The Misfits

This is about our family's journey to a new norm after our son Chris was seriously injured in an IED explosion while deployed to Afghanistan. I chose the title "A Misfit's Mother's Journey" to honor some small way all the amazing young men in his squad, "Martin's Misfits". I owe a debt to these amazing men who worked together to save my son's and his buddy's lives and to the young man who sadly lost his life. This is a debt I can never repay. I hope you will find inspiration in our story and admiration of the young men who understand the consequences and are still willing to risk life and limb in the hope of protecting others.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Now comes the "quiet"....temporarily

As I got ready to see Chris, Gitta's voice was bouncing around inside my head reminding me how theraputic running can be during times like these. I knew she was right, so I laced up my shoes so I could run after I satisfied my need to hug Chris and find out how he was doing. As I pushed open the Fisher House doors the first thing to hit me was how white the sidewalk was against green astroturf. It's amazing how the relief from knowing your son is near, in good health and great spirits can open up your tunnel vision to let the beauty of the world around you in. Behind me I heard the tinkling of a waterfall, good thing I didn't have to pee. I turned my head to see a picturesque, small, white gazebo but no waterfall. In a corner of my mind I tucked away the thought to look for it when I returned, realizing that sound may come in handy later. The trick would be to remember to pull that thought out of that corner later. As I headed up the incline towards building 1, to my left I spied several tan lines cutting through the side of the hill across the street from the hospital grounds. I wondered how long they were and where they went, guess today is as good as any to find out. I stood in front of the bay of hospital elevators and my mind began to scream...I HATE ELEVATORS!!! This will be one fear I will be forced to get over or under control while I am here that was for sure. Though there was a plus to getting there early, the elevators seemed to go straight to the 5th floor as if they knew how anxious I was to get there. I gently opened Chris' door and the room was dark and eerily quiet. Cujo was out cold on the tiny little couch, the poor guy looked so uncomfortable. Good thing he's a Marine, they are used to sleeping on anything and anywhere. Chris was awake and in pain. The nurses and corpmen here are wonderful. You can tell by the look on their faces, the tone of their voices and their gentleness with the patients that they really care about these young men and want to do everything possible to make their lives easier. I waited until they were able to get his pain under control before I decided it was time for some stress relief. The sun was now a bright yellow ball in the sky that demanded sunglasses and made the day hot and dry, thankfully there was a slight breeze. The heat brought out the most delicious smells from the desert plants along the trail. Aromatherapy brought to you by Mother Nature, gotta love it! It was my first trail run; it was different and tougher than anything I had ran yet. Watching where my feet landed so I didn't step wrong on the big and little rocks, the loose sand and critters was not something I was used to. Oh and don't forget looking out for possible rattlesnakes. The run was short, but it was better than nothing and cleared the head quite well. Chris needed a change of scenery; more importantly he needed to visit Brad so they both could see with their own eyes that the other was truly okay. There will always be a bond between the three of them; one born out of tragedy, one that no one really wanted because of it's tragic beginnings but one which will aide greatly in their recoveries. They were able to get Chris a chair and over to see Brad. When I returned to the ward after my run I sort of ruined their surprise. Chris wanted to surprise me with being in the courtyard when I got back, either way it was a wonderful sight! The trip to the courtyard was short, but as I watched Chris lean his head back to soak up all the sun he could I realized that just as plants after a torrential storm grow and thrive with the cleansing rains and warming sun that follows. Chris will grow and thrive after his torrential storms of the divorce and losing part of his legs with the help of the cleansing prayers and warming love from all our family, friends and people we don't even know. This day and the next was "quiet", relatively speaking. Keeping his pain in check was challenging at times but he did handle it all so well. Terry's voice kept whispering in my ear...make sure you keep track of his doctors and medications, it will be very useful later. I love my girls! Even when they're not near, they still are because they all reside deep in my heart and evidently in my brain as well. But Holy Hell Terry how did you do it?! There are so many, non-stop, for basically the same thing and none of their names are easy or easily readable! I know I will get it eventually but sooner would be better. So far he was healing nicely and was on track for wound closure the following day. Things are going so fast just like Terry said it would. It's so hard to believe only 8 days have passed since the explosion. His next hurdle would be the closing operation. Bring it on! We are ready for it and have no qualms with telling life that we can take anything it dishes out cause it hits like a bitch!

