Wichita veteran in Westboro case looks to move on

Ryan Newell is resting on his three-wheeler in a row of motorcycles in a Wichita garage, its door open to the steamy weather.

Just sitting there, it's hot enough to sweat, but the 26-year-old looks comfortable, calm, wearing his ball cap backward and smiling.

The garage is a refuge for the Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran. Just being there with his friend and fellow veteran Tony Sparling among the shiny, powerful machines boosts Newell's morale after what he's been through — disabling war wounds, PTSD, and a run-in with a controversial Topeka church that got him in trouble with the law and drew national attention.

People still call him Sgt. Newell even though he's no longer in the Army. He was a sergeant returning from a mission in Afghanistan in 2008 when an improvised bomb detonated.

"We lost everybody in the Humvee that day except for me," he says.

Two fellow soldiers died. Newell — who lives in Marion and grew up in Goddard and loved to race his motorcycle before he went to war — lost both legs.

Psychologically, he has been on a difficult journey since then. It has taken him from being in combat to being arrested in the Wichita City Hall parking lot last November and charged with felony conspiracy to commit aggravated battery against members of Topeka's Westboro Baptist Church —widely seen as more of a hate group than a church.

The situation is almost backward: The person charged with a crime has been seen as the hero, and the alleged victims have been seen as the villains.

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