Since the Iraq war began five years ago, more than 30,000 American servicemen and women—including my husband, Kenny, a Marine master sergeant—have been wounded. In one sense, that’s actually ahopeful number. Battlefield medics these days are so skilled they’re saving soldiers who, in any other war, would’ve died.
That’s what happened to Kenny. During a firefight in Najaf a bullet ricocheted off an armored personnel carrier and pierced his head, entering under his right eye and exiting the left side of his skull. Medics kept him alive long enough to fly to a Baghdad military hospital. In a matter of days he was on his way to America.
Unfortunately, that’s not where the story ends. Not for Kenny, not for anyone else with war wounds, especially the thousands suffering what has become Iraq’s signature injury, traumatic brain damage. For those warriors and their families, a battlefield injury is like the start of a whole new war—not only to heal, but to navigate an often overwhelmed military medical system.
That, too, is what happened to Kenny—and to me. Up to the day Kenny was wounded I was what you could call a typical Marine wife. After—well, let’s just say I’ve discovered a fighting strength I never knew I had.
I first began to realize what we were up against the day Kenny arrived at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. It was five days after his injury and I was frantic. The only information I’d had came from patchy cell phone calls to officers and doctors in Iraq.
I’d had to drop everything—I taught aerobics at a YMCA near Camp Pendleton, where we lived with our two teenagers, Tasha and Alishia—figure out who would take care of the girls and board a red-eye to Maryland. I’d even had to put off seeing Kenny to fill out a financial hardship application to afford the rooming house provided for relatives of the wounded.
When I got upstairs to the intensive-care unit I saw a bank of monitors near the nurses’ station. One, identified by Kenny’s Social Security number, glowed with an X ray of a shattered skull. I drew a sharp breath and asked for the room number. I was starting down the hall when a doctor grabbed my arm. “Ma’am, why don’t you sit here first and let me brief you on his injuries.”
I stared at the doctor, incredulous. What could possibly be more soothing to Kenny than the loving presence of his wife? “I’m sorry,” I said. “He needs me. I don’t care how bad he looks. I’ve been waiting five days to see him and I’m going to his room right now.”
The doctor let go of my arm and I hurried to Kenny’s room. I paused at the door to compose myself then walked in. I didn’t recognize him. His head was swollen and disfigured, marked with dried blood and rows of staples. He lay passively, hooked to massive machines.
“Kenny, it’s me,” I said softly, trying not to cry. “Squeeze my hand if you know who I am.” His head didn’t move. But he squeezed my hand.
The following weeks I discovered that the disorienting experiences of those first days were only the beginning. Kenny and I had met in high school, married young, and for the next 17 years, raised our girls on bases around the country.
We knew a lot about being a Marine family. But nothing had prepared me for all the paperwork, decisions and medical terminology that came at us. I didn’t go to college and had no medical or legal training. I had to rely on my wits every time I was asked to sign something.
Early on I was presented with documents that would have retired Kenny from active duty, transferring his care to the Veterans Administration. I didn’t know exactly what that meant. But something about it seemed wrong. Didn’t they think he would get better? I didn’t sign the papers.
I soon realized I had to be equally vigilant about Kenny’s care. His injury had left him with near-total amnesia and great difficulty speaking. Doctors and therapists worked hard with him. Some were incredibly dedicated. But there were many patients on the ward, and the staff was pulled in many directions.
Sometimes, doctors even had to accompany politicians and other VIPs touring the floor to visit wounded soldiers. As soon as they left I returned to a routine I’d developed. I got Kenny out of bed, washed him, took him around the ward and pointed out rooms with other Marines.
No subject got him talking like his fellow Marines. The week’s highlight was Sunday phone calls from the 15 men he’d commanded in Iraq. That, or me renting movies or talking about Tasha and Alishia.
As weeks went by I felt more confident. I learned every aspect of Kenny’s care, to the point I could do it when nurses weren’t available. I learned enough medical terms to talk knowledgeably with doctors—me, an aerobics teacher!
And I got savvy enough to request a copy of every piece of paper added to Kenny’s medical record. When a new doctor or therapist came in asking Kenny questions he’d answered a thousand times before—or couldn’t answer at all—I pulled out my records and pointed straight to the information.
Just as I was getting the hang of things, Kenny was transferred to a VA rehabilitation hospital in Palo Alto, California. We were flown in a military transport plane. I had just gotten him settled into his room when a nurse said, “Visiting hours are from 1 to 7 p.m.”
I looked at her, surprised. “I’m sorry, I’m not a visitor. I’m Sgt. Sargent’s wife and have been at his bedside for the last month. He has amnesia. I assumed I’d be sleeping here.”
“Ma’am, here’s a list of nearby hotels.” As I left, I saw Kenny’s eyes widen with fear. I spent an anxious, maddening night at the Hometel, a place for vets to stay during hospital procedures. Not even prayer brought clear answers. My thoughts kept drifting back to myself, to the struggles we’d already been through. It was as if God were saying, Stay strong, Tonia.
At the hospital the next day, I found Kenny still looking terrified. I paged the nurse. “I don’t mean to be a nuisance,” I said, “but there has to be some way for me to stay with my husband. This is a whole new environment for him. I’m the only one he recognizes. What can I do?”
“You can visit during visiting hours.”
A neuropsychologist came in. “Ma’am,” she said, and her voice sounded tired, as if she had a job to do and I was making it harder, “this is your husband’s rehabilitation, not yours. It would be better if you left the work to us. Think of him as being away on a deployment.”
I looked at her, at the nurse. They showed no signs of yielding. Disappointment and anger came over me. What could I do to make them understand? Kenny was better because I’d helped with his care. I glanced at Kenny. His eyes were still frightened.
But I saw something else in them too. A glimmer of fight. A glimmer of Kenny, the proud Marine. I thought about myself, a Marine wife. What did that mean? Well, more than I used to think it did. I had already mastered one hospital. Kenny and I had come this far.
Now was not the time to back down. Stay strong, Tonia. I took a deep breath. “I am going to be by my husband’s side. If you won’t help me do that, I’ll find someone who will,” I said.
And that’s what I did. I contacted the local Marine Corps Reserve unit.
I pulled out business cards I’d collected from VIP visitors to Bethesda and called congressional offices. I signed up as a hospital volunteer, giving me no restricted visiting hours. And I offered to help the hospital raise money to build more housing for patients’ loved ones. In short, I became an advocate. I went to war.
Today, four years later, Kenny is back home in Oceanside and I’m still teaching aerobics. Everything else is different. Kenny made a remarkable recovery.
But he is not now, and never will be, the man he was before he shipped out for Iraq. He has retired from the Marines with 21 years of service—we waited to sign papers until he was eligible for a full pension—and is not working. He spends days cooking, cleaning and keeping an eye on the girls.
I’m still an advocate, speaking to church groups and Rotary clubs about the challenges of life after active duty. My message is simple. No matter when the Iraq war ends, the warriors who come home will need more than slogans, more than bumper stickers and ribbon magnets on cars.
They’ll need resources to get the health care they need. Support for family members taking part in that care. A lot of prayer. And a nation committed to seeing them through.