Humor helps wounded Green Beret cope
Laughter comes easily to U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Cody Ensley, less than a year after he nearly lost his life in Afghanistan when an improvised explosive device detonated.
Words are still a struggle, something that can be frustrating for the Green Beret who was fluent in Spanish and had mastered a smattering of an Arabic dialect used in the region where he was deployed.
Sitting close to his wife at the home of friends, Ensley, 26, a 2006 Lewiston High School graduate, answered questions, often with single words, during his first visit to Idaho since the attack.
"He knows what he wants to say, but that speech center is so damaged, he just can't get it out," said his wife, Ashley Ensley. "We play charades a lot."
The Ensleys planned to see his family, catch up with friends and attend a fundraiser at Canter's Inn in Lewiston. The trip is a celebration of how far Ensley has come.
"When it first happened, it was just stressful because we didn't know if he was going to make it to the next day," said Ashley Ensley, 28, who became Cody's wife in June. "I'm just glad he's still here."
The short length of the two-day visit was dictated by the demands of his rehabilitation schedule. He's still considered an inpatient at the San Antonio military hospital, where he's receiving his care.
Nine hours of daily therapies start at 7 a.m. and involve a variety of activities such as lifting weights, swimming and field trips to places like the Alamo.
The improvement has been gradual and profound. "He had a severe, traumatic brain injury to the left side of this head," Ashley Ensley said.
A soft-ball size section of his skull was removed to keep the pressure off his brain and has been replaced with high-tech plastic. When he first emerged from his coma, he couldn't feel or move his right side.
"We used to celebrate whenever he got a tube out," said his dad, Clay Ensley, of Kendrick.
Cody Ensley went from a motorized wheelchair, to a regular wheelchair, to a walker, then a cane and now walks with his ankle in a brace. He wears a sling on his right arm, but he can do tasks such as waxing a car.
He pulls pranks all the time, such as surreptitiously drinking her water, Ashley Ensley said. "He learned to say 'I love you,' really fast, because he gets into trouble a lot."
He tends toward overachieving, she said. He once sang the ABCs all night long in the intensive care unit after a staff member mentioned that singing would help re-establish pathways in his brain. "He likes to try and jog. He's not there yet. He takes it to the max. He walks as fast as he possibly can."
He's blind in his right eye and will be assigned a service dog soon, Ashley Ensley said. "If he starts to tip, the dog will pull him the other way."
The care has been impressive, she said. "They're all on the same page. He's come a long way since he's been there. They've done a really good job."
On the home front, the Army still governs their life. Visiting hours at the hospital are from 4 to 8 p.m. When they end, she has to leave, even though she's his wife, unless he gets weekend leave, which is what he's using for this visit.
Generally, their expenses are covered between the military and America's Fund, a foundation that handles expenses for wives and significant others of wounded soldiers, she said.
Early in August, he'll become an outpatient but will till need to be in San Antonio for an undetermined length of time. One of the soldiers they met at the hospital has been there three years, Ashley Ensley said. "There's a lot of unknowns."
She was leaving the Air Force when he was hurt and wants to become a physical therapist, a career goal she had previously, but which was strengthened by what she's going through with her husband. But those plans are on hold.
He hopes someday to join his dad working in a saddle shop, a third-generation business in Post Falls. "You got a job, so you don't have to worry (about) that," Clay Ensley said.
As the younger Ensley moves forward, what little he recalls of what happened in November is never far from his thoughts. He was in a modified all-terrain vehicle, manning a gun with a driver, Jared Bullock, and Staff Sgt. Richard Vazquez. "They call it a dismounted patrol," Clay Ensley said.
All Cody Ensley remembers after that is hearing a loud boom. Vazquez died. Bullock lost his right arm and leg. Cody Ensley wears a black metal bracelet with Vazquez's name and stays in close touch with Bullock, who is also recovering in San Antonio.
His dad was there the first time they saw each other after the soldiers were injured. He said when his son reached out to shake his friend's hand, Bullock said, " 'Not that one, dude. It's gone.' That's the spirit of these young men. They're unsung heroes."