Cynthia Lefever didn't get a chance to see her son Army Specialist Rory Dunn before he shipped out to Iraq on 24 hours’ notice in March 2004. The strapping, gregarious athlete—six feet three and broad shouldered, with mischievous brown eyes—had enlisted two years earlier, when construction jobs started drying up in the Seattle area. “I was really upset,” says Cynthia, 57. She knew the war in Afghanistan was escalating and an invasion of Iraq seemed imminent. “Naturally, as a mother, I was afraid for his safety and welfare,” she says. “But he was making an adult decision. I supported it.”
Three months after Rory’s deployment, on his 22nd birthday, Cynthia was sitting in her family room in Renton, Washington, composing an e-mail to him that included birthday greetings from his friends and relatives, when the phone rang. It was Rory’s captain, calling from Fort Drum, New York. The officer delivered his news with a shaky voice: a pair of IEDs (improvised explosive devices) had blown up Rory’s Humvee while he and his unit were on escort duty near the city of Fallujah. Shrapnel from the simultaneous blasts had pierced the unarmored vehicle. The captain offered few details about the incident, which killed Rory’s best friend and another soldier with them in the Humvee. But he did explain that Rory had suffered an open-head injury and was “critically wounded.”
Cynthia went into emergency mode. She held her emotions in check while she went looking for a pencil and paper, then returned to ask more questions: Where was he now? What exactly were his injuries? What does “critical” mean? Upstairs she could hear Rory’s stepfather, Stan Lefever, 48, arriving home from work. By the time he set down his briefcase and came downstairs, Cynthia was off the phone. She still didn’t know exactly how bad Rory’s injuries were. Crying, she turned to her husband. “Our boy,” she said. “He’s hurt.”
The next day Cynthia and Stan were on their way to a U.S. military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, along with Rory’s three siblings and his biological father, Patrick Dunn, to wait for Rory to arrive from Iraq. Five days later, after doctors had stabilized Rory enough to move him, he was carried into the Landstuhl hospital on a stretcher. The only thing Cynthia recognized was the bottoms of his size-12 feet. His right eye was gone, and the left one was swollen. Sixty staples held his scalp together. A surgeon told Cynthia, who is Catholic, that Rory probably wouldn’t survive. Despite this, she refused to let a priest administer last rites. Instead, knowing the blast had rendered him nearly deaf, she bent over the bedside with her lips near his ear. “This is your mother,” she shouted. “You will not die. Don’t you dare die.”
* * *
At that moment, Cynthia became one of a growing number of parents who are, by necessity, stepping back into the role of caregiver for their children who are returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with debilitating and often long-term injuries. According to officials from three national organizations—the Wounded Warrior Project, The Military Family Network, and the Coalition to Salute America’s Heroes— an estimated 10,000 recent veterans of these conflicts now depend on their parents for their care. Working unheralded, these parents have quit jobs, shelved retirement plans, and relocated so they can be with their injured sons and daughters. Many have become warriors themselves, fighting to make sure this new wave of injured veterans gets the medical care and rehabilitation it needs.