A Wounded Warrior Embraces the New Normal: Part One
Ed. note: This week, warriorcare.mil will feature the story of a catastrophically wounded Service member and his saga of recovery to employed Veteran. In an effort to highlight what our wounded veterans can offer to private and public organizations, we chose to focus on retired Army Master Sergeant, Jeffrey Mittman. His story is one of conviction and the dogged determination necessary to continue with his recovery and his successful transition to civilian and veteran life.
In order to bring his story full circle, we have invited his wife, Christy, and his employers from the DoD’s Defense Finance and Accounting Office (Indianapolis) to give their account of what this journey has meant for them as well. We begin the series with Christy Mittman’s account of her husband’s injuries and how her family’s life was changed forever. Please follow this story at warriorcare.mil.
Before my husband Jeff was injured, I would say that we lived a fairly normal military life. He was in and out of our house a lot, back and forth to schools and various other places that his military duties took him. While he was away, my children and I went about our daily lives and made the best of the situation. It is not to say that we did not miss him, but we dealt with it the best we could. Life does not stop just because your husband is away on duty.
This “normal” life changed on 7 July 2005. Many people may remember this day as the day of the London bombings. Jeff was in Iraq on his fourth combat tour when I received a phone call from the Department of Defense informing me that he had been very seriously injured, had severe facial trauma, and a right-hand injury. The caller could provide no further details and told me that I would be receiving an additional call when they had more information.
When I received this phone call, I was visiting my parents in Indiana with our two daughters who were 8 and 2 years old at the time. I was faced with the task of sitting two small children down and telling them that their father had been injured in a war that they did not understand. So there we sat for the next 12 hours as family gathered around us and awaited further word on Jeff’s condition. Finally, I received a call and was told that my husband was on his way to Germany and I would hear from the doctors after they were able to evaluate him.
It was the next day before I received that call from the doctors. During the call, I was told to write down all of my husband injuries to ensure that I understood their severity. They also told me that my husband would be transferred to Walter Reed Army Medical Center (WRAMC) in Washington DC. Over the next two days, we received updates on Jeff’s condition as I prepared to leave my children with my parents and go to my husband’s bedside at Walter Reed.
I arrived at Walter Reed on the evening of 11 July 2005. As I looked around, I saw amputees, bandages, wheelchairs, and crutches and knew that this was my new “normal.” I headed straight to the surgical intensive care unit (SICU) and was stopped outside of my husband’s room by his nurse. He wanted to make sure that I knew the severity of his injuries and that I was prepared for what I was about to see. Despite being told what to expect, I was shocked when I first walked into Jeff’s room. He lay there in the bed missing his nose and lips, bloodied and bandaged, with a ventilator making a swooshing sound as it forced air into his lungs. For the next three hours the nurse briefed me on every possible detail about my husband’s condition.
For the next month I would arrive at Jeff’s room early in the morning, stay well into the night, and then return to my hotel room. Every day was the same thing—I would sit by his bedside and make sure he was taken care of. I became an expert and changing IVs or bandages.
About a month after Jeff was injured the doctors began to wake him up from his medically induced coma. It was a struggle at first because he would become violent and try to fight whoever was in the room as he was waking up. However, he slowly began to break free and regain consciousness.
You can imagine his confusion once he was awake. He was tied to a hospital bed unable to see, speak, or walk. As he became more coherent, I had to explain to him what had happened. I would start at his feet and work my way up slowly explaining each injury as I would come to it. The problem was that every time Jeff fell back asleep he would forget what had happened and when he would awake, I would have to repeat the process all over again. This went on for two or three days until he was fully conscious. Jeff would spend the first seven weeks after he was injured in the hospital, and the next five and half years enduring approximately 40 operations to reconstruct his nose, lips, teeth, and arm.
Even today it seems so overwhelming. Sometimes I still cry when I recount this story. I think about how my husband’s injuries have changed our lives and the about effect they have had on our children. To this day our youngest daughter has no memory of her father prior to him being injured and the oldest daughter’s memories are fading. His injuries have dominated their childhood. I have often thought that military children begin their lives serving their nation and we know firsthand the sacrifices that they make.
Despite everything that has happened we are lucky. We now lead fairly normal lives. Jeff is working on his second master’s degree and goes to work every day; while I take care of the home and chauffeur him and the children to their daily activities.
Jeff may have been severely injured and lost most of his vision, but he survived. Other families weren’t so lucky.
Major (ret) Arturo R. Murguia is a Special Assistant in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Stay tuned tomorrow for part two where Jeff Mittman talks about his recovery and search for employment.