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Back from despair, in her words

When her husband was injured in Iraq, Nancy Kules found healing in sharing their pain online.

February 23, 2007|David Zucchino | Times Staff Writer

Bowie, Md. — WITH her husband in a coma, unable to breathe on his own, Nancy Kules sat down at a computer and began to type. PRAY, PRAY, PRAY, she wrote.

It was Dec. 2, 2005. Nancy, a kindergarten teacher from Arizona, had flown across the Atlantic to be with her husband, Army 1st Lt. Ryan Kules, at a military hospital in Germany. His entire body was wrapped in bandages. All Nancy could see were his forehead, a toe and his blood-clogged ears.

Ryan's Humvee had been hit by a roadside bomb in Iraq three days earlier. His right arm and left leg were blown off. He nearly bled to death. He had severe brain damage. Doctors feared he would not survive.

Nancy wrote to friends and relatives: I wish I were logging on with better news.... I will give you all the cold, hard facts.

The ordeals of combat amputees in Iraq and Afghanistan have provided a familiar narrative after nearly four years of war. But less familiar are the stories of their spouses. For the next year, in 309 entries in an online journal, Nancy Kules laid out the facts and poured out her emotions.

Her journal opened a window on a searing experience shared by a growing number of spouses who have become collateral damage in America's overseas wars. What began as an attempt to keep loved ones informed became a unique personal account of recovery and accommodation, of suffering and redemption.

"People think what a great story it is, and what blessings we've had, and how Ryan has overcome great odds," Nancy said outside the couple's Maryland home on a sunny winter morning. "But they don't think about the daily repercussions of it. The heart of the matter isn't something you can therapy away. It is what it is. It's our new reality."

For Nancy, and for thousands who have visited the site (www.caringbridge.org/visit/ryankules) to offer comments and contributions, the journal is an inspiration. But in its frank approach to tragedy, it is also a reminder that reality can be daunting, and that life for this couple can never be the same.

The story begins just after Nancy, 24, received the phone call that military families dread. Summoned to a phone at her elementary school in Ahwatukee, Ariz., she heard a faraway voice say, matter-of-factly, that Ryan, 25, had lost limbs in an explosion.

She left work, packed and headed for the airport -- knowing that being told to fly to Germany meant that Ryan was too badly injured to make it back to the U.S.

"I honestly thought I was going to be bringing a body home," she said.

Nancy was bombarded with contradictory information. After one doctor described severe brain damage, she threw up. Other doctors had assured her there was minimal brain damage.

"I wanted to know the truth, and I wanted to kick whoever gave me bad information," she said.

On Dec. 3, 2005, the second day at the hospital in Germany, she wrote: \o7It is easier to get the info to you this way, because it is difficult to talk about it out loud.

Between the grief, time changes, and jet lag, we are so unaware of time. I got to help clean Ryan up last night. I spent a good 4 hours taking a q-tip to his fingers, toes, ears and any other visible skin. It was somewhat therapeutic for me....

I want MY Ryan back, (past, present, and future) and all those memories that we share and I have been re-living for the past few days ... I have faith that this will happen.

Dec. 7: I re-read the things that I have written, barely remembering some of it.... I find myself crying when I read these things. Not the kinds of sobs that shake my whole body, but a peaceful stream of tears running down my face.

With Ryan in a coma, Nancy spoke to him, hoping he would somehow understand that she was at his side.

"He was so badly broken," she recalled recently. "If he was hanging on until we got there, I wanted him to know, 'Baby, I'm here and I love you and if you gotta let go, it's OK.' "

HE did not let go.

Ryan was transferred to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, still in a coma and fighting a high fever. There, Nancy noticed that his eyes were no longer locked in a fixed stare. They moved slightly.

Dec. 10: I knew for the first time that Ryan is aware that I am here. He is still not following commands, but when I looked in his eyes, I just feel like he is still there, frustrated that he cannot show this to us yet ...

The anguish of this discovery is startling. I feel like my time to deal with 'me' is over, and I now need to find the strength to focus on him .... I am scared of what Ryan will think. I am scared of what he already knows.... I think I need to go outside, stomp, scream, and cry a little.

Three days later, after a breathing tube was removed, Ryan spoke his first words since the explosion: "Hi, Nancy."

Nancy quizzed him. His name? "Ryan." His dog's name? "Peanut." Did he love Nancy? "Yes." Their wedding anniversary? "Um ... April?"

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