Monday, July 30, 2012

Thank you for all the wonderful comments!

I apologize for not posting in a week. I ended up getting sick Monday night and it took me out for a week. I swear if I have to deal with the mind swirling bed spins, then it should be because I drank too much and had a ton of fun. And not for some unknown reason!

Thank you so much for all the wonderful comments and  support. Your support and stories have really touched our lives and hearts. Many of you have extended offers of help and support. Please know I will contact you shortly once we have settled down a bit so I can focus properly

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The first step towards recovery.

I awoke early the next morning, on my own and interestingly enough, well rested. I guess being able to finally see and touch my boy after what seemed like a month instead of just a week, caused my body and mind to truly let go. I didn't sleep long, but I know I slept hard mainly cause Wayne told me I snored loudly. Really I have no idea what he is talking about because I never, ever snore. I quickly grabbed a shower and got dressed. I hated being away from Chris now. Every muscle and nerve in my body was twitching to get back to his room, almost like I didn't believe he was really there. Plus I was in mother bear mode; no one was going to do anything to my boy without me being there to make sure he was getting what he needed and was treated right. Today he was scheduled for another wash out and the first review of his wounds by the ortho team who would be responsible for the eventual closing of his legs. I certainly wasn't going to miss that. Brad's washout was scheduled for the morning and Chris' for the afternoon. After waiting anxiously, yet not really wanting them to come take him away, the anestisia team came in to prep him and get him headed in the right direction towards LaLa land. The anestisist was fantastic, so gentle and caring. Once everything was in place they wheeled his bed to the 2nd floor and towards pre-op. Right before they turned the corner of the pre-op hallway I kissed him on his hair-net cover forehead and told him I loved him. His anestisist touched my arm, looked deeply into my eyes and promised to take good care of him. This comforting gesture brought me to tears. We waited just outside the pre-op hallway so we could meet his surgeon for the first time. A short while later and just when I was beginning to think they forgot about us, I saw a doctor walking down the hall. He reminded me of a taller version of Opie Taylor and to top it off he was wearing a StL Cardinals scrub cap! He couldn't be too bad if he was a Cardinals fan, even if I'm not. He took the time to explain what they would be doing, why they had to do this and what their goal was. Basically there is all kinds of crap in the sands/ground over there that the IED blew up into his legs. They don't want to close him up until the cultures come back negative and these washouts help remove that gunk and bacteria. They were also going to look at his wounds and see what needed to be done to give him a good foundation for his prosthetics. Of course all that scared me, but I knew it had to be done and I felt he was in good hands. It would be a 2-3 hour wait before his procedures would be finished. Thankfuly we had a couple administrative things to finish; taking our minds off the wait. At the 3 hour mark we headed to the waiting room. When we first arrived there were several people in the room, but with each phone call the numbers dwindled. I kept waiting for our phone call and before long we were the only ones left in the room. We were hitting the 3.5-4 hour mark and still no phone call. It was all I could do to keep the bile in my stomach from rising as it got more and more upset. I kept peeking out the door and down the hallway hoping I would see our doc. Finally it paid off, I saw his red StL Cardials cap bouncing up and down as he walked towards us with a slight smile on his face. We got up and met him in the hallway where he told us he had good and bad news. Good news; his wounds looked good and there were no obvious signs of infections in either leg. Bad news; there wasn't enough meaty tissue at the end of the left leg so they had to cut 4 more inches off the bone so it was no longer an at-the-knee amputation. They had to remove about 2 inches off the right, but it was still a below-the-knee amputation. By doing this he would now have a sturdy foundation for his prosthetics. I hated to hear it, but was so happy his right was still a below-the-knee making all the difference in the long run. Knowing he was safe, healthy and recovering caused all the tension to leave my body and suddenly I was really tired and hungry. We got something to eat and headed back to his room to wait for his return. All of a sudden we heard a commotion in the hall. Wayne went out to see what it was because it sounded like Chris. Then I heard Chris say "See that fucking sexy man there? That's my Dad!", very loud and jovial. We all just busted up laughing, whatever drugs they had him on made him quite the character. While he was in surgery the nurses had changed his bed to an air bed, it was better for all his butt and leg wounds. The transfer from the bed he was on to the air bed was quite the endeavor; the trapeze contraption was higher, his IV was now on the left which was the back side of the bed so we needed to get all the machines and stuff through the trapeze bar set-up, the new bed was like a bouncy castle with all the air in it and Chris was still high on drugs. We never laughed so hard. As Chris came down off his high he got a bit more feisty but I think it was a mixture of the coming down of the drugs and the pain rising up. So we worked with the RAS team to get his pain under control. After a fashion Chris finally drifted off to sleep, looking just like my little angel. It was getting late so Wayne and I headed back to the Fisher House and drifted off to sleep ourselves.

