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Soldier paralyzed by Oklahoma tornado struggles with daily challenges

Members of the 63rd Civil Support Team, Oklahoma National Guard, conduct search and rescue operations in Moore, Okla., in response to the May 20, 2013, EF-5 tornado that ripped through the center of town.

NORMAN, Okla. — One night recently, military veteran EH Pittman accidentally hit himself in the mouth, busting his lip open.

Another night, his wife found him eating cookies at 4 a.m. because he couldn't sleep. Some nights are long for Pittman, who said he used to fall asleep easily.

“I was in 500 combat missions,” Pittman said. “I was shot at and walked away. I didn't from this.”

“This,” was the May 20, 2013, tornado in Moore, Okla. Pittman, 30, was working at the 7-Eleven at SW 4 and Telephone Road when the deadly EF5 twister roared through. He tried to protect a co-worker and a mother and her baby with his body as they hunkered down in the restroom searching for a safe place.

In the aftermath, debris wounds covered his body.

His spinal cord was fractured, leaving him paralyzed. His clavicles were broken and his lung collapsed. He suffered a gash that covered almost the entire width of his lower back and two cuts on his head that took 12 staples to close. He said he has no feeling from his belly button down.

Three people at the store didn't survive. Megan Futrell, 29, and her 4-month-old son, Case, died. It's something that still weighs on Pittman, sometimes during the long nights as he tries to sleep, he said.

A third person, Terri Long, 49, also died at the 7-Eleven, where she took shelter on her way home from work.

Surviving the tornado is a daily challenge for Pittman and his wife, Jean. Their lives now revolve around his wheelchair.

Medical care continues

EH Pittman, who had just returned from a 13-month deployment in Afghanistan with the Oklahoma National Guard's 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, said he can't shake the dreams that interrupt his sleep.

After the storm, he spent 91 days in hospitals and the Jim Thorpe Rehabilitation center before his release Aug. 19.

He continues to receive medical care and goes to physical therapy twice a week.

A goal for Pittman is to walk again, he said, but he doesn't know whether that day will ever come.

“It is up to the good Lord what he gives me,” he said. “I believe there are reasons for what he does.”

For now, Pittman, his wife and two children, daughter, Izzabele, 13, and son, Logan, 7, are learning to adapt to his life in a wheelchair.

Jean Pittman climbed on her husband's lap during a recent interview and smiled. He smiled back. Life for the Pittmans is not all bad.

Workers' compensation officials have renovated their Norman home.

The doors are wider to make way for the wheelchair; there are two nozzles so he can take a shower and the kitchen cabinets and appliances have been lowered so EH Pittman can bake, one of his favorite pastimes.

He laughs when he recalls his attempt to make a lemon meringue pie for Thanksgiving.

The crust wasn't baked long enough, giving the family something to laugh about over the holiday.

The American Red Cross bought the family a new refrigerator, washer and dryer.

They purchased living room furniture the height of his wheelchair after he received $5,000 from Soldier's Wish and Central National Bank in October.

“The bank was honored to partner with Soldier's Wish, and felt it was important to raise awareness of the ongoing needs of those hit by the tornado in Moore,” said Adam Baker, Central National Bank senior vice president and Soldier's Wish treasurer.

The mission for Soldier's Wish is to identify unmet needs of veterans of military service, regardless of branch or rank, and identify or provide resources to meet those needs by providing support directly to the veteran service member and/or his or her family.

One thing missing for the Pittmans' home is a tornado shelter. Jean Pittman said she is worried as tornado season approaches.

“I am terrified already,” she said.

Breakfast, deer hunting

On Wednesdays, EH Pittman enjoys joining other veterans, from a variety of different wars and conflicts, for breakfast.

One of Pittman's best times since his injuries was a deer hunting trip a couple of his military friends arranged.

“I shot a doe in the heart,” he said, smiling proudly as his wife turned the deer meat to dry for jerky the couple was making in their kitchen.

Shopping is not Pittman's favorite thing to do in a wheelchair.

Maneuvering through the stores is not an easy task, he said.

“I needed some new pants, and I couldn't get through the store,” Pittman said. “They had everything packed in there. Every day there is something new to figure out.”

Jean Pittman, who worked at Moore Medical Center, which was destroyed by the tornado, quit her job to take care of her husband and children. She wasn't at work the day of the tornado.

They have only one car because the one EH bought her for her birthday was destroyed by the tornado. They hope someday they will have a car equipped so he can drive.

“I am thankful he is still alive,” Jean Pittman said.

She paused and started laughing.

“He can be a pain in the butt,” she said. “It's like I have three kids now.”

The Pittmans' New Year's resolution was that there would be nothing else disastrous or traumatic in their lives during 2014.

“Things are getting better,” EH Pittman said.

“It only gets worse if you give up, or there's another tornado.”

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