When Karl Porfirio learned his son — a senior airman deployed to Afghanistan with an Army unit — had been shot, he was shocked.
“Airmen aren’t the ones who are usually being shot [on the ground],” he said in an interview with Military Families Magazine.
He flew straight to Germany where he thought he would see his son sitting up in his hospital bed, cracking a smart comment. But what he saw instead was a tangle of wires and his son in a medically-induced coma. The discussion started of what they could do to help his son, who had lost several organs including part of his pancreas.
Tre Porfirio was shot three times in his back at point-blank range by a local insurgent. Within 92 hours, after two life-saving surgeries in Afghanistan with a stop in Germany, Tre was sent to Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, DC. His father, Karl, didn’t know how he survived the initial attack but he was happy to have his son stateside to begin what would become a groundbreaking medical procedure.
This procedure, known as islet cell transplantation, takes the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas and injects them into one’s liver. This allows a person’s liver to produce insulin when the pancreas cannot or does not do an efficient job of doing so. Tre was the first person to receive islet cell transplantation because of a trauma in 2009, and the procedure has since gone on to be studied as a way to help other trauma victims when their vital pancreas has been damaged or destroyed.
Although Tre was able to survive the initial attack in Afghanistan and the surgeries that saved his life, he succumbed to his wounds a year later on Thanksgiving while visiting friends. He left behind a fiancé, an 8-month-old son, and newly-built home. His family was left grieving.
There were days where Tre would be looking better, but his family knew that even with this ground-breaking procedure that his chances of long-term life expectancy were low.
“He would give the doctors enough confidence that he was doing better and could be released but then he would be 10 steps outside the hospital and he would start falling apart,” his father said. “About a month before he died, he asked to come home, and as a father that’s all I wanted — to just take care of him.”
No matter how old a child is, there is an overwhelming urge as a parent to protect them, Karl says, a feeling that continues even in death.
“Any parent who has lost a child will tell you that their greatest fear is that their child will be forgotten,” Karl said.
With Tre leaving behind an 8-month-old son that would never really know his father, that overwhelming feeling of protecting Tre’s legacy came to light.
A few years after Tre’s death, Karl had the idea to write a children’s book for his grandson as well as other children who have lost a parent, sibling or family member while serving in the military. His book, “My Daddy’s Heart is Purple,” is the story of a grandfather talking to his grandson about his father’s death and what it means to get a Purple Heart.
“I want anyone who reads the book to their children to understand that they can be sad about their loved one dying, but also that they should be proud. Because they died a hero.”
In addition to his book, Karl honors Tre’s legacy and encourages others to help honor his son’s sacrifice. Every year, in partnership with the Let Us Never Forget foundation, a scholarship is given in Tre’s name to a student from his high school.
But Karl’s biggest wish is for his son’s memory to live on through others. He hopes that one day his book can reach other children who are grieving a parent they lost at war, maybe to the Good Grief Camp by TAPS.
“Every day is Memorial Day for me. It is for every Gold Star parent. But with “My Daddy’s Heart is Purple” I am making sure other people remember, too.”