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Beyond the Battlefield: As Wounded Veterans Struggle To Recover, Caregivers Share The Pain

First Posted: 10/14/11 09:31 AM ET Updated: 10/18/11 12:14 PM ET

Luana Schneider gave up her career as an interior decorator and her "side job" as a mother of six, and moved to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio to care for her son. In addition to his severe burns, he had suffered perforated internal organs and leg injuries that eventually required an amputation. She lived in a hotel room and devoted days and nights to his care. Just changing his dressings took up to eight hours a day.

Caregivers who are mothers have a special burden.

"The things I had to do for my child, at 22 to 25, are things that you don't think you're ever going to do," she says. "When you have to wipe his bottom, hold him up in the shower and wash his privates and … things people can't comprehend. It does create an intimacy between you two, but it's damaging. That's not what your adult male child wants his mother to be doing."

She and her son got through the worse of it, she says, by joking.

Because Schneider is not a military spouse or a dependent, she is not allowed to shop at the base PX, a type of retail store on Army posts, or use any other military facilities. Visiting Fort Leavenworth, Kan., recently for medical appointments, she stopped at a military store for a bottle of water for Scott, who was feeling ill. The clerk at first refused her because she didn’t have a military ID.

Schneider’s son is medically retired from the Army and, five years after he was wounded, Schneider still spends most of her days seeing to his well-being. Yet she doesn’t qualify for financial support from the VA's caregiver assistance program. "He is not wounded severely enough," she says she was told.

But that didn't stop her from pursuing his care aggressively.

"I am a bitch and that is my child, and you owe my child respect," is how she explains her approach to the Army and VA bureaucracy. "I gave him to the Army in the best physical condition of his life, and they gave him back to me in pieces. You will take care of him or I will know why and I will do something about it and I will be rude."

STEELY DETERMINATION

Other caregivers quickly learn that Schneider’s kind of steely determination is needed to get results.

During the 20 months that Bryan Gansner spent at Walter Reed, his wife Cheryl recalls "how hard it was to manage the red tape, the appointments, the medicines and the wound dressings, when I was overly tired and Bryan was in extreme pain. I will never forget how dirty the hospital was. I remember heating water from the sink in the microwave in a large puke bucket and carrying it up and down the hall so I could bathe him."

Beneath it all, of course, spouses are grateful that their husbands are alive. But especially for these young women caregivers, the grim world of the severely wounded may stretch out ahead of them for decades.

Their days and nights also become populated with the once unimaginable. Nightmares, for instance.

They started the day after Cheryl was notified of Bryan's injury. She says a sickly smell of blood soaks these vivid and unsettling dreams. She is in a military vehicle being bombed from the air or rolling over an IED. The face of the Iraqi who planted Bryan's IED looms up suddenly, and Bryan is blown apart, and there are other injured soldiers. Then she is stuck again at Walter Reed, dressing Bryan's wounds over and over.

"I feel like I am trapped in my dreams," she wrote in her blog in February 2011, almost five years after Bryan was wounded. "You know the sensation of falling and you know you need to wake up before you hit? This is how it feels to be stuck in my dreams … I think this is probably a common issue for wives of wounded warriors."

She has stayed by her husband’s side, however, finding strength from a painful and difficult period when she was 16 and her parents divorced, and Cheryl and her mother found themselves on their own. Cheryl had to grow up faster than she had planned, and she vowed then that if she ever got married, she would do her best to make it work no matter what the circumstances.

"I just didn't know that situation would come so quickly," she says with a rueful chuckle.

Five weeks after Bryan was blown up, with his legs in casts, they decided to escape the confines of Walter Reed and head out for some fast food. Just getting Bryan into their tiny rental car was a chore, since his legs couldn't be bent and he had to sit in the back seat, and Cheryl had a hard time fitting his wheelchair into the trunk.

As she drove carefully up Georgia Avenue, trying not to jar his legs, Bryan was gasping and clenching his fists, peering out at manhole covers and trash piles, looking for IEDS and terrified that a bomb might go off as it had beneath him in Iraq.

"This broke my heart -- I had no idea it would be this scary for him," Cheryl wrote that night.

After a few weeks in intensive care and 30 days of convalescent leave, Bryan and Cheryl were assigned to live at Mologne House, an Army-run hotel for outpatients on the former Walter Reed complex. This was not the vermin-infested, rotting, greasy slum that some patients were assigned outside Walter Reed, in a scandal uncovered in 2007 by the Washington Post. This was Army housing, but it was deeply depressing.

Their room had two double beds, a mini-fridge and a desk. They could eat meals at the cafeteria or sit on their beds to eat take-out. Washers and dryers were shared by 50 families and Cheryl would have to do wash at 4 a.m. The bathroom was so small she'd have to drag Bryan in sideways up to the sink to brush his teeth. This would be their home for the indefinite future.

They lay on one of the beds, in despair. They knew they'd have to sell their house in Kentucky. They would lose contact with Bryan's combat buddies and Cheryl's girlfriends at the 101st Airborne at Fort Campbell. The happy life they had known was over. Suddenly, Bryan started sobbing. He told Cheryl he didn't want to be there, that he didn't want to hurt, that he was sorry for putting her through this.

As she held him, he said he didn't want to live any longer.

"I was the most scared I had been in my life," Cheryl wrote later. "I knew he had beat the odds and survived the blast but I knew at this point he would struggle for the rest of his life. The outcome probably wouldn't be what we had expected. We knew at that point that he would always be in physical and emotional pain."

There was little they could do but to keep on, struggling.

Cheryl was raised as a Southern Baptist, but she'd let religion slide when she went away to college. After Bryan was blown up, though, she returned to prayer for help.

"I prayed every night for God to bring back a piece of my husband, to return some semblance of what he was before," she says. Bryan's brain injury, and the medications he'd been given, made him numb and flattened out his personality. "He was somebody I didn't recognize at all. He wasn't happy or joyous, which were the things that had attracted me to him. He was standoffish, hateful, angry and selfish."

"I wanted part of the old Bryan back," she recalls. "Even just a part."

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