While it’s true that in the military the entire family serves, this extends beyond spouse and children to the parents of the soldier, sailor, airman, Marine or Coast Guardsman. Whether or not they themselves ever served, military parents often see their child’s mission as their own.
The post-9/11 generation of veterans is dealing with physical and mental injuries that differ in many respects from those of past wars, creating new challenges for caregivers of the most severely wounded – a role often filled by parents.
In the book “Unbreakable Bonds: The Mighty Moms and Wounded Warriors of Walter Reed,” Dava Guerin and Kevin Ferris tell the stories of 10 soldiers and Marines grievously wounded in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – and their mothers, who left their homes, careers and more to become 24/7 caregivers. In honor of Mothers Day, The American Legion Magazine shares three excerpts here.
ADAM KEYS AND JULIE KEYS On July 14, 2010, Army combat engineer Adam Keys and four other soldiers were riding in an MRAP (mine-resistant ambush protected) convoy vehicle in Afghanistan’s Zabul province when it was hit by an IED. Witnesses said the vehicle was blown straight up into the air and crashed down, hard. Four of the five soldiers were killed – including Jesse Reed, Adam’s high school football teammate and best friend.
Adam’s mother, Julie, was at home in Whitehall, Pa., when she received word of the blast.
“He had a severe brain injury, many broken bones in his shoulder and both legs, severe trauma to his face and eye injuries,” she recalls. “The good news was that he was in critical but stable condition. Strangely, they were good words to hear. At least Adam was alive.”
He soon arrived at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. There, Julie’s initial relief at seeing her son, battered but alive, was replaced by fear and horror as an infection swept through his system. His body swelled – “like the Michelin Man,” Julie said later – and his liver and kidneys failed. He coded multiple times. Stopping the infection required the amputation of his left arm, then one leg above the ankle and the other above the knee. The medical staff scrambled to stay ahead of Adam’s infection but seemed to be preparing the family for the worst.
“None of them could look me in the eye,” Julie says. “I had nurses patting me on my shoulder all the time, and everyone had such sad looks on their faces. I was furious. ‘He’s not dead,’ I told them. I said to the doctors that if they didn’t come into Adam’s room with hope in their eyes, then I didn’t want them there at all.
“I am not one for confrontation, but you change when it is your child.”
Adam’s grueling recovery included more than 140 surgeries, and he received specialized care at the R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center at the University of Maryland Medical Center and Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. For nearly five years, he and his mother stayed in a two-bedroom apartment on the Walter Reed campus.
His medical retirement from the Army on July 28, 2015, was a welcome event for all concerned, Julie says. Even better was Adam’s subsequent move into a custom-designed “smart home” built for him near Annapolis, Md.
“Everything is in a really good place,” she says. “Adam is really happy and getting things done. It’s great to be able to relax in your own house. It’s awesome.”
Adam, who is a member of American Legion Post 7 in Annapolis, plans to refinish his basement with his father, Stephen, this summer. Meanwhile, mother and son are starting to speak at events – together and individually – to talk about Adam’s survival and Julie’s experiences as a caregiver.
“I never thought I’d do public speaking, but I’m starting to get comfortable with it,” Julie says. “It’s kind of fun.”
STEFANIE MASON AND PAULETTE MASON Not long after the war in Iraq started, Stefanie Mason surprised her mother, Paulette, with the news that she’d enlisted in the Army Reserve.
“I was angry, but most of all frightened,” Paulette recalls. “After a few days, I calmed down and accepted the fact that this was her life, and it was what she wanted to do.”
Upon her assignment to the 485th Chemical Battalion in Wilmington, Del., Stefanie volunteered Paulette, a marketing and public relations executive, for the unit’s family support group. She handled the newsletter. Stefanie did a 15-month deployment to Iraq and another to Kuwait. When she received orders to Afghanistan in 2009, her mother was serving as chair of the state’s Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve (ESGR), part of its national committee on strategic planning.
