Army veteran dies 12 years after he was paralyzed on duty in Iraq
By PHIL FEROLITO | Yakima Herald-Republic, Wash. | Published: October 20, 2018
YAKIMA, Wash. (Tribune News Service) — Army Spc. Evan Mettie was a quirky, fun-loving person who enjoyed making people laugh, his family said.
"He was just a great kid," said his father, Dave Mettie. "It's too bad that he didn't get a chance to share that with more people."
Evan Mettie, whose combat injury in Iraq brought light to the military's lack of treatment for traumatic brain injury, died of pneumonia Sunday. He was 34.
Mettie, 22 at the time, was on his second tour in Iraq when a roadside bomb changed his life. On New Year's Day 2005, with his unit under attack, shrapnel from an improvised explosive device pierced his head and damaged his brainstem. He was left paralyzed, although he remained cognitively aware.
He was quickly removed from active duty, and lost some military benefits as a result. The Department of Veterans Affairs wouldn't cover private rehabilitation services, and the military lacked enough understanding of traumatic brain injuries to offer effective treatment.
His mother, Denise Mettie, testified about her son's medical treatment before a U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs.
She had already quit her job at U.S. Bank in Selah to care for Mettie, who had bounced through a series of hospitals, connected to breathing machines, before finally coming home to Selah.
Her testimony caught the attention of the director of Kessler Institute, a renowned medical rehab center in New Jersey.
"We got a call a couple days later and the director said they wanted Evan at his rehab," Dave said. "After Evan got there, other soldiers were starting to show up. He kind of pushed the door open for private rehab."
Mettie was kind a of nerdy kid, a goofball at times, Dave said, and he didn't get the best of grades.
"He was smart as a whip. He just didn't find the necessity to excel in class," his father said.
Mettie liked video games and enjoyed hiking and camping. He participated in Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts, and in high school he competed in the triple jump.
But most of all, he was jokester and a prankster, Denise said.
One year in high school, he spent two weeks watching "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," writing down every word spoken in the movie. He then transferred the dialog to flashcards.
"Then when he was on the school bus, he'd pass out the cards to all the kids so they could act all the parts," Denise said.
Once before his triple jump event, he woofed down two hot dogs. "The coach was livid. 'You don't eat before your event,'" she recalled the coach saying.
He ended up posting a personal best.
When he came home from the war, badly injured, the high school held a fundraiser for him. They sold hot dogs.
As a kid, Mettie often watched his two younger sisters, Kira and Breanne, and he had a silly way of punishing them for misbehaving, Breanne said.
He made a paper wheel he called "the wheel of torture" they'd have to spin when they got in trouble.
"And we had to do what it landed on," she said. "Whatever punishment he made up for us."
They included standing nose-to-the wall or sitting in an invisible chair – basically an air-squat – for a few minutes, she said.
Breanne eventually told their mom about the paper wheel, and he was happy to show it off.
"He was proud of his invention," Breanne recalled with a laugh.
Decision to serve
Before graduating from Selah High School in 2002, Mettie wasn't sure what to do with his life, but he showed interest in the military.
"We discussed it and knew that was something he was kind a of looking at," Dave said.
That was before 9/11.
But it wasn't until after Mettie graduated that Dave and Denise learned he had enlisted.
"He actually put his name on the line without our knowledge," Dave said. "We wanted to help him go through the process."
Dave said that at the time, Mettie was told by recruiters that Army troops wouldn't be deployed to Iraq.
Dave wasn't surprised when his son was actually sent.
"At that time, a lot of people were being sent to Iraq – I didn't like it," Dave said somberly.
Jim Gonzalez, team leader in his platoon, described Mettie as a giving man.
"He always had everybody else's needs in mind," Gonzalez said. "He would make sure the people who didn't get packages would get packages from his family. This guy was a ray of light in a dark place."
'Contributing to everyone'
When the bomb went off, Mettie had no pulse and he was reported dead, Gonzalez recalled.
"We tried to work on him. We couldn't pick up a pulse," he said.
Moments later, another unit arrived with a medic who revived Mettie.
"He fought for 12 years," Gonzalez said of Mettie. "In our world, he's having a cold one at Fiddler's Green. That's where he's at, holding down the fort for us until we arrive."
Men from across the country who served with Mettie are expected at his funeral, Gonzelez said.
"These guys have not seen each other for 12 or more years," Gonzalez said. "Even in his final act, he's contributing to everyone."
A visitation will be from 4 to 8 p.m. Oct. 26 at Keith & Keith Funeral Home at 902 W. Yakima Ave. A funeral will be at 11 a.m. Oct. 27 at Yakima Foursquare Church at 700 N. 40th Ave. in Yakima. Concluding services with full military honors will be at Tahoma Cemetery at 1802 Tahoma Ave. in Yakima.
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