The War Comes Home: Covering the Plight of the Badly Wounded

By: Dennis Anderson A week ago a Lancaster mother -- one of the soldier-mothers in my hometown in Southern California -- left to tend to her wounded son at Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. How much the world has changed for Stacie Tscherny in the span of that one week.

Days earlier, she learned that her son, Army Spc. Jerral Steele Hancock, was seriously wounded in the fighting around Baghdad.

It was Memorial Day. It was his 21st birthday. This birthday, this crossing of the bridge into formal adulthood with the privilege to drink a legal beer would herald the last time Spc. Hancock would have two arms. And it would be the last time he would take a normal step or experience physical comfort or ease.

Serving as a tanker with the 1st Squadron, 8th Cavalry, Spc. Hancock was catastrophically wounded in an explosion that hit his armored vehicle. The vast majority of traumatic injuries inflicted in the Iraq war are not from gunfire, but from explosives.

In January the military marked the 500th American surviving with wounds that involved amputation.

In the past six months to a year, increasingly, a powerful new kind of explosive is inflicting more damage and more grievous injury. The evolution has been an evolution from the Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) to increasing use of the Explosively Formed Penetrators (EPFs).

?They can take out a Stryker, a Bradley, even an Abrams tank,? said Sgt. Travis Strong of Palmdale in a recent interview with me at his home at Balboa Naval Medical Center in San Diego. Strong was wounded severely enough both legs were amputated above the knee from the EPF explosion that destroyed his Stryker armored infantry carrier last year.

Sgt. Strong is another hometown soldier from the coverage area of the paper I edit, the Antelope Valley Press, a resident of Palmdale, a community of 130,000 on the edge of the Mojave Desert an hours drive from Ft. Irwin, the Army National Training Center.

In the past year or so when soldiers from our communities sustain traumatic injuries, as the newspaper's editor -- and as a "Blue Star Father" of a serving Marine -- I usually get the informal notification call from Blue Star Mothers, a support group for parents of serving military.

Sgt. John E. Allen of Palmdale was killed on St. Patrick's Day. It has been axiomatic that death and traumatic injury take no holidays.

Customarily, in coverage of the traumatic injury of local troops, it's been my practice as a journalist with contacts in the military extended family network community to also be ready to move forward, or, if the family needs their zone of privacy borne from anguish, to back off.

People who have been badly hurt may want to tell their story. They usually do not want to tell it when every nerve ending in their battered body is in agony. But for the most part, they have been willing to share accounts of their extraordinary ordeal. It may take weeks or months to get ready to share that story, but the story is always compelling, always worth telling.

These wounded soldiers and Marines, these troops hurt in this continuing war that is fought by ambush with devastating explosives are the heralds that tell us what the cost of this war ultimately will be.

They also are the "canaries in the coal mine," in that their care and their needs require all the scrutiny that an activist press can provide. God knows most of our profession was not diligent enough, probing enough, or demanding truth from power enough in the run-up to war. See Thomas Ricks in "Fiasco."

Absent a devastating attack on the American homeland, it is to be hoped national media will engage in greater diligence before another foreign war gets a push from the White House and a pass from Congress, and the American people.

The lessons of military and congressional blind-spotting on Walter Reed Army Medical Center are all too fresh at the moment.

Accounts of care at the urgent-immediate post combat injury stage are that the care is first-rate. But the strains and burdens that families of the wounded will undergo are urgent also. And those needs need to be reported, by national media, by local media -- by anyone with the means to see and the megaphone of communication to use.

In one case recently our newspaper covered the story of a National Guard soldier whose military insurance was canceled before final surgery to remove steel rods emplaced to repair his mangled legs, which were fractured in an IED blast that destroyed his Humvee.

It only was after news of the incident surfaced that the military and its insurance overseer effected a quick about-face and remedied the situation. This has got to be the first war waged by Americans where after-care for troops is handled through health maintenance organizations and insurance.

?You cannot believe what these young guys have gone through,? Stacie Tscherny, the mother of trooper Hancock, said. ?Arms, legs, burns. They?ve lost eyes, they have burns to their faces.?

And she related that our country's wounded are unbelievably strong-willed and strong-minded, the young men in the beds at Brooke, the catastrophically wounded from this war.

On departure for Texas last week, Tscherny was relieved that her employers extended her two weeks on short notice to go be with her son. Now she has been there a week. He has lost much. An arm to amputation. Skin to burn injuries. Other injuries that may impact mobility. Too
soon to tell. For trooper Hancock, life will never take a more serious or devastating course short of mortality.

?We communicate by blinking,? his mother told me. ?His first sergeant was home on leave, and he came in to see him, and he was happy about that.?

The military is putting up Hancock?s mother in apartment-style housing on the medical campus. Suddenly, two weeks does not seem like enough time to tend to the needs of her son.

?We asked -- I asked -- does he want his mother to stay there with him, and he blinked ?Yes.??

Spc. Jerral Steele Hancock -- 21 years old -- is heavily medicated for pain. But severe pain is unavoidable with the fragility of his wounded body because too much pain medication impacts blood pressure, circulation and the heart.

?I think he understands what happened now with his arm,? the amputation, she said. ?He cried tears, and I said ?Don?t worry, honey. There?s lots of these young men who are coming back.?

Lots of these young men are coming back. And how we, as a nation, treat them, and how we as a nation honor them, and how we -- as a nation -- see to their effective care and rehabilitation will define the kind of nation that we are, in war or peace.

Spc. Hancock?s mother recounted in a telephone interview from Brooke, ?I think how is it that he survived moves through two hospitals in Iraq, then on to Germany, then here to Texas, and I wonder with these young men how they maintain the spirit to not just die.?

She does not want to leave her son?s bedside. She does not want to leave the side of the son who communicates with her by blinking ?yes? or ?no? for understanding his needs, his feelings, his responses to questions.

While in support of her son at the trauma center, the U.S. military provides a ?per diem? stipend for immediate family, a stipend that amounts to $1,600 a month -- or, about $400 a week.

On leaving Lancaster where she resided for about a year, Tscherny had a new job that she commuted to in the San Fernando Valley. Her expenses are about average, which is to say that the $1,600 covers a little less than half the ordinary living expenses.

There is her home and its payments. Her son, and his young wife (who also is a mother) also has a house.

How to do it? What to do?

?I am going to try and do anything I can to be with my son while he needs me,? his mother said.

She said she has had conversations with great young soldiers, remarkable people. She said she has formed a friendship with a young G.I. who lost his eye, and part of his face, and who knows the ground of recovery.

Is there any way you can imagine that Spc. Hancock will not need his mother, and anyone close to him, for all time to come?

Is there any way you can imagine that handling of the treatment, and support for immediate family in such circumstance should fall short of actual need?

If we can approve $100 billion to run this war in its fifth year, it is hard to conceive that we do not have the money it takes to tend to the needs of immediate family of our military's most injured and vulnerable souls.


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