Five Surgeries, Two Purple Hearts and Still Fighting for VA Benefits
When Pam's fiancÃƒÂ©, Charles, was on his second tour to Iraq in December of 2004, he feared what awaited him. On his first tour, a year prior, he had witnessed the chaos and the bloodshed, the friends who didn't return home. Charles had escaped with a shot to his jaw the first time, but, preparing for the worst, he gave Pam power of attorney for his belongings. Still, in a hopeful moment before his deployment from Fort Bragg, Charles put an engagement ring on Pam's finger. "I cried all night when he left," remembers Pam.
When they were lucky, Pam and Charles had a half hour each day to talk (on his cell phone or via instant messages) about the life they'd been planning together, the house they had bought, and their garden that Pam had been tending. So when Pam hadn't heard from Charles in nearly three days, her spirit, she says, told her something was wrong. "My stomach ached for three days," Pam remembers. "I just knew that something had happened." Because they weren't yet married, it was Charles' mother, not Pam, who received the call that he had been killed in the line of duty.
Seven months after he'd said goodbye to Pam, Charles' front-line unit was hit by an IED in Mosul. Six of his fellow soldiers died in the attack and, amidst the confusion, Charles, known as Sgt. Charles Eggleston, was counted amongst the dead. The call to Charles' mother had been a mistake -- one that Pam had been lucky enough not to know about until she'd finally talked to Charles again, three days after the attack.
When they finally spoke on the phone, Pam says, "I was glad that he still remembered me, that he could talk to me, and that he was alive. I decided that I loved him enough that I could deal with the rest."
Charles barely survived: he had broken legs (one of which he nearly lost), a punctured and collapsed lung, brain damage and such traumatic injuries to his spine that only stem cell therapy and titanium rods restored his ability to walk. He's had five surgeries since and has been in rehabilitation since December of 2005. Two purple hearts adorn his uniform and he walks with the help of a cane. But not all of Charles' injuries were immediately treatable.
Charles had nightmares and he was hypersensitive," says Pam. "He could hear things only my cat could hear."
"My sleep was disrupted, too. But we talked about his tour and how it affected him. Charles sought out therapy to work through his issues -- many in the military don't, which is why I believe the divorce rate is astronomical." Pam and Charles were married in 2006, ten years after meeting in Maryland, where they had lived only blocks apart. "I was airing out my car in the summer and he said he had seen me making illegal u-turns in the street. He is always trying to be funny," she laughs. "Humor is a vital part of our relationship."
Pam is a Program Evaluator for the Washington/Baltimore High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area -- a law enforcement drug interdiction program where she works in the treatment division. Charles, on the other hand, was a network architect for Verizon Communications and a reservist before he was called to serve in Iraq. Before meeting Pam, he also served in Desert Storm. But going off to war in the Middle East wasn't the reason why Charles joined the military. He'd studied computer engineering at Cornell and enlisted so he could help people "with disasters like Hurricane Katrina," Charles says.
Although her father was in the Air Force and she has a cousin currently serving his third tour in Iraq, Pam has never supported the American-led invasion of Iraq that began five years ago on March 20th. At the time of the invasion, she was, however, in love with a man whose duty it was to serve in his country's armed forces during times of war. She and Charles had planned a life together, wanted to get married, and had already bought a house in Maryland with a large garden. Before Charles nearly lost his leg in Iraq, they had sometimes strolled through The National Arboretum.
"I was scared to death," Pam recalls of Charles' deployment. "I never believed in the war or the reasons for it from the beginning, so this was going against all that I believed." Like many women whose life partners, family members and friends have been sent to Iraq to fight a politically and morally questionable war, political beliefs are sometimes at odds with personal relationships. "I think I could have wrapped my mind around Charles going to Afghanistan to get the people responsible for attacking us on 9-11. But Iraq just didn't seem to make sense."
