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On a long, flat stretch of country road, Matt Burke was talking cars with a fellow bicyclist when a Dodge Durango slammed into them from behind, hurling Burke about 50 feet before he hit the road, his skull fractured, his face shattered.

In that moment, everything Burke had wanted — a career as an Army surgeon, a future with his wife and daughter — evaporated in the crisp, sunny evening of Oct. 1, 2010.

Today, Matt Burke, a Utah native, is in an Army hospital in Georgia. His wife, Bonnie, a nurse, is with him every day. He was in a coma for weeks. His brain damage was devastating, and his survival remains in doubt.

The orthopedic specialist who treated trauma patients at an airbase in Iraq "will never be a surgeon again," says Paul Burke, Matt's older brother. "He'll never be a doctor again. The brother I have known and loved was lost on Oct. 1."

Daniel Johnson, the man who hit Matt Burke and four fellow riders from behind in Beech Island, S.C., remains under investigation. No charges have been filed.

Maj. Matt Burke, 38, grew up in Salt Lake City, graduated from Judge Memorial Catholic High School and headed for college in Massachusetts.

His father, John Burke, is a physician; his mother, Andrea, a registered nurse. Paul Burke is an attorney, their brother Ted is an engineer and their sister, Erin, is finishing law school at the University of Utah.

One or the other or all have been at Matt's side in Georgia nearly every day.

Matt Burke was an active, inquisitive little kid, nicknamed "Touchy" because he couldn't keep his hands off anything.

"That presaged his career as a surgeon," Paul Burke says. "He had wonderful hands; he was a very skilled surgeon. He was intelligent, funny and very compassionate."

Even as a kid, his brother says, "you could see all the little pieces, the broad interests. In high school, he loved the sciences."

At the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., the young man from Utah's high desert became a competitive rower at regattas ranging from the Head of the Charles in Boston to England's Henley Royal on the Thames.

After graduating, Matt Burke applied to medical schools but got a stack of rejection letters. He later was accepted at the Uniformed Services Academy for Medical School, trained in orthopedic surgery at Stanford University and was assigned to the Army upon graduation.

It was a good fit. Matt Burke has jumped out of airplanes with Green Berets and scuba-dived with Navy SEALs. Besides being a master cyclist, he learned how to wakeboard behind a Cobalt powerboat he towed with his Ford F-150 pickup.

Burke spent about five months at Al Asad Airbase in Iraq, treating service members with traumatic injuries before they were sent to the U.S. military hospital in Germany.

"He joked that a big part of his practice there was treating Marines who'd hurt each other," Paul Burke says.

When Matt came home, he and Bonnie decided to start their own post-war baby boom, Paul says. Anna Ryan Burke is 10 months old.

The collision • On that October day, Matt Burke and about 14 other cyclists were on a long ride. Matt was preparing for a triathlon and, as his brother says, keeping physically fit to maintain his military readiness and ability to be deployed.

The group had pedaled out of Augusta, Ga., about an hour before the collision. A friend quoted Matt as saying, "This is the perfect evening."

Their route led them to Beech Island, a rural South Carolina town across the Savannah River. Matt Burke and Scott Moore were at the end of the pack, hugging the side of the narrow road, their handlebars inches apart. It's legal to do so in that area; many roads lack shoulders and it's considered safer. All were wearing helmets and reflective gear, and their bikes had LED flashing lights.

No one in the group heard Johnson's SUV coming until the last second, survivors say. German Chavarria told The Augusta Chronicle he suddenly heard a "very loud rumble," apparently when Johnson revved his engine in the instant before he hit the riders.

Judith Speck, a veteran cyclist, told the newspaper she thought the driver was going to "buzz" the group, a common irritant when drivers get annoyed and roar closely by.

Instead, he hit Burke with his front grill and sent Moore tumbling to the road where he suffered deep bruising and road rash. Three other riders were hurt; all but Burke are recovering.

Reports indicate Johnson was driving in excess of the 35 mph posted speed limit.

Johnson told the troopers he was "distracted" when he hit the riders, but he hasn't offered a consistent explanation since then.

ln news reports, there were conflicting stories about where the collision occurred. One man said the riders were on a winding portion, but a photo of the road shows a straight stretch about a mile long, with red initials on the asphalt indicating the point of impact.

The group was about halfway down that stretch, and sun was behind Johnson and the riders.

In a report filed after the collision, the South Carolina Highway Patrol concluded that Johnson "contributed to [the] collision," but the cyclists did not. Johnson, investigators concluded, bore sole responsibility for causing the crash.

The SCHP also has determined that his brother and all the riders were riding legally, including the two-abreast formation of Matt Burke and Scott Moore.

This last part is important, not least because the collision incited a flurry of accusations from some South Carolinians that the riders had broken the law in their riding pattern, and that they — not Johnson — were responsible for the crash.

Here in Utah, where bike riders are everywhere, we hear the same complaints. Drivers often claim that riders don't heed the law, let alone pay attention to traffic. Riders say they might as well be invisible to motorists.

'Strong family' • For the Burkes, all of them, everything is about Matt now. Paul and his parents have spent most of the last three months in Georgia. Ted, whose wife was pregnant, and Erin, the law student, have been back and forth. Bonnie tends to him and makes sure he's well cared for. Ted and his wife, Kim, named their newborn son Matthew John Burke.

"We have a very strong family," Paul Burke says. "And Bonnie is a very strong, beautiful woman."

Matt Burke was treated first at Medical College of Georgia, then taken to Eisenhower Army Medical Center at Fort Gordon, where he practiced medicine.

He's back among his colleagues, but not where he belongs.

Peg McEntee is a news columnist. Reach her at