By Samantha L. QuigleyNovember 7, 2007
ST. JOHN, U.S. Virgin Islands (AFPS, Nov. 8, 2007) - The calls family members receive about a servicemember's injury come out of the blue at all hours of the day and night, and they all have the same general effect.
They all mean lives will change.
Willow Fesmire was visiting her parents one Sunday while her husband, former Marine Sgt. Chris Fesmire, was serving in Iraq when her cell phone rang. It was the Marine Corps.
"I was running upstairs to try and get better reception," Mrs. Fesmire, who now live in Netherlands, Colo., said. "The good thing about that call was (that the caller) was clear to me that, no matter what, they were going to get me to Chris as soon as possible.
"That was the best thing they could've said, because that's all I wanted," she added.
During the course of the conversation, Mrs. Fesmire was told her husband had lost one leg. In reality, he had actually lost both legs above the knee when the Humvee he was riding in hit a double-stacked anti-tank mine in Qaim on Oct. 10, 2004.
Mrs. Fesmire arrived at the National Naval Medical Center, in Bethesda, Md., about 12 hours after her husband.
"I walked in and looked at him, and he looked bad," she said. "He's like, 'Oh, there's my baby doll.'
"I'm like, 'OK. It's Chris. Alright, we can deal with it,'" she said. "I was just happy that he was still alive, honestly. He didn't have a brain injury. It was just little things."
And that's what spouses whose loved ones are injured in combat do: They step up and deal with it.
The Fesmires and several other couples were here as part of a canoe trip for wounded veterans and their spouses sponsored by the nonprofit group Team River Runner. The group is a supporter of the Defense Department's America Supports You program, which connects citizens and corporations with military personnel and their families serving at home and abroad.
The wives on the trip said spouses of wounded servicemembers learn to stay positive and how to deal with the depression that sometimes grips their loved one. They become sounding boards and de facto nurses.
"You grow up real fast," said Amber Jones, whose husband, former Marine Staff Sgt. John Jones, lost both legs below the knee when the vehicle he was riding in hit a double-stacked anti-tank mine near Qaim on Jan. 3, 2005.
John also was sent to the National Naval Medical Center, where he recovered for about two months before being transferred to Brooke Army Medical Center, at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. Five days prior to the transfer, the couple, who had been engaged at the time of John's injury, was married in the chapel at the National Naval Medical Center.
Not much of the last couple of years has been easy, Mrs. Jones said.
"When we were living in the hospitals, I can't think of anything that I've ever had to deal with harder than that," she said. "Watching someone that you love go through pain and trying to accept that they'll never have their feet again and doing the best that they can to explain to their children that they may not be able to run with them ever again. Those types of things are easier said than done."
Though John is now very mobile on two prosthetic legs, which his 6-year-old son describes to his friends as "robot legs," the challenges continue. He now suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, which wasn't the case initially.
"John and I have been through more in three years of marriage than most couples go through in 50 years of marriage," Mrs. Jones said, adding that the events of the past couple of years have changed both she and John. "Of course it took a toll. I had to learn to love the new person. He had to learn to love me.
"We've had a lot of ups and downs, (but) we know it's all temporary, and time heals everything," she said.
That's a lesson Susanne Rooney is still learning. Her husband, Army Sgt. Peter Rooney, is still recovering as an outpatient at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, in Washington. He lost both legs above the knee when the vehicle he was riding in hit a roadside bomb April 16 in Ramadi, Iraq.
Peter arrived at Walter Reed about eight days after his injury. For three weeks, Mrs. Rooney lived in the hospital room with him.
"I was getting up at 6 o'clock in the morning because doctors came in (and) nurses came in," Mrs. Rooney, a native of Germany, said. "Then all day long, I was running around doing something like trying to make him eat.
"Sometimes I barely had anything to eat myself," she added.
But Peter was making a speedy recovery. He was out of the hospital in only 22 days and doing really well on his prostheses when the bones in his legs began to spontaneously grow. "You can never see what's coming up," Mrs. Rooney said.
Doctors explained this can happen when bone is amputated traumatically, like in a blast. This has kept the Rooneys, who have only been married 11 months, living in Mologne House, Walter Reed's dorm-style hotel for outpatients and their families.
She said she's found a big support system for those needing a shoulder to lean on. "We met a chaplain at the hospital who ... always offered to help us if we needed something," she said mentioning that there are numerous groups willing to help spouses and wounded servicemembers should they need the support.
Some spouses are just learning about challenges servicemembers and their spouses face post recovery, however.
Danielle Pannell and her husband, Kevin, a former Soldier from Arkansas, met two years after his injury and got married on June 20. Kevin was on a foot patrol in Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood on June 13, 2004, when an insurgent's hand grenade exploded between his feet. The result was an eight-day medically induced coma and the loss of both legs, one above and one below the knee.
Though he was healed and walking on prostheses when he and Danielle met, it didn't mean her challenges were any less than a spouse who is there at the beginning of the process. "I took me about two weeks before I could see him without his legs on because it was just different," she said. "It wasn't that it was gross or anything. It was just ... it's not something you see every day.
"I got over it, and once I got over it, it was fine," she added.
But that still leaves the day-to-day challenges.
Kevin suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, and Mrs. Pannell said she's had to learn how to handle her husband when it hits.
"When we first started dating, I pushed him and that's where we'd have our problems," she said. "It's mainly been me learning how to deal with it and learning not to pressure him to talk about the war. And when he gets ... quiet, I don't ask him what's wrong. I let him do his thing, and I don't push him."
His thing, she said, is to play a video game and put himself "somewhere else, and then he gets over it."
The couple also faces the quirks of daily life.
In the past when Kevin fell, Mrs. Pannell would rush to help him up until he told her not to baby him. Now, to some onlookers' dismay, if he falls, she tells him to get up.
"Some people are like, 'Oh my gosh!'" she said. "(But) he wants to do it on his own."
She's also discovered that things don't always move as quickly as she was used to before meeting Kevin.
"When we get up to go in the morning, he can't just get up and go," Mrs. Pannell said. "He's got to put his legs on, and some mornings he doesn't want to put them on.
"For the most part, it's really taught me to be patient and slow down and enjoy life because I'm a real fast-paced person," she said. "I've learned ... that just because people have a disability, it does not mean they are different from you."
The injury has, in her opinion, changed Kevin for the better, as well, she said.
"I think that had I known him before, I wouldn't have liked him," Mrs. Pannell said. "The way he told me he was, he was a completely different person. His views on things were different."
That is the consistent theme in the lives of the four wives who recently met on an adaptive kayaking trip to the island: Things are different but strength and perseverance have and will carry them through.
(Samantha L. Quigley works for American Forces Press Service)