A few months later, in April 2010, Stefanie was critically injured in a vehicle accident in Kabul. She suffered a traumatic brain injury, facial fractures (including a broken jaw), a tibia plateau fracture and a back injury. When Paulette got the call, she begged to know if Stefanie would live through the night. “We have to wait and see,” the doctor said.
Days later, when Paulette finally laid eyes on Stefanie at Walter Reed, her daughter’s recovery became the focus of her energy.
As a caregiver, Paulette saw to her daughter’s physical needs and became a fierce advocate for wounded warriors. At ESGR, Paulette often worked with generals, so she was not afraid to speak out – for Stefanie or for the sons and daughters of the moms she befriended at Walter Reed.
“It was just too overwhelming,” Paulette says. “The stress of trying to handle the appointments, trying to get appointments, making sure they’re not throwing up, and not leaving them alone because there were suicides going on ... I just became very involved in her care, and caring about the others.”
After a long recovery, Stefanie is now competing in distance runs and even won a medal for swimming in the Warrior Games, an annual all-forces competition for wounded veterans. After a stint in her old job with the Delaware court system, she started classes for a master’s program in international relations at American University last fall. Meanwhile, Paulette will receive her master’s degree in organizational leadership from Wilmington University.
“The transition back to the civilian world has been a difficult one,” Paulette says. “I have not yet returned to any semblance of what my life used to be like. I’m still on that journey.”
JEFFREY SHONK AND TAMMY KARCHER Tammy Karcher’s father was a Vietnam War Green Beret soldier and a Legionnaire; her husband was career Navy. She understands well the strong bonds among those who serve and their families.
So the horror of learning that her son, Army Spc. Jeffrey Shonk, suffered a severe gunshot wound to the head Sept. 23, 2010, while stationed at Camp Fallujah, was compounded by the unfathomable news that the shooter was a fellow soldier. Two other members of Jeffrey’s unit were killed in the incident. Immediately, Tammy wanted to confront the man responsible. “Why would you do this?” she wanted to ask. “Why turn your gun on your brothers?”
The question remained in the back of her mind through the long days of trying to learn the extent of Jeffrey’s injuries, followed by weeks by his bedside – first at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany and then at Walter Reed. One shot had blown off about four inches of bone in Jeffrey’s tibia, and the leg bled so badly that he was feared dead when help arrived.
Even more serious was the head wound. Jeffrey had been resting on his bunk watching a movie when the shooter fired at him. The bullet grazed his skull about an inch above the hairline, leaving a three-inch wound that didn’t penetrate the skull but did cause brain swelling and a traumatic brain injury.
“We didn’t know if he would walk or talk again,” Tammy says. “We didn’t know if there was brain damage. We didn’t know where he would be.”
They later learned that the damage to Jeffrey’s frontal lobe was not as severe as initially feared, but when he first came out of his medically induced coma, his behavior and attention span were like those of a child.
“A brain injury can take up to two years to heal,” Tammy says. “If you use the right therapies, you can get through and work that portion of the brain to get it to the best it’s going to be.”
As a caregiver, Tammy endured her son’s achingly slow recovery from his wounds, but assisted the best she could as the Army investigated the shooting and prepared its case against the attacker.
Jeffrey left Walter Reed in July 2013, and received a medical retirement from the Army seven months later. Today he’s married, and he and his wife, Ashley, are raising four children in North Carolina, where he is studying culinary arts and entrepreneurship at Johnson and Wales University.
Tammy plays grandmother as much as possible from her home in Maryland, where she’s looking to re-enter the workforce. In the near future, Jeffrey plans to open his own restaurant: the Vanguard, named for his former brigade in memory of those who didn’t make it home. He hopes to hire others who served, with an emphasis on providing jobs to homeless veterans.
“I’m feeling pretty good, focused and excited for what is in store for me,” he says.
Dava Guerin is an author and CEO of Mighty Mom Productions, Inc. Kevin Ferris is commentary editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer.