Mens_Health2 

Soldiers' Sacrifices

The New Unknown Soldiers

Speechmakers like to praise the "sacrifices of our men and women overseas." But soldiers' sacrifices don't end when they step off the troop transports and hug their families.

By: Bob Drury, Photographs by: Jeff Riedel

 

On the following pages, you will meet men who gave a full measure of sacrifice in Iraq, and one woman who's sacrifice began when her husband arrived home. Long after their battles have ended, their struggles continue.

The question is: Will our support continue as well?

Fighting for respect: Justin Constantine
Major, 4th Civil Affairs Group, U.S. Marine corps
Justin Constantine shakes my hand. I feel as if I am gripping a hickory branch. It is lunch hour, and Constantine has ducked out from his job as an immigration lawyer for the U.S. Department of Justice. He's dressed in a suit, but he still looks every inch a Marine Corps officer. He takes off his sunglasses. The pupil in his left eye is dilated. He dabs at it with a handkerchief.

"I'm nearly blind in my left eye. When I blink, the eyeball won't lubricate properly," he says. He shrugs and smiles, as if to apologize. He has four teeth in his mouth.

"I'll have an operation next month to remove scar tissue on my retina," he says. Part of his tongue is missing, so he speaks with a lisp. "After that, another one for the dental implants." Those will be surgeries eight, nine, and counting for Constantine.

Two years ago, while Constantine was traveling on the road to Ramadi, Iraq, a sniper's bullet tore through his skull just behind his left ear, smashed his jaw, and exited through his right cheek. He had been in Iraq just 6 weeks. He has since had bone removed from both of his fibulas, in his legs, to reconstruct his upper and lower jaws, and had bone and bone marrow from his hip grafted into his mouth.

Recently he was riding the subway to his Marine Reserve unit, where he works as a judge advocate. He was not in uniform. He sat in one of the seats clearly reserved for the handicapped or elderly. A woman who looked to be in her late 50s boarded. She glared at him. "I'd like that seat," she said.

There were plenty of other empty seats in the car. But he stood and apologized; the woman sat down. "That section is reserved for people like me," he says. "But she just looked at me so coldly. Like she saw my face and assumed that I was mentally disabled. I guess I do look like I could be. But that's no way to treat a disabled person, either."


Soldiers' Sacrifices

The New Unknown Soldiers

Speechmakers like to praise the "sacrifices of our men and women overseas." But soldiers' sacrifices don't end when they step off the troop transports and hug their families.

By: Bob Drury, Photographs by: Jeff Riedel

Striving for a comeback: Ted Wade


Sergeant, 82nd Airborne, U.S. Army
During one of his regular trips from Fayetteville, North Carolina, to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., Ted Wade fumbled while attempting to insert his fare card into the Metro turnstile. It was rush hour, and Ted's wife, Sarah, stood off to one side. She watched as an impatient line of commuters behind her husband grew agitated.

 

The outward signs of Wade's injuries were mostly hidden: His long-sleeved shirt hid his prosthetic arm, and the scar over his left eye had grown faint. Five years ago, an improvised explosive device had blasted Wade off the back of an unarmored Humvee.

As the crowd of subway riders behind Wade began to grumble, a police officer approached. Sarah Wade stepped forward. "Excuse me," she said, "but my husband nearly lost his life when he was blown up in Iraq. Do you think that might be worth 45 seconds of your valuable time?"

No one answered. The cop backed away.

"I like to give Ted his space to figure things out," Sarah Wade says now as she finishes this story at an outdoor cafe near Walter Reed. "But sometimes I just want to explode for him. I imagine how hard it must be. To go from being a robust young man, an athlete, to being someone who has to learn to do it all again."

"People don't understand what they can't see," Ted Wade says. His words come haltingly. "And they can't see what is wrong with me."

The brain injuries Wade sustained in the blast left him with what he calls "this mysterious gap" in one-half of his mental grasp. He can read only half of a clock. In his computer-rehab exercises, he will pile topping icons on only half of a pizza, no matter how many times Sarah rotates the pie on the screen for him. Relearning to merely ride a bicycle is a feat of endurance.

"Sports is, well, integral to the life of most American boys and men, especially soldiers," Wade says. "People don't know what it's like to have that taken away from you. I meet so many veterans for whom losing the ability to run and jump . . . well, they feel as if they may as well not even be living. And anyone who says they understand -- well, they don't. They can't. Being both mentally challenged as well as an amputee, I see it from both perspectives."

Ted glances toward Sarah. They both smile.

"But you know what?" he continues. "I might not be there yet, but what I used to do in sports, I am determined to do again. It'll just take time."


Soldiers' Sacrifices

The New Unknown Soldiers

Speechmakers like to praise the "sacrifices of our men and women overseas." But soldiers' sacrifices don't end when they step off the troop transports and hug their families.

By: Bob Drury, Photographs by: Jeff Riedel

Struggling to see: Glenn Minney
Corpsman, U.S. Navy
On April 18, 2005, Glenn Minney ran across the top of the Haditha Dam, which spans the Euphrates River in Iraq, searching for a cache of medical supplies. Minney, a reservist from Chillicothe, Ohio, did not hear the thwump of the incoming mortar round. The shell exploded 30 feet ahead of him. The shock wave lifted him off his feet and hurled him backward into the dam's safety railing. The back of his helmet slammed into the concrete barrier. "But that was a good thing," he says. "Saved me from falling 10 stories."

 

Minney's head ached, but the shrapnel missed him. He felt a momentary euphoria -- he'd dodged the mortar. But he hadn't evaded injury.

