"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. Learn how you can help here. Other stories in the series can be found here. Listen to reporter David Wood discuss "Beyond The Battlefield" with NPR's Terry Gross here.
Read David Wood's reflections on "Beyond The Battlefield."
There is rarely any warning, and this time it was no different.
Outside the Iraqi village of Zaganiyah on April 7, 2007, insurgents had buried three or four heavy artillery shells in the road, the trigger wire invisible to an approaching U.S. convoy. The lead Humvee in the convoy was carrying five paratroopers, and the blast threw their vehicle five car-lengths down the road where it crumpled upside down and in flames.
Four of the soldiers lay dead. The fifth, a staff sergeant named Bobby Henline, was alive, but just barely. A nearby soldier ran to beat out the flames that engulfed Henline's arms, legs and head, then knelt and scooped out Henline's broken teeth from his mouth so he could breathe.
Like many of the 16,000 or more severely wounded of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Henline came home in a coma. Doctors at Brooke Army Medical Center's burn unit in San Antonio worked on him frantically, but they told his wife Connie that they had no medical explanation for why he continued to live.
He was in a coma for two weeks after the explosion, while surgeons in Iraq and Germany gently covered his charred skull with gauze, while intensive care nurses hovered over him on the medevac plane to Texas, and while medical personnel repeatedly cleansed his burned skin and tissue in the shower room at the burn center.
As he struggled painfully into consciousness, Henline began to remember. Not the explosion, which he still doesn't recall to this day. It was something stronger and more vivid. More real.
"It was like a giant iceberg, there were stars out. It wasn't cold," he says. "And there was a voice telling me I'm gonna be all right, my family is waiting for me."
There was more to it than merely surviving. At that moment, he felt deeply and profoundly that there was a reason he'd been given the opportunity to live. Something he was meant to do, something that would justify his life when the lives of his four comrades had been so abruptly and brutally ended.
Bobby was an atheist. A guy with a lusty sense of humor, he had a way of taking life with a hearty laugh. The way he looked at the world's religions was that they all claimed to have the answer but they couldn't all be right. What if you picked the wrong one, he would ask jokingly.
In the summer of 2007, doctors tried to graft skin onto his head, and failed. They performed 12 surgeries on his burnt eyelids alone, and worked on his smashed and burned hand before finally amputating it. Through it all, Henline kept wondering: What should be the purpose of his life now? If God had singled him out for a purpose, he wasn't saying what it was, Henline felt with some irritation.
"And of course I didn't know," he recalls. After all, what could he do? "C'mon, I'm a high school dropout! An Army truck driver!"
His four guys, the ones who died in that ruined Humvee in Zaganiyah, were on his mind.
Capt. Jonathan D. Grassbaugh, 25, an Army Ranger with a Bronze Star and 10 months of marriage to Jenna, a law school student. Spc. Ebe F. Emolo, 33, a native of the Ivory Coast in West Africa, who had achieved his goal of becoming an American citizen and serving his new country. Spc. Levi K. Hoover, 23, newly engaged that past Christmas. Spc. Rodney L. McCandless, 21, just back from visiting his grandparents in Arkansas on a two-week leave. All paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne.
"All these young kids," Bobby recalls (he was 34 at the time). "They were my kind of people, the captain and first sergeant living in a tent with the guys, being one of them, this was a good tight unit ... Airborne brothers."
Now, he says, "these families wish their guy was alive. If I sit here and feel sorry for myself, they're dying in vain, I'm wasting what one of them could have had. And maybe one of them could have handled this mission and not me."
Whatever that mission was, "I knew I had to step up."
It wasn't just that Henline didn't know how he could put his skills to work. He confronted a bigger barrier: He was terribly burned and missing a hand. It took 18 months for doctors just to get skin to grow on his skull, and during that time he had no protection against infection, which would have killed him fast. It took Connie four hours in the morning, after she'd sent their three kids off to school, to dress his head wounds so he could go out to the day's appointments.
