The following is the transcript from the AARP Prime Time Radio special, "Picking up the Pieces: How Family and Faith Are Healing Veterans Home From War." Listen now.
Rory Dunn | Shane Parsons | Ramiro Martinez | Shurvon Phillip | Ryan Autery
Sal Martinez: I remember getting blown up and waking up sitting in the vehicle. Which was unusual, because I’d gotten blown up six times prior to this one and I’d never fallen… (fades)
Rory Dunn: It seemed dark to me, because I got my eye blown out of the side of my head and the other eye had been popped out and there was blood all over.
AARP Radio Host Mike Cuthbert: Perhaps you’ve heard a lot of stories like these from Iraq and Afghanistan,…but maybe not so many like these…
Cynthia Lefever: I just got down in his face and said, 'This is your mother, and you will not die.' I was not going to accept that he was going to become a vegetable.
Gail Ulerie: I can’t go to the doctor or anywhere, because I don’t have any health insurance. I just pray that God is going to give me health and strength to take care of Shurvon.
Mike Cuthbert: This hour from 'Prime Time Radio,' 'Picking up the Pieces: How Family and Faith Are Healing Veterans Home From War.' Join us.
Mike: I’m Mike Cuthbert with a special edition of 'Prime Time Radio.' Every day, U.S. military doctors and their staffs perform miracles in Iraq and Afghanistan. Soldiers who get their arms or legs blown off, and others who have their heads blown open or their brains rattled, are surviving injuries that would have been fatal in any previous war. Many will live long and rewarding lives. Others won’t.
But the care of these survivors is often falling on their families. Mothers and fathers of our wounded veterans are putting their lives on hold, giving up their jobs, leaving—even losing—their homes, and spending down their retirement savings to care for their sons and daughters.
These are their stories…and we warn you that some of the details are raw and graphic. Our guide is Barry Yeoman, contributing editor of AARP The Magazine.
Barry: If you’ve arrived at Walt Disney World this autumn day, expecting an escape from the real world, you might be surprised when you check into the Dolphin Resort, just outside the Magic Kingdom. Here, you would see dozens of young men and women back from Iraq and Afghanistan. Some are using wheelchairs and canes to get around. Or they’re leaning on the arms of loved ones. Others carry noticeable burn wounds. They have come to this gathering of the Coalition to Salute America’s Heroes to attend a job fair, learn about benefits, and relax with others who understand what war is like.
Dave Roever understands. … Roever was burned over most of his body when a phosphorous grenade exploded right next to him. That was in Vietnam, where he was part of an elite Navy unit. Now, Roever is a motivational speaker with a flair for humor and a special interest in wounded veterans. he asks for a stool to sit on, and gives a quick wave of thanks when somebody brings one to him…
Dave Roever: That means, 'Thumbs up!' You gotta have a thumb though. That means, 'Thumbs up.' My thumb was blown off. I’ve spoken sign language since I was a child. Now I speak sign language with a lisp; I’m kind of like 'thumb-tied'…
...They made this out of my hip. I don’t even know if it’s a thumb or a hip… I don’t suck it though; I’ll tell you that… (laughter). It’s great to hear you laugh this morning. I will laugh this morning …
Barry: Among those in the crowd, it’s hard not to notice 26-year-old Rory Dunn. He’s a handsome man with a shaggy beard and an eyepatch that sets off his mischievous grin. Later, when he talks about the explosion he survived in Iraq, just before his 22nd birthday, I marvel that he is here at all.
Rory Dunn: and I remember a large, gigantic, white flash. And it seemed to be it was dark but as I come to find out it was like 10:30 a.m. It was light. But it seemed dark to me because I had my eye blown out of the side of my head. And the other eye had been popped out and there was blood all over.
So a truck went up and it really rocked us back. I remember getting slammed off to the side and the truck was up on two wheels. Now the driver, he did a good job of keeping the truck under control because if it would have rolled over, we would have all died in the back.
Come to a stop. I remember knowing that something bad just happened. I didn’t feel any pain. I had no idea that my eyes had been popped out of my head. I just thought it was dark.
I remember somebody telling me – I couldn’t see whose face it was, because it was dark, and they were telling me, “Sit down. Sit down.” So I finally sat down, and as I sat down then that’s when I blacked out.
