A decorated Gulf War veteran, moved by the story of Michael Hubbard’s valiant struggle to recover from injuries suffered in a May 2011 accident, has given the Riverhead teen an early Christmas present.

The U.S. Navy veteran presented Michael with the combat action medal he earned for his service during Operation Desert Storm.

Michael Hubbard with his mom Nancy Reyer and U.S. Navy veteran Kurt Gaydos, holding his framed combat action medal, at Peconic Bay Medical Center Friday afternoon.
(Photo: Denise Civiletti)

“This kid — he’s up against so much,” Gaydos said in an interview. “And every picture I see of him, he’s smiling. I give him way more credit than anyone I know, including myself, for that kind of perseverance.”

Gaydos first learned of Michael Hubbard’s plight from a donation jar on the counter at a 7-Eleven. The Manorville resident, who works with incarcerated youth at the county jail in Riverside, looked into Michael’s story online. And what he read broke his heart, he said last week.

“It just had quite an effect on me,” Gaydos said.

“What happened to him was something so out of the blue, such a freak accident like that,” he said. “You hear about so many car accidents and stuff. But that accident…”

2011_0613_hubbardMichael sustained third-degree burns over 40 percent of his body when a citronella fuel pot exploded in his face on May 28, 2011 while he was helping his family set up for a backyard party. The explosion slathered him with burning gel, covering his face and torso. The 14-year-old did what he had been taught. He stopped, dropped and rolled. But the burning gel — likened by burn experts to napalm — kept burning into his flesh. His frantic mother, Nancy Reyer, also suffered burns on her hands and arms trying to put the flames out.

Michael was rushed to Stony Brook University Hospital, where he was admitted in critical condition. Nine days later organ failure caused cardiac arrest. Doctors resuscitated the boy, but not until his brain was deprived of oxygen for 13 minutes. The resulting brain injury left Michael in what doctors told his mom would be “a vegetative state for the rest of his life.”

Michael has proved them wrong. Hospitalized since his injury — first in Stony Brook, then at Blythedale Childrens’ Hospital and, since June 27, 2013 at Peconic Bay Medical Center’s Skilled Nursing Facility — Michael is aware, communicative and responding to therapy. He’s even speaking some words.

And, of course, sporting that million-dollar smile.

“He’s obviously a very special young man,” Gaydos said.

“The years he lost, those years are supposed to be the best years. You’re supposed to have the time of your life growing up, with your friends and stuff. And he was robbed of them,” he said. “I identify with that age so much — it was a difficult age for me. When I read about his plight, it broke my heart, really.”

Gaydos decided to present Michael with his combat medal. He went to Peconic Bay Medical Center last Saturday. When he saw Michael in his wheelchair in the hallway with his mom, Nancy Reyer, the Navy war veteran choked.

Kurt Gaydos, background, watches Michael Hubbard interact with his mom Nancy Reyer at Peconic Bay Medical Center Friday afternoon.
(Photo: Denise Civiletti)

“I don’t know,” he said. “It felt maybe intrusive. Seeing them, I got emotional.”

After Reyer wheeled her son down the hall, Gaydos gave the framed medal and a typewritten letter he’d written to mother and son to staff at the nurses’ station.

“I was absolutely blown away,” Reyer said.

“That day, of all days, I was crying all day. With Christmas here, it’s hard some days — and that was one of those days,” she said. “It just hit me.”

Gaydos’ heartfelt letter described how he’d followed Michael’s story “from the beginning all the way to Michael’s graduation in June, watching from a distance with a smile on my face and, quite honestly, a tear in my eye.”

“Congratulations to you, Sir,” he wrote.

Nancy Reyer shows her son the combat action medal presented to him by U.S. Navy veteran Kurt Gaydos of Manorville.
(Photo: Denise Civiletti)

The combat action medal, Gaydos wrote, “is one of the most meaningful things I possess in this world.”

He shared the words of the citation he received from President George Bush: “for conspicuous gallantry at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty…Petty Officer Gaydos valiantly defended his country for the cause of freedom…”

“I am proudly dedicating this medal to Michael. He has certainly been through the war. This young man has demonstrated the kind of perseverance, bravery and courage that I will never know,” Gaydos wrote.

Michael’s “valiant recovery” continues to inspire him, he wrote. “Both of you are the very definition of determination, strength and commitment. Please accept this symbol of “Courage” in honor of Michael. I will continue to keep you in my prayers.”

Reyer said the letter and the presentation of the medal left her speechless. “It’s a beautiful Christmas story,” she said.

Gaydos, 47, grew up in Rocky Point but has worked in Riverhead for so long, he says, “I feel like a local.” He has been an employee of Eastern Suffolk BOCES for 17 years. He teaches youth incarcerated at the county correctional facility and this year was honored by Eastern Suffolk BOCES with an employee of the year award.

He accepted Reyer’s invitation to visit the skilled nursing facility again on Friday and meet her and Michael in person.

“I’m glad I did,” he said. “This young man is a true inspiration.”

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Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.