Beyond The Battlefield: Military Turning To Wounded Vets' Families As Key Part Of Healing Process
"Beyond The Battlefield" is a 10-part series exploring the challenges that severely wounded veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan face after they return home, as well as what those struggles mean for those close to them. Other stories in the series can be found here. Listen to reporter David Wood discuss "Beyond The Battlefield" with NPR's Terry Gross here.
Last January, on a dusty parade ground in Mosul, Iraq, Army Sgt. Robert Fierro was shot in the head.
An Iraqi soldier, part of a battalion being trained by American troops, had broken ranks and opened fire. As Fierro and others scrambled, a bullet struck him just beneath his helmet, crushing the right side of his skull. The tall, muscular 33-year-old collapsed to the ground, limp and almost lifeless.
At the same time in central Texas, it was a cool Saturday morning. Inside a snug house at Fort Hood, Lisa Fierro and her two kids had blankets and pillows scattered on the floor and "Band of Brothers" in their DVD player. Lisa, an experienced Army wife, had allowed her 8-year-old son, Diego, and his 6-year-old brother, Rodrigo, to watch the miniseries as a treat, helping them pass the time until their father came home from the battlefield.
A call from one of Lisa's girlfriends, also an Army wife, interrupted them: Go turn on the news, she said, something's happened. Off went "Band of Brothers." Lisa flipped impatiently through the channels. Nothing. Switched on the computer to Yahoo News, typed in Mosul and up popped the story: "Two Americans were killed in Mosul and one injured when an Iraqi soldier …"
Lisa called her dad, her stomach churning. "It's our guys," she said.
After she hung up, the phone rang again, this time a liaison officer from Robert's unit, Apache Troop, 1st Squadron of the 9th Cavalry. He called often while Robert was away: Lisa was a volunteer leader with the Family Readiness Group, a team of spouses organized to support military families by relaying important messages from the Army’s leadership through phone-trees. But this call wasn’t about helping other spouses.
"I need to come talk to you," the officer said. "Hurry up," she told him.
She gathered the boys. "Something's happened to your dad," she said, trying to stay calm, "and they are coming to tell us what. Please pick up the pillows." She told Diego to watch by the window and "tell me what kind of car they come in and what they're wearing." An official military sedan, carrying officers and a chaplain in dress uniforms, meant they were going to tell her that Robert was dead.
"It's a white truck," Diego shouted, "and they're wearing ACUs [fatigues]!" Before the doorbell rang, Lisa knelt and took the boys in her arms. "Daddy's alive!" she cried, tears brimming in her eyes. "Daddy's alive!"
A FAMILY AFFAIR
Families have always suffered in wartime, from stress and anxiety and from anger that a loved one is away. For many, that suffering is also mixed with pride in their shared service. And the dread of not knowing how a loved one is faring on the battlefield can be displaced by a more seismic reality: that a loved one has become a casualty. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are no different, with more than 52,600 casualties in the past decade, a list that includes almost 5,000 soldiers killed in action.
But for those whose son or sister or husband has been badly wounded and survived, the past decade of war has seen something new. Families, once cold-shouldered by the military, are now considered an essential part of the healing process.
The military immediately flies families to the bedsides of wounded soldiers and puts them up in local housing, courtesy of the Defense Department, for as long as needed. Child care is provided and counseling is available. A network of volunteer nonprofits covers food, clothing, transportation expenses and more.
Family members, for instance, can fly home for a few days rest or to see the children, and fly back to Walter Reed courtesy of Hero Miles, an organization that uses donated airline frequent-flyer miles to purchase plane tickets. Organizations such as the Fisher House Foundation and Operation Homefront provide long-term housing.
More than 500 combat-wounded warriors were treated last year at what is now the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., each accompanied by an average of three family members.
Involving families in the recovery of the severely wounded is not pure compassion on the part of the Pentagon. It "has been an enormous benefit," says Dr. Paul Pasquina, chief of orthopedics and rehabilitation at Walter Reed. "They are here to greet them, and they're housed right here and able to participate in each medical and surgical decision. In rehab you often see spouses and children there going through it with the patient -- that's been very, very powerful, especially in building self-reliance."
For someone with severe combat wounds, he explains, one of the greatest hurdles involves relying on a wife or father to tie shoes, feed meals, or help in the bathroom. So family members work alongside professional therapists, and learn to encourage soldiers to fend for themselves.
None of this is easy, of course, and the military has teams of psychiatrists, social workers and therapists on hand to work with families tasked with helping and accommodating severely wounded loved ones.
"Once a member of a family is traumatized, the whole family is traumatized," says Dr. Steven Davis, a psychiatrist on the Walter Reed staff. "Some families are strong, some are less strong. Most of what we do is trying to stabilize the family because the family will become the permanent caregiver."
A LONG RECOVERY
After the military contacted her, Lisa Fierro knew only that Robert had been shot in the head and was on a ventilator at the U.S. military hospital in Balad, Iraq, about to be flown to Walter Reed, and that she had to race to meet him there.
When the liaison officer left her house, she took an uneasy breath. Hold on, she told herself. I am prepared for this. She pulled out a notebook she'd assembled before Robert deployed four months earlier, so that in the midst of a possible crisis when it was difficult to think straight she’d have a list that would tell her exactly what to do.
Wills, powers of attorney, marriage certificate, the boys' birth certificates and key contacts: someone to pay the rent, someone to look after the dog, a list of what bills to pay and when. A second power of attorney in case a neighbor or friend had to take the kids to the doctor.
"I pulled all this out and it saved my life," she later recalled.
She wasn’t sure if a hospital of the severely wounded was a good place to be for her young sons. Sensing her hesitation, Diego offered to stay at home with his little brother, whom the family had nicknamed “Yoyo.”
"I said no,” Lisa recalls. “You are still a little boy, this is our family, it is happening to all of us. We will go and see your dad, and if you don't want to see him that's okay."
She also cautioned the boys: "I will not lie to you. We don't know how daddy's going to come out of this."
Robert had been shot Jan. 15, 2011. He arrived at Bethesda Jan. 17, and the family, aided by Army family assistance officers all along the way, got there at 2 a.m. the next morning. Lisa rushed in to see her husband, whose face and head were so swollen from his injury that she almost couldn’t recognize him. He'd had a craniotomy to relieve the pressure of the swelling, and tubes and wires protruded from his bandages.
"I talked immediately with the doctor," Lisa recalled. "I said, 'Lay it on me,' and she did. She said it's bad but there's hope, but he had a long recovery ahead of him."
The next day Lisa brought the boys in. Robert was still sedated. At the doorway, Diego peeked in. "Can he hear us?" he whispered. "Of course he can!" his mother said.