Barry: As compelling as these war stories are, I’m not here to interview soldiers like Rory Dunn. Instead, I’ve come to Orlando to talk with people like Rory’s mother and stepfather, Cynthia and Stan Lefever.
That's because our soldiers and Marines are coming home with life-changing injuries that, in previous wars, would have killed them. Often the responsibility for their healing falls on their parents. Veterans’ organizations estimate that some 10,000 returning service members are receiving care from their mothers and fathers—an older generation invisibly pressed into service. Many found their lives changed with a single phone call. For Cynthia, that call came from Rory’s captain.
Cynthia Lefever: I knew something was really wrong, but I didn’t know what. And he started telling me that Rory had been critically injured by a roadside bomb, outside Fallujah.
Barry: Details were sparse. And it was five days before Rory was stable enough to be evacuated from Iraq before the pressure in his brain subsided enough to allow him to get on a plane. Cynthia Lefever’s official orders allowing her to join her son at a military hospital in Landstuhl Germany carried the phrase “imminent death,” words she’s glad she didn’t read at the time… When Rory’s MedEvac plane arrived in Germany from Baghdad, Cynthia was there.
Cynthia: And so they were like, 'Well, we don’t really think you should see him right away.' And 'I’m' like 'sorry.' And they said, 'It’s better if you’re not there when he comes off the MedeEvac. It’s gonna be very disturbing.' I said sorry. So at 4:00, we lined up outside the emergency room doors and they brought him off this bus, feet first and he was naked, wrapped in a blanket hooked up to every kind of hose and tube and wire you can think of. And it was very, very disturbing. But they let me step up and hold his hand.
Stan Lefever: Just for a moment.
Cynthia: Just for a moment. And I was bound and determined not to leave his side until he was okay. They took him in. Did an assessment. They let us in the room to see him, and as I said during my private, alone time with Rory, I just got down in his face and I just said, 'This is your mother. And you will not die.' He moved his arm. And that was it for me. There was no turning back. No leaving him. I was not gonna accept that he was gonna be a vegetable.
Barry: Rory didn’t die. And he definitely didn’t become a vegetable. The Rory I meet is a popular figure at this annual Road to Recovery conference. But his own road has been long and tough—and is still incomplete. And his mom, in particular, has been there every step of the way.
Cynthia: I packed one bag and went to Germany and then went straight to Walter Reed, and I was there for almost a year.
Stan: She didn’t come home for 10 months.
Cynthia: I mean I didn’t get home at all. For 10 months. I lived in a hotel room. When Rory became outpatient, we roomed together in this hotel room. The Mologne House at Walter Reed. And I mean that’s just like cruel and unusual punishment for a 20-year old kid and for the mother, because the dynamic is that this is a 22-year old guy who is living with his mom.
Barry: That wouldn’t have been easy under the best of circumstances. But when Rory woke up after his injury, he was, in his mom’s words—'a real handful.' One of the main symptoms of Traumatic Brain Injury, or TBI, is an altered personality. Like many people with TBI, Rory became impulsive, lacked short-term memory, couldn’t deal with crowds, couldn’t handle many of the details of daily life…
Lucky for him, his mother has a master's degree in adult education, with a strong background in psychology and in working with special-needs populations. Because she thought the hospital wasn’t doing enough, she took charge of Rory's care.
Cynthia: A frontal lobe injury requires a structured day. They have to function within structure. They have to relearn social filters. They have to practice. You can teach the brain to stay in bed, self-medicate, abuse drugs and alcohol; or, for up to three years, the brain will rewire, and it can relearn normal daily activities and responses, and again, the cognitive part, Rory came back so strong.
Barry: But his emotional recovery was tougher. They reached a juncture where Cynthia feared for Rory’s life.
Cynthia: At the point where Rory was outpatient and became suicidal and said, 'I’m gonna kill myself. I don’t want to live this way. I can’t stand the hospital. I can’t stand the military. I will not deal with it. If I could get my hand on a gun... If I could do this. If I could do that. I’m gonna kill myself.' So Mom has to do 24-hour suicide watch. Mom’s not sleeping. Mom’s not starting to do too well.