"I supported my husband's duty over there by telling everyone who would listen not to believe the news -- that it was hell over in Iraq. . . I [personally] did not watch the news while Charles was deployed," says Pam. "Ever."
Pam listened instead to Charles describe the real death counts he witnessed, which conflicted with those he'd later see reported in mainstream American media. "I saw people getting shot, bodies being blown up. Blown off limbs," Charles remembers. She saw the pictures of Charles with normal Iraqis whom he curiously resembled. And she reflected on her own security as contrasted with the lives of the Iraqis Charles talked about who offered him tea and never mentioned weapons of mass destruction or political coups. Instead they spoke of losing their families and their peace of mind because of the war. "He got to know many of the local Iraqis fairly well. One of them said: 'If we came to your country, started breaking doors in, creating havoc, what would you do?' That solidified my distress about the war being a bad idea."
This month, a poll by NBC News/Wall Street Journal found that 52 percent of Americans disapprove of the way Bush's government is handling the situation in Iraq; 53 percent say the goal of "victory" is no longer possible. The nearly 4,000 American casualties (according to the Iraq Coalition Casualty Count) since the war began, daily reports of suicide bombings, civil strife and chaos appear to be speaking louder than the promise of democracy in Iraq.
For the thousands of GI's who have returned home from Iraq injured, another battle awaits them -- having to prove they have a right to compensation for the damage done while they were serving their country. "Charles is now going through the Medical Evaluation Board (MEB) which in and of itself seems to be an unfair process. Once they finally complete the report -- a hodgepodge of mini-reports outlining surgeries, assessments, and psychological visits -- the MEB then gives the soldier three business days to complete a rebuttal of the information. As you can imagine, for a 25 year-old soldier not familiar with bureaucratic protocols, this usually cannot be accomplished, or the rebuttal is completed very poorly, and they get shafted on their disability percentage pay."
"Charles received his report last week; we completed the rebuttal on Tuesday, gave it to his lawyers, they tweaked it, and then turned it in on Wednesday. The report was glaring. It insinuated that the injuries Charles incurred during his tour when he decided to go back into theatre with his comrades [after his first tour], did not count in some way, and many were not mentioned or downplayed because of his dedication to his team."
Putting the war behind them and getting back to normalcy has been the biggest priority for Pam and her husband. Pam insisted that Charles not stay on the adjacent Washington D.C. campus of Walter Reed Army Hospital but do outpatient treatment instead. "I'm lucky enough to have a job with a lot of sick leave," Pam says. "My boss knew that my husband had been in Iraq. Having Charles at home, with the support I give him, was [and is] an important part of his healing. Plus, he was gradually returning to normal parts of civilian life -- like cutting the grass or taking out the trash. He eventually wants to go back to work, get his MBA."
Charles has seen many colleagues survive the Iraq war, only to take their own lives at Walter Reed. "A couple months ago he was becoming friends with someone who killed himself," recalls Pam. "A lot of people aren't getting their psychological care. People are getting a whole lot of medications, but their problems aren't being addressed."
"The government -- the VA and others -- is bureaucratic. Their infrastructure could not initially support all of the injured soldiers returning home; no one could have foreseen that the numbers would be so high -- particularly no government entity."
"I see a lot of people struggling with a lot of stuff. Women can't deal with the injuries (of their partners) or the men come back and start acting strangely, cheating on their wives. An acquaintance of mine said she was going to leave her husband (due to his infidelity), even though they have three kids."
Pam and Charles have tried to see the experience as a wake up call -- a chance to understand the relativity of life's challenges. "His tolerance for bullshit shrunk tremendously. Many of his friends were cut out of his life because they were still dealing with the trivial, trite stuff that they were dealing with when he left."
"During his tour, I had friends and family to keep me from going crazy, and I spent a lot of my time reading and going to a holistic health counselor/nutritionist, who I am now good friends with. I'm in such a different place now than where I was a few years ago. Being so close to death makes you think about stuff," says Pam. "It puts life into perspective."