Mother and son face the future like heroes
December 9, 2008
Sharon Teich finished her coffee and prepared to wake her three grandchildren. She was 1,700 miles from her Providence home, beginning another day of caring for her soldier son outside San Antonio, Texas. It was the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. She had been there two weeks and would be there 14 more. That's how long his recovery will take after this, his 22nd operation. She hopes it will save Bernie's left leg. They weren't able to save his right one.
Normally, she would have gotten up at 4 a.m. to screen resumes for the Warwick office-staffing agency she runs with her second husband, but Sharon, 54, felt she would need some extra sleep. It would be a long day, with Bernie coming home from the orthopedic floor of the Brooke Army Medical Center.
She threw in some laundry and laid out clothes for the children. Nolan is 8, Shelby 5 and Kenna 2. Sharon had made countless trips to Texas in months since Bernie, 31, was flown there from Iraq after the roadside bomb explosion. She was especially needed now because of his impending divorce. His wife of 11 years, an Army medic, filed last August. It came as a surprise. The two are now alternating custody week-to-week while they wait for a court to make final decisions.
Soon, the kids were downstairs having scrambled eggs. Sharon glanced toward Bernie's empty bedroom which, by necessity, is on the first floor. Operation Homefront constructed a wheelchair shower so he would not have to put on his artificial leg when he woke up. Outside, a ramp was about to be finished. He'll be in the wheelchair for four months and may need it longer if the pain gets bad again. He lost the back of his left knee in the blast, and the ankle has been a chronic problem. The leg has poor circulation because of vascular damage, which often causes swelling.
Sharon was out the door at 7:15, getting the older kids to school, then driving 15 minutes to Fort Sam Houston. The military decal on her son's Nissan minivan made it easy to get through security. Bernie is still active duty Army, a staff sergeant in the Warrior Transition Battalion. After 12 years of service, first with the Marines, then two tours with the Army, he is on track to be med-boarded out on disability.
Soon, after dropping the baby at day care, Sharon was on 4-West at the hospital. They had finished Bernie's surgery four days before, scraping away the scarring and arthritic build-up, then fusing the ankle. It had been a hard decision. He knew it meant losing flexibility, and months in a chair, but the pain of bone rubbing on bone had become too difficult. If Bernie can hang onto the leg, they hope eventually to put in an artificial ankle.
Sharon found him halfway through the check-out procedure with a case manager. There were three other soldiers in the room. She had seen many such roommates during her visits to 4-West, almost all having lost limbs. She remembered one of the first, a boy from Texas who had both legs severed above the knee by a rocket-propelled grenade; and Adrian, of Mexican descent, who had lost both at the hip from a bomb. By now Sharon had become the veteran parent, telling the new ones where to catch the shuttle to get supplies at the PX, and how to apply to live in a Fisher House, the military equivalent of a Ronald McDonald house.
As Bernie said his goodbyes, Sharon borrowed a second wheelchair to get his things to the van, filling it with clothes, medications, a laptop, and his prosthetic leg.
Their first stop was "The Company" -- headquarters for Transition soldiers. There was a lot of paperwork requiring Bernie to report in. The Army, Sharon learned, was fiercely concerned about everything from medication problems to post-traumatic stress issues. Bernie would chide his mom - his "non-medical attendant" -- if she was even 15 minutes late on call-in times.
Back in the parking lot, Bernie ran into a fellow-soldier named Toby with whom he'd served during his first Iraq tour. Toby was now an occupational therapist on the base. As the two began to chat, others Bernie knew came by and checked out the big cast on his leg.
"What the - happened to you'" asked one in standard soldier's parlance.
"Oh," ribbed another, "you need your mother to push you around now'"
They had to make one more stop to sign for a new Army-supplied truck with special hand-controls because he can no longer use his remaining foot to drive. Sharon was glad to see it was on track. If it hadn't been, she might have made calls to higher-ups. Soldiers, she knew, have to work up the chain of command, but mothers don't.
They decided to go back to the hospital cafeteria for lunch, knowing it had quick service and was easy for wheelchairs. Bernie ordered a "Texas burger" which got Sharon thinking how far she was from home. Texas wasn't Rhode Island. Everything, she'd found, was big there, the trucks, the highways, even the burgers. Bernie, she thought, was a long way from Providence Hebrew Day School, and the Jewish Community Center, where he'd learned to play basketball, once his favorite sport.