Friday, July 20, 2012

I can finally hug him!!!

A little, wrinkley, pink bundle with big blue eyes is all I saw. "Hey Handsome. Welcome to the world, I've been waiting for you. You are so loved!" is what I said to him as I joyously wrapped my arms around my little man for the first time. With the exception of the births of my other children, I never imagined I would experience those feelings of exhilaration and joy again, until now. As I entered the room there was a bright light over his bed and he was holding onto a trapeze, lifting himself up as he readjusted his body. While I did notice his legs, all I really saw was his handsome, handsome face. I wrapped my arms as tight as I could around him and told him I loved him and I didn't think anything would ever compare to the first time I held him until now. I didn't want to let go when I hugged him goodbye at the beginning of his deployment and I definitely didn't want to let go now. I cried a bit out of the sheer joy of finally being able to hold and kiss him. When I did let go, Wayne moved in to give him a hug and kiss. Seeing the two of them hugging made me cry. I knew how much Chris means to Wayne and that Wayne was just as relieved as I was to finally be able to hold his boy. I was able to get my first good look at his legs once Wayne let go. I'm still trying to figure out how I felt and feel about them. I wasn't disgusted or angry or sad or anything like that. It was just so surreal. I gave birth to a beautiful baby boy with 10 fingers and toes, now the toes I was so used to seeing for the last 21 years are no longer there. It was like he was hanging his legs in water and I kept waiting for him to pull them out. He was laughing and joking with his friend and the corpman; it did my heart good to see him honestly handling all this so well. I first took inventory of his room, it was your typical hospital room, sterile and bland though they did try to add some color with the furniture. This ward is supposed to be specifically for the wounded warriors, so taking into consideration all these young men have already lost, they hooked them up with a really great TV/computer-in-one set up. I then took a look at his bed, again your typical hosptial bed but with metal bars at both ends and one going down the middle with an orange trapeze attached to it. The trapeze chain must have been too long for Chris (he has a tall torso) cause it was looped over the bar once. There was an IV pole full of bags, PCAs and PCEs and lying on the end of his bed were his wound vacs. Now it was time to take a close up look at his legs. His right leg was the longest; the end had these dark grey sponges with a couple tubes coming out of them, held in place with a sheet of clear plastic tape. His left leg was shorter and set up pretty much the same way. The sponges made it hard to really get a good look at the actual damage. I peered at all the shrapnel wounds on his legs and arms. The backs of his poor legs and butt were horribly peppered, I don't think I could find a single square inch that didn't have a mark. All I could think of was how uncomfortable it must be for him to be sitting on all that and I could tell it was uncomfortable cause he kept shifting side to side. His left arm had a lot of peppering too but his right was relatively free from marks. The worst thing he had on the right was a cast on his ring finger from where it was smashed by something which broke the very tip of his finger. I couldn't help but think how ironic and appropriate it was to be that finger. Hopefully a reminder from the universe that his marriage is smashed, that he needs to move on and there should be no going back. After being there a little bit I couldn't wait anymore and asked if he was willing and able to tell us his story. He said yes and began. It was night, at the end of an unpartnered foot patrol, on the way back to base. They were standing in an area they had swept for IEDs, split into two columns. His buddy Brad walked up to their Squad Leader Nathan to talk to him and on his way back to his column he stepped on a pressure plated IED. The squad lept into action and after Chris helped set up the landing zone for the medevac he went back to help TJ get Brad onto the litter. As he walked around the litter to help pull Brad up, Chris stepped on the second IED. He felt himself fly up in the air and land on the ground where he thought what the hell did he trip over. He could tell his legs were gone, but didn't want to believe it. He dug himself out of the crater, rolled over and took the thor off then decided it was time to look at his legs. They felt like they were on fire; he