When young men and women join the armed forces, their families understand the seriousness of “the knock.” When a soldier is killed, the Department of Defense dispatches officers to find the next of kin, knock on their door, and inform them of the loss, face to face. “I used to have a terrible fear of leaving my house,” one military mother explains in Unbreakable Bonds, “that I would not be home when they knocked on my door.” Dava Guerin and Kevin Ferris deal not with “the knock,” but with “the call.”
When a service member is wounded, communications are shut down to make sure the family is notified first, and doesn’t find out about their children’s injuries on social media sites or by any other external means.
This book is about what happens to families after “the call.” Staff Sergeant Stefanie Mason suffered a traumatic brain injury during a Humvee crash in Kabul. At home in Delaware, her mother, Paulette, got the call. The next morning, desperate to know more about her daughter’s condition, Paulette called a friend in the Pentagon. He called a former colleague stationed in Bagram. And within a few hours, that woman called Paulette. “I’m sitting here at Stefanie’s bedside,” she said. “I’m holding her hand. She doesn’t know what’s going on, and she’s in and out of consciousness. But she wants to talk to you.” The next thing Paulette heard was Stefanie, who managed just four words: “Mom, I need you,” she said.
Like many critically wounded soldiers, Stefanie Mason was soon sent to a hospital in Germany, where she was further stabilized. And then, finally, she made it to Walter Reed, now in Maryland, where she and other “lucky” soldiers begin to heal. If things go well, they’re eventually moved to a residential rehabilitation center on the Walter Reed campus called Building 62. But Stefanie did not make this journey alone: Like many wounded warriors, she was accompanied, at every step, by her mother.
This is the unbreakable bond Guerin and Ferris refer to as they profile 10 critically wounded soldiers and their mothers—the Mighty Moms, as these remarkable women are referred to around Walter Reed.
The stories in Unbreakable Bonds are often difficult to read. Nearly 2,000 soldiers have been catastrophically injured in Iraq and Afghanistan, losing limbs and suffering from traumatic brain injuries. Lance Corporal Josh Brubaker is one of them. He stepped on an IED while on patrol in Helmand Province in Afghanistan in June 2012. Guerin and Ferris recount the damage: “His left leg was blown off below his knee. His right knee was shattered; he had major trauma to his pelvis, and soft tissue damage to his left hand.” He survived for one amazing reason: His Marine buddies and the helicopter pilot moved at light speed, getting him into surgery just 12 minutes after the blast. Twelve minutes.
Josh went through two operations in Afghanistan and was then placed in a medically induced coma and flown to Landstuhl, Germany, where he underwent more surgeries to stabilize him for transit to Walter Reed. The Marines made sure that his parents were in Maryland, at the airport, when his plane touched down. But from there, Josh spent three weeks in intensive care, before the really bad stuff happened. His IED had been “dirty,” and a blood infection set in. His right leg had to be amputated. And then one of his arteries ruptured. His mother Mary was by his side throughout.
You have in your head that the doctors would just stitch them up and things would be fine. Just like a car accident, they would close up the wound and send them home. But I knew this wasn’t going to be the case. It’s hard to look at your kid when he’s blown up. . . . Sometimes I would remember when he was a little baby and I would tickle his toes. Now, I just miss those legs.
The Mighty Moms aren’t just moral support. For soldiers like Josh who manage to make it to rehabilitation, their mothers often become essential, full-time caregivers. The military designates them as nonmedical attendants and pays them a token sum of $72 a day. The work of rehabilitation often spans months and, sometimes, years. The strain is enormous.
Pam Carrigan Britt describes what happened to her after her son, Tyler, stepped on an IED: “As soon as I got the call about Tyler I contacted my boss and told her what happened and that I didn’t know when I would be back. My life was in complete disarray, and I kept thinking I would lose my house, my husband, my job, my life—everything.” Pam’s coworkers responded in magnificent fashion: They donated sick and vacation leave so that she could take time off with pay. Her boss told her that her job would be waiting for her, whenever.