Crisis compels wife to help other wounded warriors
December 3, 2008
Fort Campbell, KY -- The two women shared their sorrows on the drawing board. One drew a stick figure with three limbs missing to signify that her son needed multiple amputations after being wounded in Iraq. The mother then drew a broken heart.
The other woman nodded sympathetically. She sketched her own story. Her husband was also recovering from an amputation, the result of a roadside bomb in Iraq.
Five years later, Lilliam Rodriguez still replays this wordless heart-to-heart in her mind. Her husband, now retired Master Sgt. Luis Rodriguez, was undergoing six months of treatment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
Rodriguez, a native Puerto Rican, speaks English and Spanish. The devastated mother she met at the hospital was a Pacific Islander who spoke neither. So the many thoughts and emotions swirling inside them as they watched loved ones heal had to be communicated through pictures and hand gestures.
That simple exchange and others like it set Rodriguez on course to a rewarding career. She is now one of seven social workers with the Fort Campbell Warrior Transition Battalion.
Rodriguez spends her work days between the Carentan Clinic and the Blanchfield Army Community Hospital, evaluating Soldiers assigned to the WTB. She tests for preliminary indicators of depression or post traumatic stress disorder, asks about family relationships and makes referrals to other care providers on post.
Occasionally, she tells her own family's story.
"I just want to let them know there is hope," Rodriguez said.
It was Thanksgiving and Luis' voice sounded strong on the phone.
"The good news is I'm coming home," he said. "The bad news is I lost a leg."
Lilliam hoped it was a joke. Luis passed the phone to his commander who confirmed what happened.
Rodriguez, a combat medic for the 502nd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team was traveling in a convoy taking medical equipment to an orphanage in northern Iraq. His Humvee hit a roadside bomb. The blast knocked him out. As he came to, Rodriguez checked himself. He was swallowing blood, his heart rate was dropping and his right leg was severely damaged.
Rodriguez could not be evacuated immediately because the convoy was ambushed after the explosion. He could hear the gun battle raging in the background.
Rodriguez sensed his body was shutting down. He wondered whether he would make it out alive.
Though nonreligious, the Soldier began to pray.
"God, I want to see my wife and two girls again," Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez said he suddenly felt like he was returning to life. A tourniquet was applied to his leg and he was eventually saved at the hospital.
It wasn't until two weeks later that Lilliam was reunited with her husband at Walter Reed. She had prepared for the worst and was relieved to be able to recognize the man she loved.
Luis's right leg was amputated above the knee, his left leg had severe shrapnel wounds and two fingertips were gone. It would take 16 surgeries to patch him up.
Lilliam remained at her husband's bedside for the many tough moments. But she noticed that not every amputee in the ward had the same blessing. Some Soldiers were single. Others were married but their spouses had to work and couldn't make long visits.
So Lilliam felt compassion for Soldiers who spent time alone wondering whether or not life was over.
She fetched wheelchairs, ran errands and tried other ways to be helpful. Most times, she discovered that the Soldiers wanted to chat.
"Just talking to a Soldier made his day," Rodriguez said.
Eventually, Luis recovered enough for the family to return to Clarksville. He was fitted with a prosthetic leg and even returned to duty as head of the Rascon School of Combat Medicine at Fort Campbell.
But Lilliam was still troubled by memories of lonely wounded Soldiers and their families. She decided to enroll in the social work program at Austin Peay State University. She was intimidated by college-level English and computer proficiency required by the program but persevered.
Last summer, Lilliam graduated with master's degree in social work from University of Tennessee at Knoxville. She did her internship at Fort Campbell's Fisher House.
Now Rodriguez handles the cases for about 100 WTB Soldiers.
Her supervisor Joy Bell said it's important for Soldiers and their families to be evaluated by a social worker immediately after assignment to WTB, even if they are still inpatients.
"We're the first point of contact for crisis, behavioral health and relational health," Bell said.
The 40-minute assessment can clue social workers into a Soldier's needs. Based on that, the Soldier can get recommended for services.
If a Soldier shows signs of depression or PTSD, they can be referred to a psychologist. If a marriage is struggling, the social worker can refer them for marital counseling. Problems with children can be remedied with parenting classes.
"That's the beauty of the WTB concept," Bell said. "All these services are available right away."
Rodriguez said her primary goals are to help Soldiers realize their needs and take necessary the steps to accomplish their mission to heal.