His face was a mass of scars and partially healed skin grafts. One ear was gone, the other a jagged stump. While his eyelids healed, he had to wear motorcycle goggles to protect them from the air and infection.
By chance, he was interviewed on National Public Radio. The interviewer wanted to know how he kept going in life. The question still makes him laugh. "You have to!" he told her. "I wake up -- still breathing! I gotta deal with this!"
The story went up on NPR's website in 2008, and people began posting comments, praising his optimism, saying his story had inspired them. He was amazed.
"I'm just being positive and realizing the good things in life," he says. For one thing, to be with his kids -- a daughter in college, a younger son and daughter. "I get to see them grow up, I get to be a grandfather someday," he says, with the wonder and passion of someone who almost lost all of those things.
"Just embracing the small things in life that are great, that a lot of times we take for granted," he adds. "And I saw how that helped others to look at life differently. And I took that as a sign."
When his eyes healed enough to take the goggles off, he began noticing people staring at him. Why don't they just ask me what happened, he wondered. Eventually he figured it out: They didn't know how to approach him.
In irritation, he bought a portable fart machine that he kept in a bag holding his bandages and ointments. When somebody stared, he'd crank one off, then say in a contrite voice, "Excuse me."
Did that make people laugh? Break the ice? "No," he says, "but it made me feel better to have some fun with it."
Still, the idea of "helping others to look at life differently" wouldn't leave him alone. But he didn't see how to do that until one of his therapists urged him to take his natural sense of humor onto the stage, doing stand-up comedy.
He resisted. "I didn't want to tell people what had happened to me," he says. "I wasn't sure if they could laugh at it, and I didn't want sympathy laughs. I wanted to know I was really funny."
With deep misgivings, he appeared at a small club in Los Angeles. He told a couple of jokes, to embarrassed silence. "The last thing I heard was aaaaaa-BOOM!" he said.
"I did four tours in Iraq ... the last one was a real blast!"
That got a small giggle from the back of the room. He plunged on, explaining that he had a skin graft on his skull that used skin from his stomach. "Only problem is I get lint in my ears," he said to growing laughter. "When I eat too much, I get a headache!"
It was working, he realized. People were responding. This is how he could deliver his message of hope -- not by hiding away, but by being out there. "I'm supposed to tell my story, to share this with others: that no matter how bad it gets ... keep laughing. Life will get better."
"If it's a group of a hundred people and one person in that group says, 'If he can do this, I can quit smoking tomorrow,' or 'I can be healthier to see my grandchildren someday,' or 'I can go back to school and better my education and better myself and get that career I've always wanted,' then this is worth it."
These days, Henline talks to high school groups, community groups and gatherings of veterans. He does fundraising shows for Operation Homefront, a nonprofit dedicated to helping wounded warriors. He's teamed up with other wounded veterans in a group called Crosshair Comedy, and did a show in Austin, Texas, last month. Through an admirer he got a gig in Las Vegas last spring -- and has been invited back for a week at the Tropicana in January.
In addition to reaching general audiences, Henline hopes that his stand-up routines will reach other burn survivors, "to help other soldiers get through this. A lot of them don't like to go out in public, especially if you got your face burned. They hide. I want people to see us in a different light -- not the shell on the outside."
Still, being a burn survivor, being permanently disfigured, is a difficult road.
"Sometimes it gets to me, the way I look. I still have those days. I feel sorry for myself, get mad at everything, sit there and just cry, beat the clothes in the closet. Nobody's perfectly happy after this, but you gotta learn that this is me now."
When things get bad, Henline pulls out a photo of the smoking ruins of the Humvee in which his four pals died, while he lived. The photo encapsulates the question as well as the answer: Why me?
"I look at it to remind me, you're here for a reason, you're doing the right thing," he says.
People often ask severely wounded veterans like Bobby Henline, what can I do?
He tells them, "live your life to the fullest. Do what I'm doing -- chase your dreams!"
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