Veterans’ groups say the Harveys’ story is not unusual. “I know many parents who are entering late middle age, some in their 50s and 60s, who are now full-time caregivers,” says John Melia, executive director of the Jacksonville, Florida-based Wounded Warrior Project, which assists severely injured service members and their families. “Lifelong dreams have been shattered. The things that you do in your golden years—they’re not getting to do that kind of stuff because they’ve now got another job: full-time caregiver.”
Back in Landstuhl, Germany, Cynthia Lefever’s pleas to her son not to die paid off. Despite the doctor’s grim prognosis, Rory Dunn did survive. One day after he arrived in Germany, he was transferred to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., still in a coma. “We were told he’s not gonna wake up,” Cynthia recalls. “Then we were told if he does wake up, he’s gonna be pretty much a vegetable.” But when he did regain consciousness six weeks later, Rory knew his name. When he said, through the speaking valve of his tracheostomy tube, “I’m all right,” one of the doctors lifted Cynthia and twirled her around in an impromptu dance of celebration.
Rory wasn’t all right, though. He was missing his right eye. He was blind in his left. He couldn’t walk, and he could barely hear. He needed surgery to repair his shattered skull. And the frontal lobe of his brain was damaged, which left him unmotivated to leave his bed and uninhibited about expressing anger. He threatened suicide, declaring, “I don’t want to live this way.”
Cynthia, who had packed just one bag before she left her home in Washington State, moved into a hotel near the hospital and remained there for ten months. Her husband, Stan, shifted his work schedule so he could visit her. As doctors worked to restore Rory’s body—rebuilding his forehead, transplanting a cornea, teaching him to walk again—Cynthia worked to restore his independence. She played games with him to exercise his brain. She corrected him when he made inappropriate comments. When Rory finally became an outpatient and moved into his mother’s hotel room, she pushed him to wash his own clothes and handle his own money. “I know you’re blind,” she told him, “but you know your way to the laundry room.
”It was a challenging time, emotionally and financially. Cynthia had given up her job, and Stan was missing overtime opportunities. Travel was expensive. When the couple talked by phone, “he’d have to listen to me moan and groan about the system and the Army and my frustrations,” Cynthia says. Even their biweekly visits grew strained. “We could hold each other, but Rory was in the room with us,” Cynthia says. “There was no lovemaking for a long time. That was very difficult.”
Equally challenging was Cynthia’s belief that the Army was trying to rush Rory’s discharge before he was ready. If he officially left active duty, Rory would be transferred from Walter Reed, which the military runs, to the VA medical system, which falls under a different branch of government. He would, therefore, be under the jurisdiction of a different health system. Cynthia was convinced her son still needed the care of Reed’s top-notch surgeons, but the Army wanted him to sign a form initiating the discharge process. “Within days of his coming out of his coma, the colonel at Walter Reed was at Rory’s bedside, putting a pen in Rory’s hand,” she says. “Rory had no forehead. No eyesight. No hearing. Couldn’t walk. He was doped on fentanyl.” Cynthia walked over and took the pen out of the soldier’s hand. “Rory’s not signing anything today,” she recalls saying.