Homecoming: Community, attitude help crash victim
August 25, 2011
FORT JACKSON, S.C. -- A sign above the foyer doorway greets visitors to Julia Rodes' new on-post home with the words, 'Every day holds the possibility of a miracle.' For Rodes, those possibilities have been realized in many ways since a near-fatal motorcycle accident left her paralyzed and brought out the best in the Fort Jackson community.
Julia and her husband, 2nd Lt. Jared Rodes, who is assigned to Company C, 3rd Battalion, 13th Infantry Regiment, arrived on Fort Jackson in late February. Jared was coming off a few temporary duty assignments and Julia moved here from Massachusetts, taking a break from her studies at Smith College, where she majored in neuroscience.
Jared had been riding motorcycles for some time, and the couple's new living arrangements made Julia consider becoming a rider, too.
"My husband taught me how to ride (a bike) safely, but I never had an interest in riding on my own or buying a bike," Julia said. "When we got here, though, we only had two vehicles, so Jared was taking the bike in every day, even in the rain."
Julia decided to take an off-post motorcycle course, so she and her husband could alternate between the car and the bike. After two days of theory training, her first day on the bike was April 30. Julia has no memory of what happened that day, but was able to reconstruct the events based on eyewitness accounts.
"The (rider) next to me had gotten so close that when we went down for the curve, because he was leaning so far, I went down even farther and almost touched my knee to the ground," she said. "In trying to brake and move, I opened the throttle ... and it was too late to see the curb in front of me. We were very close to (a) building. I hit the curb, which flew me up to the wall to hit the building and the bike came up and pinned me."
At the time, Jared was inside the building and did not witness the accident, but soon saw a commotion surrounding the motorcycle safety class.
"I took a hint and went outside. I was looking to see what was going on in the rider course and I saw a group huddled over somebody in the corner next to the building," he said. "I was looking for Julia to see where she was and couldn't find her. And then I realized they were standing around her."
Julia was rushed to the trauma center at Palmetto Health Richland hospital, and the extent of her injuries became apparent very soon.
"What had happened to her spine was that when the bike hit her, ... one of the vertebrae down and low on her back had shifted," Jared said. "A couple of others had been fractured."
In addition to the spinal cord injury, Julia also suffered two brain injuries -- a fissure and a hematoma -- her nasal passages were smashed and her left hand and collar bone were broken.
She was listed in critical condition and underwent the first of a number of surgeries the following morning, during which doctors inserted two rods down the spinal column and eight screws to the spine.
Julia was listed in critical condition for four days before stabilizing. She did not have any feeling in her legs and the long-term prognosis was uncertain.
"(The doctors) didn't know if I was going to be a quadriplegic or paraplegic," Julia said.
A NEW HOME
After the initial concern about Julia's survival had somewhat settled, it quickly became apparent that her injuries would force changes to the way the couple had been living. The Rodes were living in a small second-story apartment off-post, which was not accessible to people with mobility disabilities.
At the suggestion of Lt. Col. Benjamin Higginbotham, his battalion commander at the time, Jared decided to apply for on-post housing that would be compliant with the Uniform Federal Accessibility Standard.
When Emma Watson, housing division chief, received notification that a UFAS home was needed for a wife injured in a motorcycle accident, the story sounded eerily familiar to her.
"Once I started reading all the email traffic, I thought, 'You know what? (Some friends and I) were there at the time of the accident," Watson said.
Watson, who has been riding motorcycles for about two years, is a member of the Columbia chapter of the Buffalo Soldiers Motorcycle Club. The group had been at the location of the accident that day as part of a charity ride. Some of the club members saw what happened; one of them, a nurse, had rendered first aid.
Watson's office started the process of gathering and submitting the necessary paperwork and identifying a single-story home that would meet the Rodes' needs.
In the meantime, a group of Julia's friends decided also to take steps to help the couple.
Meridee Bowlus, an 18-year Army spouse whose husband is a chaplain, met Julia during a church event, right after she and Jared had arrived in Columbia.