looked down to see his right leg completely gone and the left hanging on by a tendon, ligament or whatever. My heart was breaking for him. I wanted to hug him; to take away all the pain and horrible memories, but I knew it wasn't the right time and let him finish. The explosion that got him also peppered his squad leader's face with shrapnel and he could see his buddy TJ lying face down on the ground. He had hoped it was only cause he was knocked unconscious, but feared the worst. Because of the positon the corpman was in when helping Brad the second explosion ripped the med pac apart and destroyed all medications left in there, leaving none to give to Chris. He remained calm and collected cause he knew freaking out wasn't going to make anything better so why freak out. Thankfully Chris decided to keep breaking in his new diaper with the new kevlar because despite the middle piece being shredded it really protected his special friends. Then he began to talk about the moment he realized TJ had been killed. After a couple buddies came to help him, a couple others turned TJ over and Chris could see the shrapnel that hit TJ killed him. My heart fell to pieces for him. I had always prayed that Chris would never be in a situation where he believed he was the reason why one of his buddies died and here it is. No, no, please no! It takes a lot to make Chris cry, to watch him break down and blame himself for the death of his best friend was so hard. All I could do was hold him while he sobbed and repeated he killed his best friend and how he would give anything to change places with him. For the most part I let him talk cause it was what he needed, but I did try to remind him the only person responsible for this was the jackass that planted the IEDs. As I said before, Chris is stubborn and it didn't matter what we believed. Even though I don't agree with how he sees things and as heartbreaking as it was, I did truly understand why and where he was coming from. I was so relieved to hear him say he had no intention of tarnishing TJ's sacrifice, instead he was going to use it as motivation to be the best he could be. We sat there in silence for awhile, as I held his hand I prayed for him, Brad, Nathan and TJ's family. For the strength needed to get through this traumatic time and to be able to quickly find their way thru the darkness and move into the light and love of all those around them. Shortly after that we met his squad leader Nathan outside Chris' room. The look on his face made me go to him straight away. I could tell he blamed himself and was afraid we blamed him too. I hugged him tight and thanked him for looking out for my boy, crying while I said it of course. He kept apologizing and I told him he had nothing to apologize for. I have my boy because of him and his squad and I will be forever grateful to them. I could tell he still felt guilty so I was determined to make sure over the next several days or however long it took to make sure he understands there is no blame, at least not from us. He came into the room and we talked about all kind of things but also about that night. It was neat to watch Chris and Nathan praise each other for how they handled everything. Nathan was blinded by the shrapnel but still worked the communications to get the medevac bird in. It was funny how each would get on the other for not taking credit where credit is due. I just wanted to shake the both of them and tell them to take their own advice. Stubborn, stubborn Marines. After Nathan left Wayne and I went to meet Brad. When we first got to his room it was just him so we had a few moments alone to talk to him and hear his side of the story. Basically it was the same as Chris' but where Chris blamed himself Brad talked about how awesome he was. Brad's parents and wife came in shortly after that, so we made our introductions then left them alone. I knew understandably they wanted alone time and I did want to get back to Chris. As we left Brad's room I said a little prayer that one day Chris will see himself through the eyes of his friends a little more and eventually blame himself a little less. It did strike me as 'funny' that Chris and Brad are twins. They do sort of look alike and their injuries are identical, though Brad's are a bit more intense. We spent some more time with Chris, but we needed to get to the Fisher House and get some sleep. It has been a long and emotionally draining day/night and tomorrow would be upon us before we knew it and tomorrow starts his surgeries. We kissed and hugged him goodnight then went to settle in.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Is it Monday yet?

