Forever after: A warrior wounded, a family challenged
Chapter 2: A promise kept
Before Deven Schei deployed to Afghanistan in 2010, his family posed for a portrait. From left: Anneka, Gordon, Erik, Deven and Christine Schei.
Stars and Stripes
The day before Mother’s Day in 2008, Deven gathered his parents and siblings. He had something important to tell them.
Christine guessed with a gasp that his girlfriend was pregnant. Laughing and rolling his eyes, Deven assured his mom he hadn’t knocked anybody up.
The Scheis had been settled into the new house for almost a year. With Erik starting to talk beyond the words “mom” and “no” and eating solid food, and the community’s outpouring of support for them, like fixing up their barren backyard, Gordon had finally started to feel like his family was going to be OK. At last, 2½ years after Erik was hurt, they had their feet back underneath them.
“I kinda signed up today,” Deven said.
“Signed up for what?” Christine asked with a skeptical tilt of the head.
“I kind of joined the Army today.”
Silence pushed the air out of the room.
“No you didn’t.”
Christine’s face crumpled.
“How could you do this? You see your brother struggling every day! Why would you want to do that?”
Listening from his wheelchair, Erik sat shocked and crying. He understood what his brother had just told them, but he didn’t understand why.
Eight-year-old Anneka bawled that she didn’t want him to go, and Gordon, red-faced and teary, yelled that he was going to break both of Deven’s legs if he enlisted.
Deven said he made a promise to his brother that he intended to keep, and serving in the military was something he wanted to do, something he thought he’d be good at. It was too late, anyway. He signed the papers and had been sworn into the service that morning at the recruiter’s office.
Gordon stormed away. Christine cried hysterically.
Deven huddled by Erik’s wheelchair so he could explain to his horrified brother why he enlisted. In a conversation where Erik mostly said “yes” and “no” to Deven’s prompting of his memory, Deven reminded his brother about the pact that Erik didn’t remember. Deven told him for the first time about the guilt he harbored for not responding to an email from Erik the night before he was hurt and how he wished he had taken the time to tell him, like he did in all his emails, to “keep your head down and your gun up.”
Erik didn’t want Deven to join, but he said he understood.
Later, Christine recognized in Deven’s face a desperation for her to approve his choice. Deven was 21, she reminded herself. She had no right to tell him how to live. With a deep resignation, she assured her youngest son she’d support him the best she could.
Deven’s life clicked with the 101st Airborne Division in Fort Campbell, Ky. He loved throwing on a 100-pound ruck. He loved the discipline and the dedication of his fellow soldiers. He wanted to be a combat engineer forever.
A year and a half into his service he found out he’d be following in his brother’s footsteps to war. He was headed to Afghanistan in June 2010.
The impending deployment cast his mother’s choice about Erik into stark relief.
Erik, now bloated to more than 200 pounds because of one of his medications, spent most of his free time after therapy sitting in his wheelchair watching TV shows or listening to music. Deven was grateful he could still share a laugh with his big brother, but he loathed seeing him trapped in a body that didn’t listen to him, struggling to speak and be a part of the world. More than anything Deven couldn’t stand to watch Erik be fed his meals.
There were times he could see in his brother’s eyes that he wanted to call it quits.
One day he had asked Erik, “Do you wish we pulled the plug?”
Erik nodded yes.
Sometimes Deven also wished that his mom had made a different choice. “Here’s a grown man who literally has nothing,” he thought.
As Deven prepared to deploy, Christine asked Deven what he wanted her to do should he be injured.
“If anything happens, let me go, Mom. I don’t want to live like that,” he told her. “If I’m like Erik, just cut me off.”
Christine struggled to swallow that down.
She knew she’d have to be prepared to follow through on Deven’s wishes — to tell the doctor what she didn’t with Erik.
Before Deven left for Afghanistan, Christine insisted they all sit together for a family portrait. The moment captured Erik looking gleeful with his mouth open wide in a laugh, Deven behind him, and Anneka, just 10 years old, in a sweet dress with a bow and flowers. The five of them smiled out from a 16-by-20 photograph on the family room wall.
Again, the phone call came in the morning. This time Christine answered.
On July 2, 2010, just three weeks into his tour, Deven’s squad had been called to respond to a combat outpost in Kandahar that was under attack and ended up driving straight into an ambush a few miles from base. A roadside bomb exploded under the lead truck.
Before anyone could react, an 8mm recoilless rocket screeched into the truck, slicing past Deven’s thigh and blowing off the leg of the sergeant in the seat next to him.
Ten seconds later another rocket blasted through, taking out Deven’s calf. Thirty seconds later a third rocket-propelled grenade struck the truck, hitting his back and throwing him across the truck into the sergeant’s lap.
It took three bags of blood to replace what Deven lost. He was rushed into emergency surgery at Kandahar Air Field. When he woke up at a nearby base in Bagram, his leg still had shrapnel in it, and the doctors told him they might have to amputate.