"In that first meeting, there was just a neat connection," Bowlus said. "As a new military wife, I thought she would enjoy meeting other ladies and getting that fellowship, that community feel."
Bowlus invited Julia to attend a Protestant Women of the Chapel meeting, and Julia was quickly integrated into the group.
"When you meet Julia, she walks into a room and brings such sunshine," Bowlus said. "People are drawn to her. It was very quick for everyone, really, in our group to fall in love with Julia. It was a special and quick connection."
Aware of the magnitude of Julia's injuries, Bowlus and the other women of the group quickly sprung into action when they found out that the Rodes were going to be moving into a new home.
"We wanted it to be home for them," Bowlus said. "We wanted it to be accessible in every way and feel special and welcoming and honoring for all of the work that she had been putting in to be able to come home as well as she did."
The women, one of whom is an interior designer, developed ideas on how to set up furniture and accessories from the old home, and on which new items would be needed to fill out the house. They also set up a registry with a retailer, which allowed friends the opportunity to contribute by buying items for the couple.
While plans were under way for Julia's future at home, she and Jared were busy dealing with her medical issues. She was released from the hospital here May 25 and continued treatment at the Shepherd Center, a hospital in Atlanta that specializes in spinal cord and brain injuries.
With the support of his command, Jared was allowed to remain with his wife for the duration of her on-site rehabilitation.
"Initially that day (of the accident), I told (my commanders), 'We're in the hospital. It's serious.' The next morning, they all showed up for the surgery and to wait with me in the waiting room," Jared said.
"My brigade commander was there that day, so this is Day One after the accident. He heard everything the doctor said after the surgery and pretty much said, 'Your place of duty is with her.'"
Col. Drew Meyerowich, commander of the 193rd Infantry Brigade, signed temporary duty orders, allowing Jared to stay at his wife's side throughout her rehabilitation.
"Her care required his assistance as well. I would do that for any Soldier, regardless of rank. This was really important for him and her," Meyerowich said. "We had no choice, in my eyes, but to do what was right for this family. And in doing so, we're taking care of our own, too. I think that sends a message that's pretty important."
Julia said she has no clear memory of the first month after the accident, and it was only after her transfer to Atlanta that she realized what had happened to her.
"When I woke up (at the hospital in Columbia) it felt like I woke up into some dream, like this wasn't reality, this was just sort of a weird game that we're playing," she said. "It wasn't until the first week at Shepherd ... that I realized I was in a motorcycle accident and I am now paralyzed."
With that realization began not only the physical, but also the emotional recovery from the accident.
"I would be in therapy from the morning until 4 p.m. And then, ... between 4 and 7 p.m., would be kind of my silent time. I would just fall. That would be when I would be angry and frustrated and cry," Julia said. "I didn't want to go out of the hospital. I didn't want to go in the real world, where I would have to try to maneuver my way around in a wheelchair."
Julia said she knew, though, that she could not be stuck in that phase.
"You have to grieve your old life and your old body. And as part of grieving there's anger," she said. "One of the things that I had to learn for myself -- and we had to kind of learn together -- was that we had to make peace with me being in a wheelchair before I can be OK with anything else."
Bowlus said that during a three-day visit to Atlanta in early July, she saw firsthand how committed Julia was in her recovery.
"I was floored at how hard she worked every day. She gave everything and never quit," Bowlus said. "She's had highs. She's had lows. But she has a wonderful spirit of determination and positive thinking and trust in God through it all. And that has been a huge example for each of us."
While Julia and Jared remained in Atlanta for her rehabilitation, plans on Fort Jackson were set in motion for the couple's homecoming.
After the Rodes' household goods were moved to their new on-post home, their friends started putting things into place -- from setting up furniture to unpacking boxes to decorating in accordance with Julia's and Jared's input.
"When I went to look at the house, I saw flowers hanging on the porch. And I said, 'Is this the right house?' I knew (Julia) had never been to the house," Watson said. "And I saw the curtains were hung and things were put on the wall. Those are touches that you have to care to do it ... People went above and beyond."
