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The Long Goodbye

Back home, but still fighting

SPRINGFIELD, Mo.-- On Sept. 11, 2004, Sgt. Bobby Lisek’s platoon went out to patrol the streets of Sadr City in place of another unit. Irritated by the change of plans, Lisek sat hunched over inside a Bradley Fighting Vehicle as the convoy slowly wound through the narrow city streets.

“They made a half a turn, and WHOOOP,” he said. “Thirty-two days later, I woke up.”

The blast lifted Lisek’s 20-ton vehicle off the ground and spun it around. Shrapnel tore through the floor, ripping off his left leg and shredding the rest of his body. The blast wave threw him into the ceiling with enough force to smash open his skull.

Soldiers who pulled him from the wreckage said they had to check the dog tag tattoo on his chest to make sure it was him. They loaded him onto a medevac helicopter, certain he wouldn’t survive.

He did.

Military medical experts stress that advances in battlefield treatments and field hospital technology mean that today’s servicemembers can often survive catastrophic wounds that would have meant a quick death in nearly any other war. More than 90 percent of troops wounded in Iraq survived their injuries. Defense Department records show at least four triple amputees — and one quadruple amputee.

But the other side of that statistic is the wounds those survivors must deal with every day, for the rest of their lives.

Those who have lost a limb are more susceptible to infections, heart disease and depression, and can suffer intense phantom pains from their missing body parts for years. Helmets and body armor may stop shrapnel but not the concussive pulse of an explosion. Even troops who walk away from an ambush seemingly uninjured may have suffered a traumatic brain injury or other hidden damage.

Today, Lisek, 32, is a happily married civilian with a 3-year-old daughter and another child on the way. He’s an avid hunter and a volunteer with several outreach groups trying to help other wounded veterans. He lives in the suburbs and drives a Ford F-250 that rivals the size of an Army Humvee.

“I think I live a pretty normal life,” Lisek said. “We’ve got a nice house, I’ve got a brand new truck. I live like everybody else. But the Army never really fixed me.”

‘The Army gave me a chance’

Lisek says he was never a poster boy for the Army. It took the Missouri native four tries to pass the military’s entrance exam, but he finally got in.

At 24, he got kicked out of the barracks for throwing a kegger, and got kicked out of his apartment for another party a few months later. The week before he left for Iraq, he was arrested for drunken driving while returning to base.

But he loved being a soldier.

“I was a bad kid, and being in the Army gave me a chance to be somebody,” he said.

His deployment to Iraq was that chance. He deployed with the 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment in spring 2004, and quickly found himself patrolling the volatile streets of Sadr City.

“Every time you left the gate, you needed to make sure you had ammo, water, and you had called your family or had your death letter ready,” he said. “I had mine taped inside my vest. We got dwindled down to where your team was just you and your best buddy.”

On his right wrist, Lisek wears a bracelet engraved with the name of Sgt. Yihjyh Chen, the first soldier from his unit killed during the deployment. Four more were killed within weeks of their arrival in Iraq. Before September, Lisek had been stabbed once, shot once and had his vehicles upended by roadside bombs three times.

He didn’t accept a Purple Heart for those injuries, but did hold onto bits of clothing and prayer rocks from some of the insurgents he killed.

“Cowards,” he called them.

Lisek received an Army Achievement Medal for his work as squad leader that summer, and regarded his combat experience as the start of a long, valorous military career. But the roadside bomb that took his leg took that career away, too.

Struggles seen and unseen

Lisek admits he struggles to control his anger — at the military, at neighbors, at politicians, sometimes at his own family.

“I feel like everyone is succeeding in life except for me,” he said.

After he returned from Iraq, doctors diagnosed him with traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder, along with his more obvious wounds. But Lisek saw military hospitals as prisons, and vowed to get far away as soon as his prosthetic leg was ready.

When doctors allowed him out for day trips, he started covering his wounded body with tattoos. A bleeding American flag on his forearm. A Purple Heart on the underside. Two eyes crying blood on his right ankle, staring at where his left leg should be.

Doctors diagnosed him as 100 percent disabled: 30 percent for TBI and 70 percent for post-traumatic stress disorder. Claims officials didn’t even need to include his missing leg.

