach was diagnosed with cancer. Never having a family member diagnosed with cancer before, Zach was told the likelihood of being diagnosed was particularly rare.

“The oncologist said I had a better chance of winning the lottery four times over and getting struck by lightning eight times over,” Kodatt said.

“On that Monday at 5:30 p.m. we went into the doctor’s office and he was then scheduled for surgery that Wednesday at 8:00 a.m.,” father Bruce Kodatt said. “I knew on Monday, the way the doctor was talking about it that he had cancer, but he was too young to understand a life-threatening disease at the time,” said Bruce Kodatt.

Zach had a three-month cycle of chemotherapy at St. Jude Midwest Children’s Research Hospital in Peoria. Kodatt did not know why, but his chemo revolved around the number three.

“Three days, every third week, for three months, with three surgeries,” Kodatt said.

The hardest part for him was being isolated from friends. When you have chemotherapy, you have no immune system, he said. Kodatt’s oncologist said he wouldn’t be able to attend school for several months.

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Zach found ways to stay light-hearted during hard times though. After his first session of chemotherapy, he discovered hair all over his pillow the next morning and decided to have fun with it.

“The first thing I did was I ran upstairs, and went ‘Hey mom!’ and ripped a chunk of my hair out, which freaked her out,” he said.

Zach was strongly supported by his high school, where they sent a teacher after school every single day to tutor him.

Upon graduating, Kodatt attended Illinois Central College in East Peoria for a year before coming to SIU and pursuing his dream to become an Army officer.

On January 20, 2012, Zach experienced yet another life threatening incident. It was during the ice storm of 2012, when Zach was driving from Carbondale to Ramsey, when his car slipped on ice and flipped off the road.

Kodatt’s car landed on a field about half a mile from the home of Illinois State Police Trooper Adam Belcher, an Army National Guard veteran with medical training. Shortly after hearing the crash, Belcher had received a call from his uncle, Rick Burks, a volunteer fire fighter at the Patoka Township Fire Department saying there had been an accident close to his home.

“He said that there was a crash out towards my house and I put two and two together and figured if there was a car wreck, it was on Kinoka road,” Belcher said. “Long story short I got my medical bag out of my squad car and I drove my personal truck to the scene of the crash. That’s when I found Zach in a rolled-over passenger car.”

The top of the roof caved in and took off parts of his head, while the seat belt did not lock and instead wrapped around his neck, breaking it in two places. The air bags did not deploy and his back broke in three places.

“When I got in there, there was a ton of blood and Zach was breathing but he was kind of in and out of consciousness,” Belcher said. “So the first thing that I did was I had to stop the bleeding on his head because he had really severe cuts in multiple directions on his head, it was like he got scalped basically.”

Belcher monitored Zach until rescuers arrived and were able to get him into the ambulance. Kodatt was then rushed to St. Louis University Hospital.

“They would’ve life lined me with a chopper,” Kodatt said. “But it was so icy they couldn’t get a helicopter near, and it took them about four hours in the ambulance to drive me an hour and a half.”

Zach was sedated for 45 days, remained in the hospital three weeks after that, and spent six months recovering in a back and neck brace. After several surgeries he now has a plate in his neck.

One of his breaks was so bad that they had to surgically remove a part of his spine that had exploded, replacing it with a cadaver bone.

“Now I have one big mega vertebrate in my neck,” he said.

Zach said he broke vertebrae C4 and C7 with an anterior cervical fusion of C6 to C7, and also broke T3, T5 and T8.

Miraculously, his spine did not need surgery. Instead of breaking his vertebrae in one line, they broke every other bone. According to Kodatt, he would’ve needed a rod surgically implanted if any had broken in a row.

It took his parents 11 hours to reach him, and as any parent would be, they were in complete shock.

“We were just wondering if we were ever going to be able to say goodbye to him,” Bruce Kodatt said.

After being sedated, Zach Kodatt was stubborn and could not bear the thought of not walking.

“The first day I woke up and I made my parents go get the nurse and then I stood up,” Kodatt said.

After proving he could walk, Kodatt began to set his focus towards getting back into the ROTC, although it would be difficult.

“Five years ago I was told I would never be in the military by a staff sergeant,” Kodatt said.

Anyone that has taken five years to get into the Army has a lot of determination. He wouldn’t take no for an answer, Bruce Kodatt said.

Zach should be graduating this year, but his determination and strong family faith is what has helped him graduate in the first place. He had to take extra classes to get where he is now, Sergeant Tom Arnett said.

“We had faith in his worth ethic, that he would qualify himself,” Arnett said.

Kodatt said that through his experiences he has realized he isn’t an invincible teenager, and have matured and humbled him.

“Any time you come that close to death, it makes you a little bit more appreciative of every breath you take,” he said.

Senior MS4 Jonathan Rivera said everyone looks up to Kodatt and respects him, and that he is just a good, strong-hearted guy.

“He is very resilient, the accident never really stopped him from doing anything,” Rivera said.

Zach said SIU has been very supportive and has prepared him well to become an Army officer, and hopes to become a field artillery officer in August.

Luke Nozicka can be reached at 

[email protected] 

or 536-3311 est 254.

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