The most important thing: Family of BRO wounded warrior learns to celebrate the small successes
November 8, 2011
"Ma, I love you."
Pfc. Matt Leyva's words came out in a breathy whisper barely audible above the sounds of the busy intensive care unit at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. Across the room, Rene Sochia's eyes locked on her son and she wondered if she had really heard what she thought she heard.
As Rene moved closer to her son's hospital bed, Matt whispered the same words again and, for a moment, the 1st Infantry Division mom from upstate New York stopped breathing… and then the tears began to fall.
"I started crying like a big baby," Rene said recently as she recounted her son's first words following an explosion in Afghanistan that took both of his legs and four of his fingers. "It seemed like forever since I had heard his voice so when I finally did, even if it was just a little whisper, it sucked the life right out of me."
Rene's life has been full of plenty moments that have 'sucked the life' out of her since her cell phone rang Aug. 9 while she was preparing dinner in her Cicero, New York home.
"It was about 4:10 p.m. when I answered the phone," she said. "The man on the phone asked me if I had talked to Matt that day and then told me that there had been an accident in Afghanistan and Matt was hurt."
The caller was Capt. Ricky Brown, the rear detachment commander for Matt's unit, 2nd Battalion, 34th Armor Regiment, 1st Heavy Brigade Combat Team, 1st Inf. Div. Brown told Rene that Matt had stepped on a pressure-plate improvised explosive device, had lost his right leg below the knee and was being treated in Afghanistan. As soon as she heard her son was so seriously wounded, Rene began crying and handed the phone to her husband, Ed.
"The captain said he would call again as soon as he had more information," Ed recalled.
After the initial conversation with Brown, Ed and Rene received several "update" calls, calls that, after awhile, Matt's parents just didn't want to get.
"Every time someone would call, there would be more injuries," Ed said.
The reports about Matt's condition gradually grew more serious as callers told Rene and Ed that the explosion had actually caused injuries that resulted in the amputation of both Matt's legs and the loss of four of his fingers, two from each hand. Soon, the reports turned very grave and the Army began making arrangements to send Ed, Rene, Matt's sister Ashley, and Matt's wife Raelynn to Germany because they did not think the 21-year-old Soldier was going to make it.
"Once I heard they were going to send us over, I knew it was very bad," Rene said.
'Half my boy'
Rene said she will never forget the moment her eyes locked on her son in the hospital room in Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany.
"I just saw my boy, half my boy, laying there with machines all over," she said. "All I could see was his face… but that was all I needed to see."
Rene said she sat with her son for a little bit and told him that he didn't get to leave her yet, that that was just not how it was going to happen. After awhile, she knew, somehow, that Matt was going to make it.
Ed, a firefighter/paramedic in New York, wasn't so sure though.
"I knew he was bad," he said. "I didn't know if he would be strong enough to overcome all the injuries. I was trying to prepare to be strong for everyone."
Shortly after Matt's family arrived at Landstuhl, doctors were able to stabilize the Soldier enough to transport him to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. The family followed their Soldier to Texas … and, for the most part, has been there ever since.
"The first week in San Antonio was very dicey," Ed recalled. "Matt had a fever all the time and his heart rate was very high and he just wouldn't stop bleeding."
While Ed was very concerned and concentrating on what was going on with Matt medically, Rene remained calm and focused on her son.
"I just sat with him, whispering in his ear and rubbing his head," she said. "It was so hard, I just wanted to take all his pain away and I couldn't."
The medical team at BAMC started bringing Matt out of an induced coma about 10 days after he arrived in San Antonio. Rene said the day her boy finally opened his eyes and she could see that her son was "still there" was an amazing day.
"It was still Matt," Rene said, smiling at the memory.
Road to recovery
Though she admits to "a few" breakdowns, Rene said she maintains a positive attitude during a sometimes "overwhelming" experience because Matt is counting on her to be there for him.
"Seeing his strength makes me feel like I can be strong for him," she said.
Ed said everything in his life has changed since he got the call about Matt's injury.
"Things like this make you rethink your priorities," he said. "Right now, there is nothing more important than getting Matt well -- nothing."
For now, the family is addressing Matt's road to recovery one day at a time, celebrating small successes like the first time the 21-year-old was able to sit up on his own.
"Matt is my hero for what he is doing now," Ed said. "He is so strong and he is not letting anything get him down."
Celebrating things like the first time Matt sat up and his first words remind Rene of her son's first round of "firsts."
"This experience has been a lot like the time when he was a newborn," she said. "The first night I saw him in Germany, all I wanted to do was crawl in bed with him and protect him just like I had when he was small."
Though uncertain of exactly what the future holds for them and their son, Rene and Ed said that for now and for the immediate future, they will remain in San Antonio to support their son's recovery.
"Matt has said that as long as we stick by him he's going to be alright," Rene said. "As long as he needs us, we are going to be right by his side."