“PST, whatever it’s called — I didn’t know what that was when they told me about it, and I still don’t think I have it,” he said. “But that’s what they decided.”

The Army kept him on active duty for nearly six years after his injury, to make sure all of his medical bills were covered. But he had no real job or duties at the time, so Lisek wanted to go back to his unit or get out. He insists he could still work as an Army trainer or a weapons expert, even if combat infantry isn’t realistic.

“I was married to the Army,” he said. “I had my career taken away, and I didn’t know what to do. Before I got injured, I used to see those Vietnam vets and say they needed to suck it the [expletive] up, and just make something of their life. But now …”

He started carrying around a bullet engraved with his name on it, for the day the pain and frustration finally became too much.

He also started carrying a gun almost everywhere he went.

Signature injury

Medical experts have constructed fairly reliable models of what treatments amputees will need and what their lifetime medical costs will be, according to Dave Gorman, executive director of Disabled American Veterans.

“But for brain injuries? We don’t know anything about what the long-term effects of the TBI we’re seeing from Iraq will be,” he said.

Military officials have labeled TBI as the signature injury of the Iraq war, usually caused by the blast wave that proceeds a roadside bomb’s lethal projectiles. Gorman said troops with severe brain injuries are receiving much better treatment now than just a few years ago.

But officials still don’t have reliable metrics for diagnosing mild TBI, those “fuzzy moments that just don’t go away,” Gorman said. “The reality is that there’s going to be a gradual wave of these problems coming into the VA,” he said. “We don’t know what social difficulties these troops will have. We don’t know the long-term emotional effects. And we don’t know what the numbers will look like in 10 years.

“Then you couple that with the PTSD issues we’re seeing …”

Lisek and his wife, Mary Grace, are open about their frequent marriage counseling sessions. They talk about their fights. They talk about his stubbornness and paranoia. Sometimes, she said, “it’s tough to tell who the 3-year-old in the family is.”

Lisek’s nightmares haven’t stopped since the bomb went off, although he rarely remembers exactly what happens in them.

“About a month ago, Mary wouldn’t even let me sleep in the bed,” he said, laughing. “She said I was trying to hit people.”

Lisek speaks quickly in casual conversation, but his sentences pause and drag when the topic turns to things like politics or his complaints about veterans care. Sometimes he drops or confuses words. He wonders how different the war in "Aftgavnistan" is from Iraq. He remembers nearly every member of his unit but can’t quite remember dates other than Sept. 11, 2004, the day he was injured. And he frequently talks about how he’s failed at life.

"My father, he was in the Marines, and he was a big deal," he said. "It would have been great if I could have been something. But I had that taken away."

Forever loyal

Will White, who founded the Camp Hope hunting lodge in southern Missouri after his son Christopher was killed in Iraq, calls Lisek a loyal and caring friend who is constantly trying to help other wounded veterans. But he also sees the dark side.

"If you meet Bobby today, his anger is about a two. When I first met him it was a 10," said White, who met Lisek three years ago. "Guys at the camp look at him as someone who is succeeding. But he doesn’t realize the good he has done, and he still gets frustrated."

White understands why.

"This generation of veterans, they don’t want to just go sit at the VFW bar all day," he said. "They still want to do more with their lives."

Lisek says that before he got married, most of his post-injury life involved sitting at home and watching TV. Now with his wife working four days a week at a dental office, he watches his daughter during the day, and has a long list of errands and home repair to keep him occupied.

"I told him brain injury or no brain injury," his wife said, "you’re getting your butt off my couch every day."

He cleans and repairs friends’ hunting rifles, and counts down the days until the start of the next hunting season.

He’s planning a weeklong trip into the woods in late August, even though Mary is seven months pregnant with their second daughter. She said it’s for the best.

"I don’t worry about him when he’s out there," she said. "He’s safe, he knows how to handle himself. And he needs that time alone."

What she’s not so understanding about is his loyalty to the Army.

"After two kids, after all the crap he has been through, he’d go back in the Army in a second," she said. "He’d kiss us all goodbye and go back to Iraq. And I don’t understand that."

Lisek laughed as she spoke.

"First comes God and country, then comes family," he said. "I want to do that again. Some revenge would be nice, but that’s not the point. I want to wear the uniform again."

shanel@stripes.osd.mil

 

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