Deven dialed his parent’s number on the satellite phone and then hung up. He dialed again and hung up. He had gaping holes in his left leg, his skin was burnt black, and pieces flaked off where shrapnel poked through. How could he tell his parents that their other son had been injured in combat?
On the eighth try he let the phone ring.
Fear overcame Christine when she heard the pain in Deven’s drugged voice. He told her his leg was hit badly, and she just stared at Erik in his wheelchair.
“Are you going to lose it?”
He didn’t know yet. He couldn’t feel anything below the knee.
Christine didn’t cry this time. She didn’t panic. She had been here before and at least this time she knew the process and whom to call. Flipping immediately into organization mode was how she kept herself moving forward instead of cowering in a ball on the floor.
Christine told Anneka the news later that day when she got home from summer camp. The 10-year-old burst into tears and ran to her room, taking refuge behind her pink walls. This time she was old enough to understand what it meant to be wounded in war, and she was scared for Deven. Erik didn’t talk for years after getting hurt.
Deven had three surgeries in Germany over five days before the nerves started tingling back to life in his left leg. He found out he’d keep his leg, but he needed many more surgeries, including a complicated skin graft.
Christine knew Brooke Army Medical Center had the top burn unit, so the doctors there would be best for her son. She called the Wounded Warrior Project and pulled any string she could to get him there. While the rest in his squad went to Walter Reed to recover, Deven went to San Antonio, Texas.
Traveling with Erik was a production and getting him on an airplane took the help of many airline employees, but he went with Gordon, Christine and Deven’s fiancee, Kayla, to see Deven. Anneka refused to go.
No way she was leaving behind her life and going to an Army hospital to visit her wounded brother. She’d done that before, and she didn’t come home for months. Her whole life had been defined by a brother injured in war, and now it was happening again? She didn’t have much control over anything in her life, but she could resist this visit.
She was mad at Deven. She had begged him not to go to Afghanistan.
Deven fumed at what he saw as his little sister’s lack of loyalty and love. He didn’t understand how she could spurn him like that.
Christine did understand. She didn’t try to persuade Anneka to come, letting her stay with a family friend.
Mary Tallouzi’s son had died from complications from a combat brain injury, so she was intimately familiar with the Schei family’s struggles. One day Anneka had called her, saying, “My mom doesn’t have time for me.”
Anneka confided in Mary the way she couldn’t with Christine, and the two of them spent hours together, bonding over girly activities like pedicures. Often lost in the shuffle of her brother’s daily needs, Anneka had found a surrogate mom in Mary.
In San Antonio, the Scheis were there to greet Deven when he arrived at the hospital. For Gordon, it was like reliving a nightmare, and he broke down.
He was in tears when he saw Deven for the first time, gripping him tightly in a hug. Deven’s lower leg was an open wound and a machine suctioned off foul fluids.
“We’re done. No more,” Gordon said over and over during their visit.
Deven was whisked away for an emergency surgery to take care of issues that had developed on his plane ride.
That night, rolling into Deven’s hospital room, tears streaked down Erik’s cheeks. A few years ago he’d been the one in the hospital bed with Deven crying over him. Erik kept watch by his bedside, never taking his eyes off Deven.
In the hallway a few days later after Deven was no longer on heavy drugs, Gordon found a way to be lighthearted with his sons. He gripped Erik’s wheelchair and on the count of three took off running in a wheelchair race against Deven.
The Scheis were living in the Fisher house, a large home where families can stay at the hospital, and that was tough to manage with Erik. Without their equipment, they had to heave him in and out of the bed, and there was no way to shower him properly.
When Gordon left with Erik after a week, Christine told her husband she was going to stay behind. Gordon thought this meant a few days. When two weeks had passed, Gordon panicked. He was an emotional wreck, overwhelmed by Anneka’s distress and trying to take care of Erik by himself.
He called Christine every day to ask her when she was leaving.
“We need you at home.”
In tears on the phone, Christine felt torn. She wanted to support her younger son when he needed her but she knew that her family needed her at home.
She helped Deven fight for three weeks of convalescent leave in her care at home in New Mexico. That way she could keep her eye on both sons. But with more surgery and physical therapy ahead of him, Deven had to go back to San Antonio alone.
Deven had lost 17 percent of his calf, 7 percent of his thigh, most of the hearing in his left ear and some sight in his left eye. He had a traumatic brain injury; he never saw his helmet after the attack but he heard part of it was missing. He stuttered when he tried to spell, unable to remember the letters. He had severe post-traumatic stress disorder. His spine was damaged. In total he would need 18 operations.
To any other family, those would be severe injuries. To Christine, they were minor. Deven was walking. He was talking. He could take care of himself. Those were all things even years later that Erik couldn’t do.
She felt guilty not being there for Deven, but the choice she made years ago at Erik’s bedside dictated her choice now.
Erik needed her more.
At Brooke Army Medical Center 730 miles away, hobbling back from speech therapy at the TBI clinic, Deven’s left leg suddenly gave out and he fell to the pavement. He sat up and rubbed his knee where cartilage used to be. Whenever the pieces of leftover shrapnel moved, the sharp pain drove him to the ground.