I woke to the sun gently playing on my face as the curtains fluttered in the a/c induced breeze, however I saw it as it rudely waking me up before I was ready to deal with the day. Damn! Why didn't I fix that gap in the curtains and make sure bottoms were behind the vent? As I stretched myself awake I realized it is Sunday and Chris will be stateside around 1645 today! I've gotta get moving in case we got the call to fly out today. I was hoping a couple connections I had called to see about keeping Chris at Walter Reed/Bethesda would come through. No such luck; it was too late in the process. Ugh! My body felt like a deflated ballon after finding that out. Guess I don't have to pretend I'm Speed Racer to get it all done. So I decided to blow everything off and just hide from the world. Oh take me away you mindless boobtube! Watching the sad, pathetic lives of the people on shows like Bridezillas, Tanisha gets married, Toddlers and Tirias, etc. is like watching a train wreck and strangely enough makes me feel so much better. Wayne was so good about doing all the things I was hiding from so I could be...well, lazy. Axiously I waited for 1645 to come and it came and went without a call. Then HQ MC called saying there was an aircraft issue and he would be arriving later than planned but still leaving for San Diego at 0800 on Monday. Time to pick it up again, but now I felt so overwhelmed. Roughly 10 million questions were running around my head, it made me thankful for the brief retreat into nothingness. I worried about not knowing anyone in Cali, but thanks to Facebook I realized not only did I have wonderful friends in Long Beach but a friend actually in San Diego. A great friend from high school I hadn't seen in....well, let's not go there. The young guns were so great about checking on me, hugging me and telling me they loved me. I am so blessed with my boys. During all the support our friends were giving, a friend of a friend asked what was going on. It turned out he was connected with Channel 5 news and thought a story on Chris and our family would be a good human interest piece; in comes the 15 minutes of fame opportunity. The world needs to know not just how courageous Chris is, but all these young men who willingly put their lives and limbs at risk in the hope of helping others. So we tentatively arranged a meeting. Suddenly I realized night had snuck up on me and I welcomed it; it was bringing me closer to Chris. Around midnight my phone rang and Chris' voice was on the other end, sounding so much better than when we talked while he was at LRMC. He provided more information about his injuries and how he and his brothers were doing. It was a relief to know all three of them were doing really well. All the questions I had about that night would have to wait until I was able to see his face and hold his hand. The sandman must have been on the other end of that phone cause once we hung up I was fast asleep. Ready for the new day and our epic adventure to begin. I don't remember if I woke up early or what, or anything else that happened that Monday morning and early afternoon. Just that we packed and waited. Nothing will ever compare to the pacing I did the night I found out he was injured, but this came awful close. Finally they called to let us know he was in San Diego so they would arrange our flights now. My heart longed to be there when he arrived, but that wasn't going to happen. The best they could do was get us on a flight scheduled to leave 3 hours later. So we arranged a ride to the airport and for Ashley from Channel 5 to meet us there. Our UOA boy, Stephen, drove us there and our young gun Cam rode along to see us off. Leaving him at the airport was so hard for me. I knew I was going to be gone for months and Cam and Clint needed me too. But they were so grown up about it and told me Chris needed me more and they would be okay. The love and compassion they truly have for each other and their comprehension of the situation is so indescribable. I am going to really miss those two. We met with Ashley and filmed the news piece; it would aire at 2200 that night. Our plane out of StL was delayed, but thankfully not enough to make us miss our connecting flight. Not to mention when flying on Southwest you are not guaranteed seats together, but again thankfully we were able to get seats together, on both legs. I was so glad. As relieved as I was to finally be in the air, every now and then I would see or hear or think of something that would trigger my thoughts of what must have happened to him and what it must have been like for him and his brothers, my heart would break and I longed to be with him causing the tears to flow. Wayne would see and squeezed my hand and caressed my back, helping to get my emotions in check and refocus on the task at hand...getting to my boy. Finally we arrived at the San Diego airport; without really knowing where to meet the Wounded Warrior Battalion rep, we headed to the USO. As the front desk tried to find who they thought we were looking for, a Gunny from the WWBN came in. Granted he was there to pick up another family, but he did get us to the right driver. A smile spread across my face when Chris' friend CJ (who was with him) texted me back to say Chris was so excited we were almost there. I couldn't sit still; I was so thankful the music playing in the bus was Top 40. "Call Me Maybe" to be exact, my favorite song which kept me from getting really anxious the closer I got. They said it was only about a 10 minute drive, but trust me it certainly didn't feel like a 10 minute drive. Finally we arrived in front of the hospital by the flag pole that looked like a ship's mast and we went up to 5 West. As we entered the ward, right away I saw VANETTEN on the nameplate outside the second room on the right. I wanted to burst in the room, but because of where he had been we had to take precautions and were required to don gloves and a robe. It seemed like everything went on in slow motion but I finally got them on and gingerly opened the door. There before my eyes was the best sight ever, my handsome boy sitting up in bed! When he saw us a smile lit up his face and he said "Hey Momma!"