Stan: And this is where I finish my comment that his mother seemed to find this balance of providing him the care he needed but also recognizing and pushing him to become independent.
Barry: Stan Lefever, Cynthia’s husband, is not Rory’s biological father. But he has taken a key supporting role in Rory’s healing. He works as a manager for Boeing; after taking six weeks off to get the recovery under way, he needed to go back to work. He asked his supervisor for some flexibility in his schedule—and began working four, 10-hour days each week. Every other weekend, he’d fly across the country, from Seattle to D.C., on a red-eye to spend four days with his wife and stepson. It was a stressful period in the couple’s relationship.
Cynthia: I can see how marriages fail because you don’t—the closeness is just gone. And our intimacy was interrupted for a very long time. Which is not really healthy, because it was almost like we became almost strangers that just were dealing with the everyday practical– And I took my frustrations out on Stan.
Stan: It was sort of like she was the primary caregiver to Rory and I was the caregiver to the caregiver.
Stan: And so we ended up in this role, and you were amazing. She was like a mother bear taking care of her cub, and nothing was gonna come between that. And so I don’t know how she coped, but she did it just because of her love for her son and her dedication. And then I tried to be there to support her.
Barry: Meanwhile, Rory’s progress was slow, but steady. When his sister invited him to her wedding not long after the injury, some of the other members of the family weren’t sure they were ready to deal with his physical and psychological impairments. But his sister insisted he come to celebrate with her.
Cynthia: The rest of the family is like, 'No. He’s in a wheelchair. His social skills…It’s just not gonna work. It’s gonna be too much trouble.' And so he had to go through a panel, an assessment, to see whether he could go home and be seen in public, and of course I’m just outraged, because this is the reality of this war and what happened and if we don’t treat him normal he’s not going to act normal.
Barry: This is a panel of whom?
Cynthia: Psychologists, psychiatrists and his doctor and they were–
Stan: The medical doctors were okay.
Cynthia: His medical doctors were like, 'Rory needs a break from the hospital. He just needs a break. He needs to be out of the hospital and needs to be around family and friends and he needs to go home.'
And so I was like, 'We’re gonna take him home for this wedding.' And so I’m battling the rest of the family and the psychiatrists and the psychologists are like, 'No, this is not gonna be good for him.'
Stan: Bear in mind he doesn’t have his forehead yet at the time.
Cynthia: No forehead. He’s wearing a helmet to protect his brain. Can’t see because he had just gotten the cornea transplant. And he still can’t see. He’s still in a wheelchair. But he went through this panel, and they were asking him these questions about 'How are you gonna feel being around crowds?' and they’re asking him all these questions. And the psychiatrist says, 'Aren’t you a little nervous the way you look and being around family and friends and everybody that’s gonna see the way you are. Aren’t you a little nervous?'
And Rory said, 'Why should I be nervous? I’m not the one getting married.' And so they just said, 'You’re good to go.' So we just packed him up, and I will e-mail you a picture. He walked his sister halfway down the aisle. Got out of his wheelchair with his helmet and his dark glasses and walked his sister–
Stan: Yeah. In a tuxedo.
Barry: The trip home for the wedding was a milestone for Rory, who has continued to improve – to the point that if you met him on the street, you would see he was injured, but you wouldn’t automatically assume he was nearly killed in Iraq … but as Rory got better, his mom got worse…
Cynthia: And so as Rory became more independent, self-sufficient, bought his own home, resumed hunting, resumed his outdoor lifestyle, we still spend a lot of time together, but I had a lot of time on my hands, and I wasn’t able to go back to work, and I found myself in the doctor’s office depressed and unhappy and not knowing what to do with myself. And she very quickly diagnosed me with secondary PTSD. And so I remain under a doctor’s care for that. But I also remain very committed to Rory and to our service members. And so I have had to achieve a balance for myself.
Barry: Rory’s recovery isn’t done yet. And he may never be back to the same person he was before the pair of roadside bombs blew up his truck. But he’s got enough self-awareness to keep moving ahead… and he’s got a clear sense of his shortcomings.
