By MaryTherese Griffin
ARLINGTON, Va. — It’s a phone call Jana Hightower will never forget.
In August 2008, her husband, Army Master Sgt. Brett Hightower, was injured by an explosion from an improvised explosive device (IED) while serving in Afghanistan. He had severe trauma to his face and head from his vertebral and carotid arteries being impacted by shrapnel from the blast.
Hightower received lifesaving surgery while in Afghanistan and was immediately flown to Landstuhl, Germany, where he received care. His wife moved heaven and earth to be by his side.
After several days in sedation, Hightower started regaining consciousness on a military transport plane to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center back in the United States.
Jana said she always feared three things would happen to her husband: being taken captive, death, and injury. She was thankful that at least what happened wasn’t her worst fear.
“He was injured, but instead of thinking of all the ways this would change our life — and it did — I just kept thinking this is only my third-worst fear. We can deal with this!”
It’s not a typical response to life-changing trauma, but that’s what Jana’s reality was as a military spouse. It was a major life adjustment for her family.
“I looked at my wife sitting in the jump seat of the C-17 and things didn’t add up,” Hightower said. “I thought, where am I and why is my wife on this plane?”
His wife told him repeatedly he was injured in Afghanistan, and he was safe now.
“I knew how fortunate I was to be alive having the traumatic injury I did,” he said. “I never questioned why me? I just knew I had to get stronger and move forward and not look back and that’s what we did as a family.”
He remembers his first thought: “What’s going to happen to my family now?”
Now the real resiliency was at hand. Team Hightower was about to kick into high gear. Jana says they had a plan they hoped they never had to use.
“We had a plan ‘just in case’ with Brett being a police officer in our county and being so well-known I knew it would make the news if something should happen to him,” she said. “So we had a friend designated as our family spokesperson to manage all of that.”
The plan also included their daughters — at the time, 8-year-old Meredith and 6-year-old Emma — going to their grandparents while Jana moved heaven and earth to get to Landstuhl Army Hospital in Germany to be with her husband. That separation from their little girls would last four weeks.
Hightower says being apart from his daughters was the hardest part of recovery.
“The Army Recovery Care Program arranged for my two little girls to come see me, and that was great to finally lay eyes on my children that I hadn’t seen in several months,” he said.
Meredith, who is now 21 and a senior in college, remembers vividly how her world just stopped.
“It was lonely while mom was gone being with dad in Germany and then at Walter Reed in Bethesda,” she said. “I remember being flown with my sister to see my dad in the hospital. He had a whiteboard to communicate because his jaws were wired shut. I was so happy to see him. I did not want to leave my dad. I wanted to stay by his side. It made me sad to have to leave him.”
Once rehab started for Hightower back in Kentucky at the then-Fort Knox Soldier Recovery Unit, they continued to execute the just-in-case plan.
“I relied on my wife to take care of me there for a while: things like driving me everywhere and being that extra set of eyes and ears at doctor’s meetings,” he said. “Jana really paid attention and did her research when it came to my care and the doctors worked with her. She helped me maneuver through the day-to-day of rehab, doctor’s meetings, surgeries and running the household and taking care of our kids.”
They relied on their church family and community to get them through the ordeal. In all the time it took for reconstructive facial surgeries, rehabilitation and getting used to a new normal, Jana says as a military family they realized through their faith that small stuff is just that.
“When your spouse is in a war zone, you’d give anything to have them leave their towel on the floor,” Jana said.
After 13 years, the Hightower family is doing well and in the trenches of a new career. Hightower is in his first term as sheriff of Warren County, Kentucky. “He works hard and long days, but he is home every night and we are so grateful,” Jana said.
The Hightowers have also grown from a family of four to a family of six. After years of fostering two children, 8-year-old Aryah and 9-year-old Malachi have become the youngest siblings in the Hightower household.
“We know how blessed we are,” Hightower said. “God has a plan. Always.”