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For the Wounded, No Miracle Is Small

Two young Marines who suffered severe brain injuries in Iraq take different paths to recovery. Their families share in their ordeal.

May 27, 2005|David Zucchino | Times Staff Writer

BETHESDA, Md. — The Ryan family stood vigil, gathered around a hospital bed in Building 10, Ward Five East -- a surgical ward at the National Naval Medical Center. Before them lay Marine Cpl. Eddie Ryan, silent and pale, a grievous bullet wound in his brain and a feeding tube in his belly, straight through the "N" in a blue tattoo that spelled "RYAN."

Angela Ryan stroked her son's fine hair. Christopher Ryan squeezed his boy's hand. Felicia Ryan, 19, looked into her brother's eyes, her hand on a Bible resting against his left leg.

The news was not good.

Eddie's neurosurgeon, Robert Rosenbaum, had told the family that the young Marine's frontal lobes had been terribly damaged by a bullet that tore into his skull during a firefight in western Iraq on April 13. It was quite possible that Eddie, 21, would never fully regain consciousness or recover what the doctor called "full cognitive activity."

Christopher stared at his son's smooth face and spoke: "We need a miracle. Eddie's going to be our miracle Marine. We're praying that God gives us this miracle because my son is a great American."

Across the hall the same day this month, Marine Cpl. Bryan Trusty sat up in bed, wolfing down a chicken dinner on a hospital tray. His father, Steve, sat at his bedside, amazed that his son was eating and talking, and even laughing.

On April 3, a hot shard of shrapnel ripped a hole beneath Bryan's left eye, pierced the length of his brain and lodged against his brain stem. He survived emergency surgery in Baghdad, but went into cardiac arrest on the medevac flight to the U.S. on April 7. His doctors did not expect him to live.

Now Bryan, who turned 21 in the intensive care unit four weeks earlier, was about to be discharged for outpatient therapy, with shrapnel still in his brain and his arm, and a distinct memory of all that had befallen him. He is able to walk and speak normally.

"I call him my miracle child," his father said, watching him eat.

The number of service members wounded in Iraq has surged past 12,000, half of them injured so badly that they cannot return to duty. Many of the most critical cases end up here at the National Naval Medical Center, established in the early days of World War II.

On the worst nights at the Bethesda hospital complex, ambulances and casualty buses deliver up to 100 wounded Marines and sailors from Iraq. Since the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, more than 1,700 have arrived, most of them young and suffering from the devastating damage inflicted on human tissue by explosives, bullets and shrapnel.

Some, like Bryan Trusty, stay only a few weeks. Others, like Eddie Ryan, stay longer. The soldiers are surrounded by attentive nurses and skilled surgeons, and by loved ones who cling to hope and share an ordeal that can be both traumatic and uplifting, their lives in turmoil and forever altered.

If not for Eddie's tattoos, Angela Ryan would not have recognized her son after she and her husband flew to see him at a military hospital in Germany. His face and body were grotesquely swollen. Before he was wounded, Eddie was lean and fit, 6 feet tall and 195 pounds. He had ballooned to 250 pounds because of severe swelling and fluid accumulation caused by injuries.

Eddie is a sniper, one of the Marine Corps' elite. He signed up straight out of high school and was sent to Iraq. He was on his second tour there when an enemy bullet pierced his brain.

Since he arrived here last month, his mother has not left his side. She sleeps in his room or down the hall in the visitors' lounge. His father and sister have left the hospital once, to drive Eddie's beloved black Toyota Tacoma pickup from a friend's house in Virginia to the family home in Ellenville, N.Y.

The Ryans have taken leaves from their jobs -- Christopher, 43, as a heavy equipment operator and Angela, 46, as a school lunchroom monitor. Felicia has left community college and a job at an outdoor supply store.

"Wherever Eddie is, that's our life now," Felicia said.

The Bible resting on the hospital bed contained a photo of Eddie in his Marine dress uniform, looking handsome and fearless. Placed between his feet were an embroidered Marine Corps logo and a photo of Eddie and his family the day they picked him up at Camp Lejeune, N.C., when he returned safely from his first tour in Iraq.

Much of the time, Eddie's eyes were open. He breathed on his own, but he did not speak. He was shirtless, and his tattoos were on display. His parents had not approved of them; for a while, Eddie wore long-sleeved shirts to hide them. But now the Ryans found comfort and inspiration in the body markings.

On Eddie's abdomen is the RYAN tattoo. On his right arm is a tattoo of hands in prayer and the Marine Corps logo. On his left arm is an American flag and the words "Land of the free because of the brave."

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