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For two wounded Marines, a chance to put the puzzle together

LANDSTUHL, Germany — Marine Sgt. Burness L. Britt had been in a coma for days when he was rolled into the intensive care unit at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center. And he was in a coma for almost a month more after medical staff here stabilized him and put him aboard a plane bound for the United States.

Margaret Mills, the assistant head trauma nurse in the hospital’s intensive care unit, remembers him, but never really thought she’d see him again.

“We see them leave here when they’re sleeping, they’re on ventilators, they’re full of medical equipment and we don’t know what happens,” Mills said.

Typically, that’s the way things go at the Army’s only top-tier trauma center. They’re in and out as quickly as they can be stabilized.

But on Friday, more than a year and a half after Britt left Landstuhl, he was back — partly to piece together the scenes of a life-shattering event, partly to thank those who kept him alive.

The improvised bomb that gashed Britt’s carotid artery in Afghanistan in June 2011 left doctors without much hope that he’d survive. And if he did, they said there was a 90 percent chance he wouldn’t walk or talk again due to the stroke he suffered as doctors in Afghanistan repaired his wounds, said his father, Neal Britt.

Britt, of course, doesn’t remember Mills, but that’s partly why he wanted to return, he said: Coming back here is like putting together a puzzle.

The stroke affected his speech, and he has difficulty using the right side of his body. But he’s back on his feet and quick with a joke.

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“It’s hard for me to tell you thank you,” he said haltingly, alluding to his condition with a sly smile,.

“I always tell them that when they come back and see us, it’s one of the greatest gifts that they can give us,” Mills said.

Britt was accompanied by his father, Neal Britt, and another wounded Marine, Staff Sgt. Joseph Danes, and Danes’ wife, Ashley.

Like Britt, Danes was in a coma during his three days at Landstuhl. He said he hadn’t thought much about needing to come back here. But when the Wounded Warrior Project offered to fly him and his wife, he jumped on it.

“I knew it’d be really good for [Ashley] to come see what I went through,” Danes said.

He was badly injured in Iraq in 2005, crushed under a truck in a rollover, and doctors didn’t think he’d make it either. After officials decided not to fly his wife to Landstuhl, she was on the phone with the hospital every few hours to check up on him.

“I called so much that they stopped asking me for his social security number. They just knew who I was from the moment I said hello, and were always great about giving me updates.”

Almost all the staff that was here then is gone now, she said, but “coming back here adds a lot to the missing pieces of the puzzle.”

And it’s that way for the staff as well.

“What you couldn’t have known back then is I had my beautiful wife and a 10-month-old daughter who was waiting at home for me and depending on you to keep me alive,” Danes said. “And as a result of everything that you’ve done, we’re about to celebrate our 10th wedding anniversary and we now have four beautiful children and this year I’ll be graduating from college,” he said, eliciting a round of applause from a roomful of the hospital’s staff. “So I want to express my gratitude to all of you from the bottom of my heart.”

millhamm@estripes.osd.mil

@mattmillham

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