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The painful and dreaded waiting game....

Relief and joy washed over me when I first heard his voice! Our conversation went like this...Me - "Thank you, thank you, thank you for calling me!" Him - "Momma I had to. I knew you'd be freaking out. Stop it right now; I'm stable, in good condition and I'll be coming home. A little bit shorter than when I left, but I'm coming home." Me - "So I guess the 6 foot goal is out of the question?" Him - "yeah" Me - "At least Cameron will be happy to say he is taller than you." Him - "Yeah, but I'll still kick his ass." We all laughed then talked about what should take place over the next few days. Our conversation may have been only 5-10 minutes long, but it felt longer. To know he was still here to hug and kiss and still had his wonderful sense of humor despite all that happened to him was thrilling. I have always known he was strong willed and determined, but to truly hear it in action was amazing. When we hung up I was on cloud nine; I wanted to collapse, vomit, laugh and cry all at once, all in relief. Hearing his voice relieved so much worry. I'm not a churchy person and I don't read the Bible, but I do have my own special relationship with God. Just as when I was waiting to find out if I had cancer or not, a voice came to me to tell me all will be okay. Even tho that brought me overall peace, I still wanted to get my arms around him to reassure him he will be okay, he wasn't alone and loved an awful lot; that made me anxious. That's when it dawned on me, this was the beginning of the painfully long and dreaded waiting game. I quickly ran thru my list of friends in my head to see if we had any stationed in Germany. Yes we did, it's just I had been absolutely horrible about keeping in touch. While I knew it wouldn't matter, I still apologized anyways. I needed someone I knew and trusted to put eyes on my son and give him a mother's hug to remind him how much he is loved. Of course to no surprise Michelle said most definitely! That is what I love about my friends; it doesn't matter how long we haven't talked, we are always there for each other. In a few hours we were supposed to head to our daughter's in Ohio and I knew I needed some sleep since it would be a 9 hour drive. My brain just wouldn't stop thinking and imagining what it must have been like for him. Was it like the movies? Did he feel everything? What did it feel like? How much pain was he in? Were they taking good care of him? How in the hell did this happen? How did it all play out? If he was injured, who else was? Did anyone die? How long will it be before I get to hold him again? God I wish I could quiet my brain and stop my eyes from leaking. Finally out of shear exhaustion I passed out. Not sure how long I slept, but my brain woke up at 7 and started all over again. So I grabbed my shuffle and earphones and went out on the deck. The morning fog was still lying gently on the mountains. As it began to slowly rise so did my family members and the phone began to ring. The outpouring of love and concern was wonderfully overwhelming. It helped make the drive to Ohio go quickly and before I knew it I was hugging my beautiful daughter and handsome son and grandson. I really needed this family time, it had been way too long since we last saw them and I really needed my girl right now. I just wish I could have been more focused on them. My mind was so preoccupied with thoughts of wanting Chris home now and wanting to know when he would get stateside so we could plan. It's during times like this you are reminded of how blessed and love you really are. My family is HUGE; made up of so many different people. All with a piece of the puzzle and willing to help put it together. My eyes wouldn't stop filling with tears; tears from all the kindness and effort from everyone to get us information, tears from realizing how close I had come to losing my son and being thankful he was still alive and tears from feeling so blessed. The next couple of days went by so fast, yet took so long. It wasn't until my old boss called to say they were moving Chris to Landstuhl and he would be in DC by the 17th, that I realized how quickly everything really happened. It seemed like a week since I got the call until they moved him to LRMC, but in reality it was only 3 days. About the same time I received a message from one of my nephews to let me know he had been a med tech at LRMC and still had friends there who stood ready to support/visit Chris once he arrived. These were people I had never met and I had only met my nephew a couple times! But as Rick and Heather said...We are family and that is what family does. We would have loved to have stayed with our daughter and her family longer, but without knowing exactly when or where the MC was going to send us, we knew we needed to get home. Sadly we cut our visit short. It broke my heart our visit wasn't what we had imagined and I was so discombobulated, but they were so loving and understanding about eveything. Reluntantly we said our good-byes and headed home. During the drive home I found out for this incident there were 3 injuries and 1 KIA. My heart broke; I hated the thought of more young men and their families going through what we were and worse. Thanks to our military careers and where we worked the last 10 years, my husband and I were lucky enough to have friends all over the place that were able to keep us informed of what was going on with Chris. I couldn't imagine what it is like for the families that don't. Chris called several times during his travels home, joking around everytime even when in serious pain. One of his friends told me he thought Chris was one bad ass Marine. Due to various reasons, pain meds were not available for Chris to take after he was blown up. Chris remained calm and focused and said freaking out wasn't going to help anything so why freak out. My brave, brave boy! When I mentioned that to him all he said was "Oh yeah. That really sucked.", in such a nonchalant way. Even with taking 2 days to get home, we arrived a day before Chris was scheduled to arrive in DC. We were hoping and wanting him to stay there since it was closer to home, but the MC decided to send him closer to his home unit in California. My girls Gitta, Terry, Donna, Michelle and Lisa all stopped to see me shortly after we got home; bringing hugs, groceries, dinner and donations just incase we had to leave the next day. Their hugs were warm blankets of love; releasing all my built up tears, stress and worry from the last several days. I loved the fact we were with family when this all came crashing down, but I won't was really nice to be in the comfort of my own home, where the majority of our famliy memories were. We were just that much closer to Chris and I couldn't wait. Once in the warm security of my bed I quickly fell into a deep sleep, for the first time in days.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