Rory: My fuse is a lot shorter. I don’t have much patience for stupid people…. if you can’t use common sense, it just incredibly drives me crazy. I’ve got a bomb rapped off my head. My frontal lobe is all smashed up. I’m still able to use common sense. And I can’t stand the noise of screaming kids. I get irritated easy. And I have to try to calm down and stay cool which is not always easy.
It’s different than when I used to be able to maintain a little bit better. I can be a real crab, a real crabapple, but I can also be nice, too. I see with all the injuries I could have sustained, amputees, paralyzation, I’ve seen myself being OK in the long run with overcoming the disabilities. But yeah, it sucks. I wish I wouldn’t have got rapped over the head.
Barry: Cynthia Lefever gave up a lot to nurse her son, but, for the first time since his injury, she’s optimistic about his future, at least in the long term.
Cynthia: I don’t know if it’s gonna be in five years or 10 years or 20 years, I believe Rory is destined for something really great. Sometimes we think with his sense of humor, he’d be like the most awesome radio-show host. And other times I think with his compassion and big heart and his ability to understand where other people are coming from, that he would make an awesome counselor, social worker.
Barry: When we come back, more stories of pain and hope from around the country; and later, we’ll travel to Nashville, where an Iraq war veteran is starting a new life… as a country music singer/songwriter… when 'Picking Up The Pieces' continues…
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AARP Radio Host Mike Cuthbert: You’re listening to 'Picking up the Pieces: How Family and Faith Are Healing Veterans Home From War." You can find out more about families caring for their veteran sons and daughters at AARP.org/iraqvets. There, you can read an investigative report by Barry Yeoman, see a television special presented by Jane Pauley, featuring ABC newsman Bob Woodruff, and see segments on caregiving for veterans from our TV shows 'Inside E Street' and 'My Generation.' This is 'Prime Time Radio.'
Here again is Barry Yeoman, and 'Picking up the Pieces':
Barry Yeoman: We’ve just been visiting with Cynthia Lefever, her son Rory Dunn, and her husband Stan. We heard how draining it was for Cynthia to devote herself to Rory’s recovery, even with Stan’s love and support.
In San Antonio Texas, Cindy Parsons has been nursing her son Shane back to health without any such support. Shane’s dad died when he was six months old—and she was 29. Two of his grandfathers served in the military—one in World War II, and one in Korea—so when the country was attacked in 2001, Shane’s path was pretty much set. As you listen to him, remember that, since his injury, he sometimes uses the wrong word for something, like 'amputated' instead of 'amplified.'
Shane: During high school – it was my like my junior year or senior—around junior or sophomore year—I saw the World Trade Center hit on 9/11. And it was always a thought, and it just amputated to the point where it just happened. It just gave me another calling.
I talked to my grandfather, and I let him know. He was the one in Normandy, on the Parson side. And I asked him, and I told him I was thinking about joining up.
When I found out my grandfather was real ill, that he had really bad heart problems, on his—pretty much on his deathbed, I told him—I said, 'I’m going in.' And a couple—it was, like, four or five weeks after that, he passed away. So that’s when my journey started.
Barry: Shane’s journey brought him to the same place that Rory Dunn’s brought him: to a dangerous road in Iraq where a roadside bomb was waiting.
Shane: We were on our way back to chow, and then, boom, it happened. I just heard a little pop, a little, like, explosion. It didn’t sound that much. It sounded like a broke—like somebody breaks their leg or like a broken piece of wood. That’s what it sounded like. And I look down, and I couldn’t see that much. And I knew I was in pain. I was, like, you know when you stub your toe or you do something and you try and walk it off. I knew that, and I was, like, 'I can’t walk this off.' That’s when the Iraqis started to rush us, and it got pretty bad.
Barry: Shane figures it was less than an hour, though it seemed like several hours, that they were under attack—and the outcome was in doubt, until rescuers arrived in tanks. But during the attack, Shane realized that his legs were mangled…
Shane: I went to take my boot off, and that’s when I had– I knew something was up. I went to take my boot off, and I pulled and I unlaced it everything, and I was, like, pulled the boot off and a couple of things came with it. Not only my shoe but– well, the detail you can imagine.
Barry: Meanwhile, in Fostoria, Ohio, Cindy Parsons was just off the night shift at her nursing job.
Cindy: As a mother’s intuition, the morning that I got the phone call when Shane was injured, I had just pulled a– nurse’s usually do 12-hour shifts, and I worked at midnight. So I had just got home at 7:00 a.m. in the morning and got in the shower, and I thought, “Oh, it’s Saturday morning. He’ll probably call this morning.”
I got out of the shower, and the phone rang. I thought, “This is my baby calling,” and this time it wasn’t. It was a strange voice on the other line, and that’s when I got the news that he was severely injured, so, it was rough.
Barry: Within days, Cindy was on a plane to Landstuhl Germany, assuming she was going to watch her son die there. When she first saw Shane, she barely recognized him—his head was swollen, he was attached to so many tubes. But having lived through her husband’s death and seen his incredible reservoirs of strength, she had faith that Shane could tap the same power.
Cindy: I knew he had the strength– This is hard for me. I knew he had the strength because of his dad. So all he did was pray, and I prayed so hard because I’d seen what his dad went through. In my heart, I’ll tell you what changed everything after the third day. It was, 'Please God, why? We’ve been through enough. I know I’m a strong person but why?' And I looked up in the hospital, and there was a beautiful rainbow.
Barry: Cindy saw the rainbow as a message that everything was going to be OK. And slowly, by increments, Shane has progressed, even thought he did lose both of his legs. But it didn’t always seem like things were heading in the right direction, and in the process, there were moments of sheer terror.
Cindy: Then one day I walked in, and he sat up in bed. And this is as time went on, and they’re starting weaning him off the pain medications because he was doing better. And he sat up and said, 'Mom, where have you been?' I said, 'Honey, I’ve been here everyday.'
Shane: I said, 'Where the hell have you been?'
Cindy: He just– He woke up. So during that time though he had some occasions where he had some incidents where he was coming– He was trying to come back; you could tell mental-wise, and being more aware of his surroundings. But he tried to get out of bed one night, and it was true, they found him hanging on the edge of his rail, because he didn’t realize that he didn’t have legs at that point.
It scared everybody because he was yelling, 'Grandma.' And they come in, and he’s hanging off the edge of the bed. How he got out of there nobody knows…
Barry: Shane has worked hard on his rehabilitation, and he continues to improve– Still, the cost has been overwhelming. When Cindy came to stay with Shane in the hospital, her home back in Ohio suffered a water leak, and the mold that grew afterward was so toxic that the house had to be demolished. Her insurance only covered the first $10,000. She also lost her job because her employer couldn’t hold it open any longer, and now, at 51, Cindy Parsons has officially become a dependent of 22-year-old Shane. Instead of working as a hospital nurse, she’s become a private nurse for just one patient, her son.
Cindy: In the nursing field, in medical, we all know that when you have a family member there with a patient, it helps tremendously with their rehabilitation, with their journey along getting better. Just that support, just seeing them and hearing their voice. The touch, even if they’re not to be touched, but just a hand on them, their voice. That tremendously will help a patient get better. It strives them and puts them back in reality, and I think that’s the most important thing. But had I not been there, that would have been so difficult for Shane. The confusion and trying to bring you back to what—with the brain injury—you forget so much. And how do you remember what your past was?
Barry: Since his return, Shane has been skiing; the first time he went, he got the novice alpine skier award. He loves to get out and do physical things: He has biked 150 miles, participated in sled hockey and ice hockey, and hasn’t found a physical challenge he won’t face. But he’s not done with surgery and therapy, and his mom, his nurse, will be there with him, as she was when he learned how to read again, or was fitted with his first prosthetics. The current worry is abnormal bone growth, heterotopic ossification, or H-O, which would make using artificial legs a painful experience. When we talked, he was facing yet another operation.
Cindy: So in essence, they’re going to reopen it, and they think there’s a muscle that slipped back in here. So when they reopen, they’re going to shave off – there’s another piece of bone, like a finger, growing out. They’re going to cut that off, shave off any HO, excess bone growth. Try to get that muscle and tendon and pull that up around so that he has some kind of a cushion. Will it be guaranteed? There’s no guarantee.