Deven went back to his small room and fired up his video game console. It had been more than six months since he got hurt, and he didn’t do much but hide out in the room and go to his medical appointments. The lack of discipline among soldiers in the wounded warrior battalion disgusted him. They showed up late to formation, their uniforms were jacked up, they didn’t salute officers. It was nothing like being with the 101st.
He missed his squad mates. The three other men with him in the truck the day of the ambush were his best friends, and they were recovering together at Walter Reed. He had squeezed the sergeant’s hand in the Black Hawk on the way to the hospital, and before Deven left Germany he made someone push his wheelchair to his friend’s bedside to say goodbye. That was the last time he saw him.
Deven seethed at his mom for separating him from them. They had the comfort of each other while he was stuck in Texas with no one. And then she didn’t even visit.
Deven’s pain and anxiety kept him awake most hours of the night. His unit was still in Afghanistan, and he worried about his brothers over there and felt guilty for not being able to finish out the tour with them.
Later, in the summer of 2011 as he approached one year at Brooke Army Medical Center, he spread all his medications on a table in his room. There were a dozen: anti-anxiety, narcotics, anti-inflammatories, blood thinners.
“This is what I’ve come down to.”
Self-medicating his depression, he routinely popped way more of the oxycontin than he was supposed to, and it scared him. The anti-anxiety pills added to the fog by making him feel zoned out. He didn’t want to be lost in a haze of medication that numbed not just the pain, but his emotions too.
Deven went to the doctors and told them he’d had enough of the narcotics. He started taking significantly lower dosages of milder pain meds and he ditched his anxiety medication.
Deven’s pain worsened, but his head cleared.
An invitation from the Wounded Warrior Project to be a part of their Soldier Ride, in which wounded vets get together to spend a few days on modified bicycles, drew Deven out of his dark corner at the end of summer. He felt like he belonged again.
He branched out a little more around base and found an unlikely outlet in golf. It wasn’t the adrenaline rush of the extreme sports he used to engage in before he got hurt, but the rhythm of swinging a club calmed him. He had to accommodate his pain, taking an 800-milligram aspirin before playing, bending with his weight entirely on his uninjured leg to put the ball on the tee, and using a baseball-bat kind of swing. Still, he could clear his head after a bad day, using solitude to get better instead of to wallow.
He looked to Erik for a little perspective and motivation. Erik was always smiling and happy — and he couldn’t move.
“I’m not as bad as him,” Deven told himself. “I should be able to do this. I can still walk. I can still talk.”
Deven called up the Wounded Warrior Project and told them about Erik. Could they make a bike for him?
With a swiftness that surprised Deven, a special trailer that could be pulled behind a recumbent tricycle was made for Erik, and the Scheis, along with Deven’s fiancee, were signed up to bike together as a family at the Phoenix ride in October.
Deven was not ready to pull his 210-pound brother for 25 miles. There were days that walking up the stairs was too painful, and he could jog only a mile before swelling in his knee forced him to stop. He was too stubborn to admit he might not be able to do it, and he wasn’t going to let his brother down, so he pedaled as often as he could on the stationary bike at the gym to prepare.
The day of the ride, other wounded servicemembers rode close alongside the two brothers. Deven marveled at a soldier with a prosthetic leg helping to push him from behind on one of the big hills. The family made sure to cross the finish line together, and Deven beamed with satisfaction as Erik told him that the speed and movement had made him “feel normal again.”
Deven was antsy to get out of the Army and back home to his brother, where he was certain he could make a difference in Erik’s progress. His mom, he thought, desperately needed a break from caregiving. Though his wedding was coming, Deven was preparing to dedicate his life to his brother.
Deven was just waiting on his disability rating to come through so he could medically retire. The process was infuriating. There seemed to be no logical explanation for how long he had to wait. He had been at the hospital for almost two years.
Pain still dogged him.
Sitting in the office of yet another new occupational therapist, Deven told her that on a scale of one to 10, he hovered at a five even with the narcotics he had grudgingly started taking again, and his back kept him from sleeping more than three to four hours a night. He could sit comfortably for just an hour or so.
She asked him what his goal was with therapy.
“To make the pain go away.”
Deven didn’t seem to hear her say he might have to start thinking in terms of managing the pain instead of eliminating it. He dismissed the notion that pain would permanently limit him or his goals.
Finally, in August 2012, more than two years after he was wounded, Deven left Brooke Army Medical Center, and the Army, for good, with a 100 percent disability rating, and got ready to marry his longtime fiancee in Albuquerque. A scholarship to a golf-industry academy in Florida awaited Deven, and the two planned to start a life there.
He and Kayla rented an apartment on the wheelchair-accessible ground floor five minutes away from his parents, and Deven imagined a future where he pushed his brother to make great strides. Deven was as hopeful as his mom once was about Erik’s potential. He would be there every day to work Erik hard — in the pool, on the machines. Deven would soon have a ring on his left hand, but it was Erik’s dog tags that were tattooed on his chest by his heart.