In the beginning...

A rock hard lump is all I could feel deep in my stomach the day he told me their next deployment would be to Afghanistan. I can't even remember the actual date; honestly I don't want to. I had the weirdest feeling in my gut, not heart or head, but gut. There have only been a few times I've felt like this and none ended well. It's above and beyond of the fear of him going to war, I just knew this deployment would not end well. I told only a couple friends this cause I didn't want to seem like that paranoid mom. Each one told me we would pray for a divorce to be the worst thing he would go through while over there. Secretly I would add; please if something does happen, just don't let him come home in a box. His departure was upon us in no time. The last image I have of him is him leaning out the window of the white bus as they drove away saying he loves us. He was so tall and skinny and most importantly, handsome, in his uniform. My heart burst with pride and fear for the adventure he was getting ready to embark on. I just wanted to hug him and never let go. But we all have to let go sometime and let life take its course. Over the next couple months he called often, which always made my day. He would tell me only so much of what he had gone through and the things he had seen. He knew despite how strong I may act, deep down inside I would panic a little that my baby boy was in dangerous situations. He has always tried to protect me. My heart broke for him when he called me one afternoon early in his deployment to say his marriage was over. I had a feeling a divorce was inevitable; I just hoped it wouldn't be while he was deployed. His head needed to be in the game, not on things back home. I prayed that would be the worst of it, unfortunately it wasn't. 8 June was the last time I talked to him before our world changed. It was the beginning of the Gere Family Reunion in Gattlinburg. Since Wayne was riding his motorcycle down we decided to take 2 days to get there. On our way to Nashville Chris called, we talked for about an hour. He told me of the fire fights they had been in the last couple patrols. Of course only enough to satisfy me and not to cause me worry. I had retired from the Air Force last year and didn't get picked up for a couple jobs I had applied for. Right before Chris called I found out I didn't get the last one. I remember him saying, "I'm sorry Momma. That just means there is a better job out there for you.". Little did we know... It was a great visit with my family, some I hadn't seen in years! That Tuesday (12 June) was our last full day in TN. When I came home after taking the boys to the National park, my cousins were watching the movie "Taking Chances". I was okay watching it up until the scene where Kevin Bacon took the cardboard off the casket and ran his hand down the wood. There were flashes to flag draped coffins being taken off a C-17 by Marines. All of a sudden I felt the biggest punch in the gut, I wanted to vomit and ran downstairs to our room cause I couldn't stop crying. All I could whisper is "Please don't let him come home in a box! Please, please, please, please don't let him come home in a box." over and over again. I was still crying and whispering it when my husband came to find me later after his ride. I finally gathered myself and spent some time with my family. Later that evening Wayne and I took our young guns downtown to walk around, it was so relaxing and fun. The calm before the storm. My young guns are getting older, their sense of humor and playfulness is so funny and frustrating at the same time. We didn't get back to the cabin until late. My cousin Ruthie was