"My vision kept getting worse," he says. "It was like a veil was developing over my eyes. After a couple of weeks, I said, 'I can't do this anymore. I'm a liability to my unit.'"

Five months later, following a medical evacuation and operations on both of his eyes, Minney was informed that the blow to his head had ruptured his left eye socket and caused both of his retinas to gradually slough off. He found himself groping about in a hospital in Homburg, Germany, being taught to walk with a cane, to pour water, to find his way around a bathroom. He was legally blind. Worse, the impact to his head resulted in permanent damage to 25 percent of his brain's occipital and parietal lobes -- the parts that control vision.

"When I smacked that rail, those parts of my brain just mushed," Minney says. "MRIs show significant indentations in my brain. The voids are filled with cerebrospinal fluid." Today, Minney is able to discern only light and dark with one eye. He has 20/70 vision, "with thick glasses," in the other.

"The best-kept secret of this entire war are the eye casualties," says Tom Zampieri, Ph.D., the director of governmental relations for the Blinded Veterans Association. "We're working on getting the Department of Defense to establish and fund a treatment and research center for military eye injuries and vision dysfunction, and a registry to track both."


Mending fractured families (including her own): Kim Ruocco
Widow, Mother of two
Between 2001 and 2006, 263 veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars took their lives, according to data from the Department of Veterans Affairs. And the Department of Defense counts almost 200 more soldiers whose deaths were self-inflicted while they were serving. But people who help families deal with the aftermath think the numbers may be higher. "There's no way of knowing how many suicides aren't counted," says Bonnie Carroll, founder of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), a group that supports grieving military families. "Let's just say we've seen a dramatic increase in the number of families seeking support."

Kim Ruocco does not recoil when I bring up the subject of suicide. "The numbers are cold, impersonal," she says. "You have to experience it to understand the pain, the shock, the . . . 'No, never, not my husband.'"

A tear rolls down her cheek.

On February 7, 2005, her husband, Marine Corps Major John Ruocco, hanged himself in a California hotel room. Ruocco, a decorated Cobra gunship pilot and the father of two sons, had returned 10 weeks earlier from a deployment in Iraq and was preparing to leave in a few weeks for his second tour.

"The military culture has very traditional views about strength and weakness. Mental illness is often seen as a weakness, an indication that this Marine 'can't handle it,'" she says. "Many troubled soldiers are taking their own lives instead of seeking help."

Kim Ruocco told their sons the truth: "Daddy was in a lot of pain, like he had a cancer in his head that you couldn't see." Since her husband's death, Kim Ruocco has counseled hundreds of survivors and, more important, potential victims.

"John's suicide was a wake-up call for a lot of Marines," she says. "If he could do that to himself, anyone could."


Soldiers' Sacrifices

The New Unknown Soldiers

Speechmakers like to praise the "sacrifices of our men and women overseas." But soldiers' sacrifices don't end when they step off the troop transports and hug their families.

By: Bob Drury, Photographs by: Jeff Riedel

Standing up for today's vets: Todd Bowers
Staff sergeant, U.S. Marine Corps
Last year, in the weeks leading up to his third deployment, Todd Bowers spent a day shuttling around Washington, D.C. He testified before the House Veterans' Affairs Subcommittee on Health, and then visited the offices of Virginia Senator Jim Webb to discuss the new GI Bill for veterans.

 

"I've got my priorities straight," Bowers says as we power walk across Capitol Hill. "On duty I'm Staff Sgt. Bowers, and my only thought is to serve my country. Off duty I'm the lobbyist Mr. Bowers, fighting as hard as I can to make sure every veteran gets a fair shot at an education -- the same opportunity our fathers and grandfathers received.

"Right now, that's not happening. What the government offers today is not your father's GI Bill."

After graduating from high school in Fairfax, Virginia, Bowers enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve. His unit pushed into Iraq in the opening days of the war. After his first tour, Bowers returned to attend George Washington University, from which both of his parents had graduated.

"I wanted to study Middle Eastern policy and Arabic, put my education to use for my country. I thought my own GI Bill money would cover it. Boy, was I delusional." His educational benefits amounted to just over $300 a month, so he was soon saddled with $17,000 in debt.

"It scared me to death," he says. "I wondered, how did the World War II guys do this?"

Two weeks before his first semester's final exams, he was recalled to Iraq. In 2004's battle for Fallujah, he was hit by a sniper. The bullet exploded the telescope lens of his own rifle. A month later, he was wounded in the knee by a mortar round.

"I was lucky," he says. "The bullet stopped an eighth of an inch from my eye. It fouled up my face" -- Bowers rubs the scarring around his left eye -- "and I lost 80 percent of the hearing in my left ear."

Upon his return, he found that his tuition debts had been sent to collection. But he was determined to complete his education, so he returned to GWU. Soon his debt exceeded $24,000.

"I should have been offered the same chances as the guys who served in World War II," he says. "The wars change, but the soldier's patriotism stays the same. The opportunity didn't."

"Many who took advantage of the original GI Bill became the leaders of the country," Bowers says. A Congressional analysis found that for every $1 spent on World War II veterans' education, the vets returned at least $5 in goods and services over the 35 years following the war's end. The taxes they generated made up for the program's original outlay.

For 4 years, Bowers worked ceaselessly to ­promote the new, "fairer" Webb-Hagel version of the bill. After he was redeployed for a third time, the legislation passed Congress. President Bush signed it into law last summer.

"When we join the military, we don't place our hand on a book of benefits," Bowers e-mailed me. "We swear to flag and country. Higher education is what keeps this country strong. It's an investment. And I think we deserve it."

 

   
 

 

 

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