Barry: No guarantee. But Cindy says her faith in God gives her an extra shot of hope; and having gone through what she’s already endured, she feels like she can survive nearly anything…
AARP Radio Host Mike Cuthbert: You’re listening to a 'Prime Time Radio' special, 'Picking up the Pieces: How Family and Faith Are Healing Veterans Home From War,' reported by Barry Yeoman, of AARP The Magazine. I’m Mike Cuthbert, host of our weekly radio program, 'Prime Time Radio.' You can hear all our radio programs at radioprime.org.
Mike: Here again, investigative reporter Barry Yeoman and 'Picking up the Pieces.'
Barry: San Antonio, Texas, where Shane Parsons and his mother have spent so much time, was also where Ramiro Martinez went to recuperate after a suicide bomber tried to kill him in Afghanistan. Now 50, Ramiro has been in the military since he was 17. He’s seen much of the world, participated in missions he’s still not allowed to discuss, and when he was bombed, he spent the first moments helping administer first aid to the others in his truck.
Once he got to the hospital, Ramiro flat-lined. He still gets a kick out of remembering how he scared the nurses when he moved his leg, which proved he wasn’t quite dead. He doesn’t remember too much after that, until he arrived at Brooke Army Medical Center and saw his wife.
Raimro: She asked me; says, 'Do you know who I am?' I said, 'Yes, I know who you are.' I said, 'You’re my wife.' Says, 'Do you know my name?' I said, 'Yes, you’re Mary Jane Martinez.' And then after that, I asked– I told her– said, 'Why are you asking me that question?' I guess– I said, 'Why?'
And it wasn’t ’til the next day that I saw my mom sitting just the way she is at the end of the bed and I said, 'Mi afita, what are you doing here?' I said, 'Mom, what are you doing here?'
And then she came up to me and says, 'Well, came to make sure that you’re okay.' But it was a big shocker. It was– that my mom’s sitting right there. I think, 'What’s she doing there?'
Barry: Most remarkable to Ramiro was that 81-year-old Francisca Martinez had left her home in the Rio Grande Valley, where she had spent her entire life and raised her 15 children. Ramiro was the seventh. Mary Jane had tried to discourage Francisca from making the trip from San Benito, near the Mexican border, to San Antonio, not knowing what they’d find there. Francisca tells the story.
Francisca: And his wife said, 'I’m not– I don’t want you to come and see him.' And I said, 'I will go. I will go and see him no matter how he is.' I’m kind of brave myself. While I’m old, I have so many children; I have to be brave for my kids. Don’t you think so?
Francisca: Yeah, so no, no. We went– well, I stayed with him beside his bed, him lying there in the bed and I sitting down there every day from morning ’til night waiting for him to get ready and talking to him and sometime he had– well, he’d start crying and I’d say, 'No, no, no, no. No crying. No crying.'
Barry: Having visited the Martinez family at their home, it’s not hard for me to imagine the scenes they described… of up to 50 people, from babies to seniors, packing into Ramiro’s hospital room in San Antonio, and helping him recover. What difference did it make to Ramiro to have his mother at his side? Well, first you should know that Ramiro is someone with an iron will.
Ramiro: The doctor told my mom and my wife– He told them, says, 'I won’t guarantee both of you that he’ll be able to walk. He might be bedridden for the rest of his life.' I heard that from behind the curtain and I says, 'Wrong thing to say.'
That was like a big motivation. I mean that was the big kicker, and within the third week, come right after Fourth of July, I started learning to walk.
Barry: Ramiro’s first steps were across the room—to his mother.
Ramiro: Just having my mom there was the biggest motivation of all.
Barry: How so?
Ramiro: How so? Not only to say that Mom loves me, but now think about it, that we are a big family, 15 total, and knowing she loves all of us the same way, but just knowing that she was there and she would do anything to be there for any one of us, no matter what would happen. As long as she was there, she was pushing me. I mean she was actually – not physically touching me or doing anything, but just by seeing her there, she was actually pushing me to go forward.
Barry: Like many of the families I visited, the Martinezes made it clear to me that their faith was a key factor holding them together, and allowing them to concentrate on healing.
Mary Jane Martinez: The prayer from families, from his mother, and his brothers and sisters, from clergy, from everybody. I mean God has been the number-one person that has helped us tremendously and is still. I believe that if you don’t have God in your life, it wouldn’t have gotten him to where he is at all.
Barry Yeoman: Leaving the Martinez home it's easy to feel inspiration and hope. They are, after all, creating a new 'normal' that includes a productive life for Ramiro.
For some families, though, a battlefield injury means a permanent goodbye to normalcy—a long, heavy slog with no clear solution in sight.
I understand this best after meeting Gail Ulerie. She's a 48-year-old immigrant from Trinidad who now lives in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. Today she's telling me about her son, Shurvon, who joined the Marines straight out of high school and was sent to Iraq in 2005.
Gail Ulerie: Even though I didn’t want him to go, I had to support him. And that day when they had their send-off in Akron, Ohio, I cried. I don’t know why I cried, but he looked really good in his uniform and when they were doing the colors, the march. I mean, I was so proud of him. I was so, so proud of him.
Barry: The last time Gail heard her son's voice was on April 19. She remembers the date because it's the birthday of one of her grandsons. She didn't speak to him privately but was join on the call from Iraq by Shurvon's girlfriend.
Gail: They did a three-way call and I was like, 'Oh, my God. Shurvon I’ve been worried about you. I haven’t heard from you.' And I started crying and he was like, 'Mom, why are you crying? I’m all right.'
His motto was always, 'Everything is gonna be all right, ma. Don’t cry. I’m OK. I’ll be safe. I promise. I’ll be safe.' And I always told him to read his psalms, and I said, 'Are you reading your psalms?' And he said, 'Yes, Mom. I’m reading my psalms,' and that was the last conversation I had with Shurvon. He got hurt in May 2005.
Barry: That day, Shurvon's Humvee hit a roadside bomb and the injury from the blast paralyzed all four of his limbs. The reason Gails refers to the 'last time they spoke'—even though Shurvon is in the hospital room with us—is that his brain injury also left him unable to speak.
Shurvon now requires 24-hour care and most of that burden falls on his mother. For 16 hours a day, she sits by his side, ready to help if he starts to choke, as he often does.
When Shurvon was first injured, Gail would not accept a doctor's news that her son would never walk or talk again.
Gail: And I was, like, 'Excuse me, what did you just say?' He said Shurvon would stay like that for the rest of his life. And I just got up with tears in my eyes and I got to my, went to my son’s room, and I held him by the, he was sleeping, and I lift him up by the shoulders and I said, 'Shurvon I would not allow you to stay in this bed if it takes me the rest of my life. You’re going to get up. You have to wake up.' And he opened his eyes and he was looking at me, like, 'What’s going on?' I said, 'Shurvon, the doctor said you will never walk, you will never talk.' I said, 'You have to show them you are strong and you can do this. We can do this together.'
Barry: At the time, Gail was working two jobs as a home-health care aide. But Shurvon's injury has forced her to quit both jobs—and to say goodbye to some big dreams.
Gail: I really wanted to work and make a little nest egg…but, um, to retire one day and travel. I always wanted to travel. I always wanted to go to Hawaii. You know, I always wanted to go to Paris, I said, you know, do something, but no. Now my future is Shurvon. My life is Shurvon.
Barry: For all of Gail's commitment, being a full-time caretaker has been crushingly stressful. Her hair has started falling out. She has trouble remembering things. And with no income of her own, she doesn't know how she'll maintain her own health.
Gail: I get scared knowing that I don’t have any health insurance. Sometimes I, things I feel, sometimes things are changing in my body, like, um, the, like, going down to the basement to bring up, bringing up his stuff, by the time I get up to the top of the steps I’m, like, short of breath. Sometimes I don’t have to do anything and I can feel this pain in the middle of my chest and I have to, like, kind of, relax and I can’t go to the doctor or anywhere, because I don’t have any health insurance. Because even if I go, I still have to find the money to pay, pay the bills. So I just pray that God is going to give me health and strength to take care of Shurvon.
Barry: But like so many of the parents I spoke to, Gail understands she has no choice—and she would not have it any other way. Moving Shurvon into a long-term-care facility would, for her, be like walking away from motherhood.
Gail: He’s my son. I carried him for nine months, and as a mother you have to do what you have to do. You just have to, don’t even think about the future and just live day to day. There is a lot of bumps in the road, a lot of negatives. The negatives outweigh the positive and you have to look for that, even if it’s just, even if it’s just a little, little a little share, that little shiny thing, the finest little thing, you got to hold onto that hope because if you don’t hold onto hope you are not going to make it.
Barry: Gail Ulerie, who told me that her 12 years as a nursing assistant was God's way of preparing her to take care of her son, Shurvon.
When we come back, country music, family, and friendship prove healing to a pair of veterans coping with loss in Nashville.
AARP Radio Host Mike Cuthbert: You’re listening to 'Picking up the Pieces: How Faith and Family Are Healing Veterans Home From War.' Join us on the Web for more on the issue of families taking care of injured veterans at aarp.org/iraqvets. We list resources you can call on to help veterans in your own family; and you can join discussion groups where you’ll find out what you can do to help others. That’s aarp.org/vets. This is 'PrimeTime Radio.'
Now, more stories of families coping with injured veterans. Your host is writer Barry Yeoman, contributing editor to AARP the magazine.
Barry Yeoman: Welcome back to 'Picking up the Pieces: How Faith and Family Are Healing Veterans Home From War.' Several of the families we’ve met so far have a military background. This history hovers in the air when a military-age son and a veteran father talk about signing up.
Rick Autery: As a parent, don’t want child to join military in time of war. However, when he looked at me and said, 'Dad, you joined the Marines during Vietnam,' what could I say? That was pretty much the end of the conversation.
Barry: Rick Autery, his wife Trish, and their son, Ryan, live just outside Nashville.
Trish: He turned 17 in 2001, right after 9/11– and he came to us with the Marine Corps recruiter wanting me to sign the papers. I asked him– I said, 'You understand we’re getting ready to go to war?– You might have to go?–' He said, 'Yes.' I begged cried and pleaded; he kept asking me to sign them. He said, 'Mom, if you don’t sign, I’m going to anyway when I turn 18, so it doesn’t matter.' So I signed ‘em.
Barry: When Ryan went to Iraq, he did a good job of staying in touch by phone. But the downside of calling home from this war—where anywhere can become a battlefield—is that sometimes the connection can be too good.
Trish: It was terrifying. We were just chatting and catching up. All of a sudden I heard an explosion, but he said, 'I gotta go, I’ll try to call you back,' and he hung up. I sat at work for 10 minutes and cried and waited for him to call me back.
Barry: Trish's son did call back. He was fine. But not long after that, Ryan was injured. What started out as a normal day, with Ryan’s squad delivering money to local village elders, was interrupted by an explosion.
Ryan had no idea how badly he was hurt, until a medic tried to put him on a backboard stretcher.
Ryan: He had to adjust my arm and when he picked it up, I had opened my eyes, and he picked up my arm and I saw it pass by my face, and it was just sitting there with my hand open. I realize I wouldn’t even try to move it– moved my arm to put it on me– to put me on the backboard; that’s when all the pain set in, and it was probably the worst pain I ever felt in my life.
Ryan: When I woke up, I looked at arm; it was bandages and gauze. Every time I woke up, the room was full of guys from my company.
Ryan: There was one point I woke up and had people singing 'My Girl' and 'I’m a Little Teapot.'
To explain the 'I’m a Little Teapot': I lost a wrestling match one day, and I told everybody if I lost, I would sing 'I’m a Little Teapot,' and do the dance too. And that explains that.
Barry: Ryan’s dad, Rick, smiles at this incongruous image, but he’s used to his son’s offbeat sense of humor, which is a family trademark. Rick was lucky in one sense. His employer, Nissan, made it relatively easy for him to care for his injured son.
Rick: The day that he got hurt, found out that morning, I went in that afternoon and went to human relations department, told them that my son had been injured in Iraq and I had to leave. They said, 'You go and do what you gotta do, we’ve got your back, your job will be here waiting on you. Don’t worry about signing anything, doing anything, you go. If we need you we’ll call you.' They were supportive. I used up what vacation I had, but for the most part, it was unpaid Family Medical Leave Act.
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.
* * *
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.'
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