still up when we got home so we sat and talked for awhile. We were making our way to bed when Wayne came upstairs to let me know I missed a call. Normally I don't listen to my voicemails until later, but something was telling me to listen to this one now. To this day all I can remember is "This is SSgt so and so from Headquarters Marine Corp..." I crumpled to the floor crying "No, no, no, no...." over and over. Wayne tried to figure out what was going on but I couldn't speak clearly. He ended up calling for me while I sat at the table whispering "no, no, no..." and Ruthie rubbed my arm telling me she wasn't going to tell me to calm down but she was going to tell me to breathe. What was only seconds but felt like hours, Wayne told me to clam down that Chris was alive but seriously injured. He put the phone on speaker so the SSgt could go over Chris' injuries. As soon as I heard him say left leg amputation I had to run to the sink to throw up. All these scenes flashed through my head of what he went through, how he felt, how alone he must feel, etc. Once I composed myself some we had him repeat everything; on 13 June Chris was in an IED explosion that resulted in a left leg amputation thru the knee, a right leg amputation below the knee and shrapnel wounds to the arms, legs and buttocks. Oh my baby boy! You can never prepare yourself for that call. I thought I had; there were songs I couldn't listen to like Miranda Lambert's "I'll never get over you" but forced myself to, I thought about getting that call and remaining strong cause that is what Chris would want, imagined all kinds of things to toughen myself up. Trust me there is just no way you are ever prepared. I wanted to run to him and couldn't. I wanted to crawl out of my skin and pull out my hair. My young guns came upstairs to hug me (we are so blessed with all our children), I told my next oldest (who worships the ground Chris walks on) that he wasn't joining the Marines now. He looked at me and "Yes I am, even more so now, in honor of Chris." I told him "I know, I just don't ever want to get this call again." I paced for what seemed like hours; called everyone I could think of. All of them were so good about being woken up so early, being there for me and listening to me just cry. About 3 hours later I got an incoming call from a Scott AFB number. It was the best sound ever; Chris' voice was on the other end!
Where do I name is Leigh Van Etten. I am the mother of 5 wonderful children and many, many wonderful unofficially adopted children, many of which are in the military. While ALL my children have my heart and soul and mean more to me than anything, this story is about one of my children in particular and his/our family's journey back to a new normal.

Our son Chris went against the Air Force grain of our family and choose to join the Marines. Which I really was okay with. He is stubborn and needed something more stubborn than him, definitely not the Air Force! On 13 July 2009 I handed my son over to Mother Marine Corp, one of the saddest, yet proudest days of my life. A day, even knowing what I do now, I would do all over again. Who would have thought that 2 years and 11 months to the day later and almost to the hour I received his first call from basic telling me he arrived safely, I would have gotten a call from HQ Marine Corp telling me that my son was seriously injured in an IED explosion while deployed to Afghanistan. 

This is a mother's perspective on our journey from the first phone call and on. I hope this will inspire others in whatever journey they maybe on and show there is always a way around any obstacle, over, under or around, but there is always a way.