A U.S. Army veteran, Kenneth Pickell has fought many battles. Decades after discharge, Pickell still embodies that spirit as he fought to regain his independence with the help of Encompass Health Rehabilitation Hospital of Toms River.

In service of his country

At age 17, Pickell enlisted in the U.S. Army, and celebrated his 18th birthday at Fort Dix. He was then transferred to North Africa, where he served with the 91st Infantry Division as a machine gunner, passing through the North Africa, Sicily and Italian campaigns in World War II.

“They were in a tiled roof shed, about 75 yards or so from us,” Pickell recalled of his time in Trieste, Italy. “I took a belt of ammo and kept firing at the windows to keep them down so the company could move forward. When they fired back at me I can still recall the splat, splat, splat of the rounds hitting all around me.”

While in Milan, Pickell witnessed history.

“I saw the body of Benito Mussolini and his mistress,” he recalled. “They had shot them both and displayed their bodies for everyone to see.”

Pickell’s service ended in Po Valley when he was blown out of a foxhole by a German 88 artillery shell. Though most men didn’t make it out of that foxhole, Pickell did, and spent six months in a hospital in Rome before he was sent home.

For his action in Italy, Pickell was awarded the Bronze Star for his heroism on September 20, 1944. He also holds the Purple Heart for acquired wounds in Po Valley.

Pickell’s citation for the Bronze Star reads, “When his company’s advance was halted by extreme heavy machine gun and more fire, Pfc. Pickell moved to a small building 20 yards to the front of the main building occupied by the company. Because of terrific enemy fire coming in the window, it was impossible to emplace his gun. After several unsuccessful attempts, Pfc. Pickell ran with his gun across the open space to the main building, where at great personal risk, he went into action in an open space measuring four by two feet in front of the building. For five hours he remained at his gun in spite of the fact that several machine guns were firing at him … His accurate and intense fire kept the enemy machine guns occupied and cut their effectiveness greatly.”

In service of his community

After the war, Pickell went on to get married, and he and his wife raised three children in New Jersey. Later in his life, Pickell began volunteering at a VA center in Liberty Corner, New Jersey.

He helped with Bingo, pizza parties, patient transport and more. He volunteered for approximately six years, dedicating over 10,000 hours to the VA center.

In September 2020, Pickell was admitted to Encompass Health Toms River to treat pain, generalized weakness and difficulty with everyday tasks.

Occupational therapist Patty Henk worked with Pickell on his goals of maintaining independence with his activities of daily living, decreasing his pain from his injuries and improving his balance and mobility. He also wanted to be able to safely go out into the community with his brother, with whom he lives.

At Encompass Health Toms River, Pickell learned to manage his pain with thermal modalities and positioning strategies to use in his bed or chair to relieve pain. In his occupational therapy sessions, he received education on home safety and practiced strategies for safe transfers to and from the bed, car, toilet and shower. He also learned strategies for self-monitoring and energy conservation.

During his rehabilitation stay, Pickell advanced from requiring moderate assistance to independence in bed mobility and walking on uneven surfaces. His mobility, confidence and education improved in the areas of falls, home safety and pain management.

“Mr. Pickell always came to therapy with a positive attitude and willingness to challenge himself. He was ready and waiting at the door before his therapy sessions started,” Henk said. “I think this is innately who Mr. Pickell is as a person, but I absolutely think his military service contributed to his success with his recovery. He demonstrates resilience, the power of a strong work ethic, and the importance of a positive mind-set. It was an honor to work with him in occupation therapy. Thank you for your service, Mr. Pickell.”

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