Rory Dunn’s mother, Cynthia, didn’t know what his life—or her own—would look like once they returned home to Washington State. His recovery, though, has exceeded doctors’ expectations. At 26, he lives on his own, 15 minutes from his mother and stepfather, and he spends much of his time traveling and meeting with other wounded soldiers. His cognitive skills have returned, but some of the brain damage from the blast remains. “My fuse is a lot shorter,” he says. “I don’t have much patience for stupid people. I get irritated.” He’s not having as many nightmares and flashbacks. He can watch fireworks without being spooked. But in other situations Rory remains vigilant. He can’t ride buses because of the strangers, and in restaurants he sits with his back to the wall. He has limited vision and hearing. Still, Rory says, he remains positive about his future.
Though Cynthia no longer needs to care for Rory 24-7, “the whole experience has made us closer and stronger,” she says. And it has given her a new cause. Cynthia now spends her time advocating for wounded veterans. She speaks at conferences, meets with families and government officials, and in 2007 spoke before a Defense Department task force studying the military’s mental health care system. “We need to get our priorities straight,” she testified. That includes setting up a more ambitious and responsive system for treating and rehabilitating warriors with brain injuries and PTSD. “There are many veterans falling through the cracks,” she says.
Cynthia knows she’s lucky because of the way things turned out with Rory. Not all veterans have families who can work the system as she did. Some don’t have families at all. And what happens when severely disabled veterans outlive the parents who are caring for them? “During the year we spent at Walter Reed, and our time in the rehab centers, we saw so many families who didn’t know what to do,” she says. “We’re all responsible now for this new generation of vets. And it’s not just the service members we have to be concerned about. There has to be care and support for their caregivers, too."
Barry Yeoman, based in North Carolina, is a regular contributor to this magazine. His last article, “R.I.P. Off,” appeared in the January & February 2008 issue.