Watson's motorcycle club was also planning for the couple's return.
Members of the club had visited Julia in Atlanta in early July and wanted to remain involved. So, the riders decided to escort her home.
On Aug. 13, Julia and Jared drove up to their new home on Mills Road, surrounded by about 40 motorcycles. The riders had met the couple in Augusta, Ga., where they had spent the night. The group included members of the Buffalo Soldiers, riders who were in Julia's motorcycle safety class and had witnessed the accident, as well as Meyerowich and his wife, Susan.
The Rodes were greeted at their new home by the friends who had helped get the house ready, by family readiness group representatives, employees with Army Community Services, some of Jared's co-workers, some of Julia's friends from her native Indiana, as well as new neighbors.
Julia said she was overwhelmed by the community's support.
"We're brand new to the Army. We're Army babies. I knew that the Army was a supportive community, but I had no idea to this extent -- from the temporary duty orders to getting us a house to what the PWOC ladies did," Julia said. "I didn't know people did this for each other. Growing up, I never saw it. I just can't believe it. This is how the Army runs. We're lucky. We're really lucky to be in the Army."
The big surprise of the day, however, was not delivered by the people who greeted Julia, but by Julia herself. Unbeknownst to anyone who was there, she got out of the car and managed to walk a few steps with the help of crutches.
Watson, who was one of the riders in the escort, said she was amazed to see her walking.
"To see her at this point right now so soon is nothing but sheer determination on her part," Watson said.
Julia said that as of now, she has not regained sensation in her lower legs, but that her upper leg and hip muscles are working, which allows her to walk for short periods of time with assistance. Whether she will ever be able to walk again without help remains unclear.
"You never stop hoping, but life's bigger than how you get around,"she said. "I would rather focus my energies on what I'm doing with my life than how I'm getting around doing it."
After their return home, everyday life quickly resumed for the Rodes.
Jared is back at work with his unit, and Julia started classes with the University of South Carolina, where she is a pre-medical student.
She has also resumed her involvement with the PWOC. Being involved in the Army community remains important to her, she said.
"I never had a good family growing up. My mother passed away when I was 17 and my father emancipated me right after that," she said. "I knew that when I started dating Jared that I wanted to be in the Army community. I knew that that would come with marrying Jared."
Julia said having been through hard times before has helped her keep a positive attitude after the accident.
"(Your attitude) is an absolute choice, depending on how many rodeos you've been through before," she said. "I would sit in class or in therapy with patients who had never, ever had something so hard in their lives. But this wasn't my first rodeo. I already knew that attitude and happiness are choices."
Julia has agreed to share her experiences with other spouses at ACS family resiliency classes and FRG meeting.
On top of that, she has set out to raise awareness about people with disabilities, especially those with a military connection and those who may have a disability that is not visible.
Julia also suffers from post traumatic stress disorder, which predates her accident.
"It's almost easier being in a wheelchair, because now my disability is (visible)," she said. "People get out of the way for me now. People help me now, whereas before, no one could see it. And no one could know that what they just did set me into a panic."
While in Atlanta, Julia found out about the Miss Wheelchair U.S.A. pageant and decided to enter.
"It's a loudspeaker for getting the needs that you want met for your community heard," she said.
Her platform will be "disability and the armed forces."
"I am just as strong an Army wife as anyone who is ambulatory," she said. "It may not appear so, but that's one of the things I want to address."
Jared admitted that it will take time getting used to handling everyday life.
"There are still things that go wrong every day or every other day that, in our world, are huge," he said. "We still have to put a lot of effort into it to figure it out, try to put it into perspective."
Like Julia, though, he keeps a positive outlook.
"I feel like we really did it. We handled a million-dollar accident, literally, and came out stronger on the other side," he said.
Throughout their journey, Julia and Jared have remained strong in their conviction that people, in general, have good intentions and are eager to help.
"That's why we feel confident that we're going to be OK," Julia said.
"People will continue to help us. We're going to be fine. It's up to us how great of a life we want now."