Barry: Like most of the mothers in our story, Trish had a more difficult time balancing work and caregiving. After the accident, she also took time off, making sure to keep her company in the loop.
Trish: After 3 months was up, the head of human resources called me on a Friday evening. 'Time’s up, are you going to be coming back Monday.' 'No he’s scheduled for surgery tomorrow.' So, no, I never went back. That was my choice. He needed me more than they did. Obviously.
Barry: Trish couldn’t leave her son, especially when he was having unexpected reactions to daily events.
Ryan: Accidents happening on the road, sometimes cause me to go into panic attacks. One day I saw a van, some guy had Mexicans in the back, to me, the van was all white and was unmarked. To me, it looked like a bunch of Iraqis in the back, all I could do was imagine them blowing it up. I had a small panic attack until I got past them. I knew better, but it still scared me.
I had one driving home from work—heard truck backfire—next thing I knew, both sides of roads littered with IEDs.
Trish: He’d have nightmares so bad in the hospital that I would have to wake him up to keep him from hurting himself. He would start slinging his arm, waving his stump around. One particular dream– I had gone to sleep, too– He woke me up. I got up and looked at him, and he was thrashing around, and he started screaming, 'Kill 'em, kill 'em all, kill 'em now.' Took me five minutes to wake him up, to get him to realize that he was with me, that he was in the hospital, but he was OK. I could only imagine what these nightmares would be like.
Barry: As Ryan and Trish are telling these stories, another person has joined us, and he’s trying his best to distract them and get them to laugh.
This is Sal Gonzalez, a fellow Marine and one of Ryan’s closest friends. He met the Autery family in June of 2005, when a private organization brought a group of wounded veterans to Chicago for an outing that included playing golf with some of the Chicago Bear football players and fishing with some of the Chicago Cubs.
As I ask Sal about his own story, Ryan is now trying to get Sal to break up and laugh, by texting him with off-color messages.
Sal: You done over there, stumpy? We got blown up. We, I, remember getting blown up, waking up sitting in the vehicle. Had gotten blown up six times prior to this one, and I’d never fallen.
Barry: Sal grew up in Los Angeles, in a tough neighborhood. Neither of his parents, who immigrated from Mexico, were happy about his joining the Marines at 18. He says his dad basically disowned him after that.
Sal: I grabbed one of the docs. 'Looks pretty bad, but you’ll live.' 'Am I going to keep the leg?' He looks down and says, 'Yeah, man, think you’re going to be able to keep it. Doesn’t look too bad.' And it didn’t at the time.
Barry: The doctor turned out to be wrong. And Sal did lose the leg. But now, something profound is going on in his life.
Ryan’s parents, Trish and Rick, saw how Sal got along with their son, and they realized that for someone who wanted a start in the music business, like Sal does, Nashville would be the perfect place to live. Rick and Trish Autery invited Sal to come and live with them, just as Ryan was moving back out on his own, having a new baby.
Sal is writing his first songs – and Rick is helping him get them recorded.
MUSIC – "Faithful to the Corps," by Sal Gonzalez.
Barry: Ryan and Sal are now as close as any brothers, because of what they’ve seen, and what they’ve lost, and because they’re Marines.
Sal: That’s something that not all these guys coming back from Iraq have. I can’t stand people my age who aren’t in the military, because they’re kids; they don’t understand. They need to understand.
Barry: We all need to understand and will need to understand more, as a growing number of veterans return with post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injuries, with missing limbs and damaged lives.
By official estimates, there have been more than 30,000 U.S. combatants wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. If you count undetected brain injuries, experts say the figure could be five or even 10 times higher. With no end in sight to the current conflicts, there will be more parents getting life-altering phone calls like the one Cynthia Lefever received on Rory’s 22nd birthday.
As we care for our returning veterans, we’ll also need to ease the burden on these older, and invisible, casualties of war. I’m Barry Yeoman.
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AARP Radio Host Mike Cuthbert: "Picking up the Pieces: How Family and Faith Are Healing Veterans Home From War" was written and produced by Steve Mencher, reported and co-produced by Barry Yeoman. You’ll find video segments on this subject, and an extensive list of resources, at aarp.org/iraqvets.
Music for our radio special written by Terence Blanchard, Aaron Parks, Kimo Williams, and Nine Inch Nails. Engineering help by David Wright. Thanks to WUNC, North Carolina Public Radio, Ben Pizzuto and Angel Todd.
Executive producer for 'Prime Time Radio' is Janelle Haskell. I’m Mike Cuthbert. Find out more about our radio programs on the Web at radioprimetime.org. This is 'PrimeTime Radio.'