She remembered the day in 1996 he joined up. He was 19 and not long out of high school. She remembered him leaving in January of 2004 for his first 14-month tour in Iraq, and going back for a second in October, 2006. Sharon did not think that in her 50s, she'd be caring for a handicapped son, but as she often put it, she had not one ounce of regret. The Marines, the Army, the injury -- it had all made Bernie a better person.
Her son had no regrets either. None of them seemed to. Back home, Sharon would hear friends complain about a clothing order taking too long, while at Fort Sam Houston, men with no legs talked about their bright futures. Sharon had never heard a wounded soldier second-guess their service. It helped, she felt, that they were treated so well in the San Antonio community. Even at crowded restaurants, Bernie was always seated right away. Although he seldom wore a uniform, he has a military haircut, and a prosthetic leg, so people know. Most are careful not to stare or make him feel different, though children, Sharon observed, often ask.
A week before, he'd picked her up at San Antonio International, and they'd gone right to Cappy's, a restaurant in Alamo Heights. Bernie was wearing shorts. A little boy about 7 asked what happened. Bernie looked to the boy's grandmother for permission to explain. She nodded.
"I was in Iraq fighting for my country and I got hit by a bomb," he said.
He did not go into detail about having just told his men to get inside the Bradley Fighting Vehicle with hatches closed because they were going through Baghdad's Dora market, where insurgents were known to toss bombs; or how he was crouched inside at the lowest spot, and therefore nearest the explosion.
"Did it make a lot of noise'" the boy asked.
Yes, it did.
Bernie left it at that, not mentioning how he was blown against and halfway through the metal hatch, his legs so trapped in twisted metal that the medic, the smallest member of the team, had to crawl inside the wreck with cutting tools to free him while snipers kept shooting.
The little boy asked if there had been a fire.
"Yes," said Bernie, "there was a fire." He did not say that it had been put out by the Bradley's emergency system, and left a chemical smell so intense his mother later had trouble cleaning it from his personal effects.
That was all the boy wanted to know -- children often ask just those two questions, so Bernie didn't have to explain how they had to do wash-out surgeries to cleanse his wounds of dirt, oil and fuel, and how he almost died the next day when he began to bleed through a torn artery. He did not mention how Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, had given him a bedside Purple Heart before he got transferred to Landstuhl, Germany, and then to Texas, where he lost his right leg. He did not mention the hearing issues he still has from the concussion.
After the cafeteria, they picked up Kenna from day care and soon, had pulled back up to Bernie's house. Sharon took the chair out of the van, reattached the wheels and brought it to the passenger side, bracing it with her body so it wouldn't move as Bernie lowered himself into it. She wheeled him inside and helped him into his first floor bed. Then she was back to errands -- school pick-up, tutoring and groceries.
Sharon was glad she could be here, and that her ex-husband, Bernie's dad, would in time fly in from Florida to spell her for a week. She was confident Bernie would not get depressed during his recuperation, being upbeat by nature and focused on parenting, but she remembered a bad phase at the end of his first three months after the bomb. Just when he thought he would go home, a setback kept him in the hospital for weeks more. As it dragged on, he would break down from time to time. When he did, Sharon would sit on the bed next to him.
He would ask if he would ever get out of there. He would ask if he would ever walk again. Sometimes, he'd let her hold his hand, and sometimes he would not. Then he'd wipe at his eyes and he'd be all right.
She was relieved to see Bernie had a good appetite at dinner. Afterwards, he helped the kids with homework while she cleaned up. Then, from his wheelchair, he gave the older two a bath, and dressed them in pajamas, which Sharon had laid out in his downstairs room.
Once they were to bed at 8:30, it was her turn to be the helping parent, wrapping Bernie's new cast in plastic so he could take a shower.
At last, 18 hours after she'd started her day, she went upstairs to the guest bedroom, telling him to call on his cell if he needed anything.
As Sharon Teich lay there on this, Bernie's first post-operative day home -- 12 days ago -- she realized she had three months to go in Texas. As hard as that will be, she told herself it was the smallest of things compared to what her son faced.
She does not know how Bernie has borne up so well. She thinks he is a good soldier, a good father, and a good man. She thinks he is a credit to his country.
He is her hero.