Many things have changed. Many have not. It feels like Mike just returned home, yet he is now officially medically retired from the U.S. Army, 100% total and permanent, two Purple Hearts, and not where he wants to be by any stretch of the imagination. With no disrespect to his loved ones, he would much rather be with his brothers in uniform on the battlefield. That is the nature of the calling to serve one’s country. We get it. It’s part of who Mike is.
Six years ago, out of sheer frustration and bold determination when things didn’t go right upon Mike’s return stateside, the Wounded Heroes Program of Maine was born. The information I acquired to resolve the many things that were not working right medically and bureaucratically while Mike was back at Fort Hood after months at Brooke Army Medical Center for urgent care birthed a program to help other returning servicemembers encountering similar issues. I was a mom in Maine. My hurting son was in Texas. As any mother knows, distance knows no boundaries when it comes to helping our children. Being separated from my son while he was in the condition he was in only motivated me to do what needed to be done and not take ‘no’ for an answer. And here we are, six years old, growing exponentially every year, having resolved issues for hundreds of returning wounded young men and women. The silver lining.
The journey of recovery for Cpl Michael J.A. Payeur, US Army, Retired will never end. There have been many struggles, particularly with the notorious ‘invisible wounds of war; PTSD’. The majority of our returning servicemembers suffer from it to varying degrees. It is very difficult to convey to the general population how crippling this is. When I do speaking engagements, I even challenge folks to determine the more injured veteran – one without limbs/suffering burns/etc, or one with severe PTSD. You won’t see commercials parading visually intact injured veterans who suffer from it, only physically disfigured ones. It’s a sad fact that dealing with what one cannot see tends to prevent people from sensing the true impact of something so debilitating.
Mike lost 114 of his best friends/brothers/more than family on the battlefield. He saw and experienced many horrific things most of us could not fathom. Like many, he has survivor’s guilt and suffers from moral injury. When you combine all that with his traumatic brain injury and other painful physical injuries, it presents a complicated package to address and try and fix in some manner. Mike has had three surgeries to fix both hands, relieve carpal tunnel syndrome, and a knee injury. We have to go back again for one hand because he is experiencing pain in the hand without the four inch screw in it that was already operated on. He had cervical pain that needs addressing. He experiences migraines now. He has memory issues. He can no longer multi task. He has horrible sleep issues, including 40 or so violent disturbing episodes each night. He’s never fully rested. Due to his exposure to the desert sun and being fair skinned, Mike is now having to see a dermatologist regularly because he has had three melanomas removed. The amount of tissue they need to dig out of him to remove the entire site is alarming. So, he is watched constantly for new occurances. The hardest part if for people to understand that even though Mike ‘looks fine’, he is not fine. Some seem surprised when I answer their question of how Mike is doing with ‘okay’ or ‘not very good’. If you lived it, you’d know what that means. We live it.
We find that notable dates create downward cycles with Mike’s PTSD; the anniversary of certain friends’ deaths, 9-11, the holidays, and others. Hopefully, at some point, the pain of these landmark dates will subside.
As a family, this experience has affected each of us differently. I think it would be safe to say that Mike’s brother and sister have taken the brunt of the trauma the hardest. As three very close siblings growing up, as they were close in age, there is a measure of loss in all that they have watched Mike go through. Add to that their own feelings and thoughts and it’s been somewhat heartbreaking at times. The brother they knew has changed, in some ways dramatically. They worry for him. They worry for themselves in relation to that. It’s natural. We truly feel as though we have been through enough. So, we take one day at a time and hope for tomorrow.
I guess the big picture for me is that I got my son back. Not whole. But I did get him back. And I know enough Gold Star families to know that the alternative is not pretty. “There but for the grace of God go I.” So, maybe, by design, what we’ve gone through – and continue to go through – is the price to pay to benefit so many others. If so, I am okay with that. Even given everything so far, I wouldn’t change a thing. I also have no regrets. Everything happens for a reason, even if we don’t know the reason. But, if my son could get on a plane to deploy tomorrow by some twist of fate, I would be at the airport cheering him on with all my heart. That’s what moms do.
I didn’t find out my son was seriously injured in combat until about two months after the fact. He was hit about eight months into his second tour in Iraq. His unit’s first tour had been in Fallujah; the hot spot at the time. This tour was in Baqouba; also the hot spot at the time.
They had been out on search-and-clear missions rooting terrorists out of their hiding places, finding weapon caches, etc. They stayed out on a combat outpost for awhile. This makes it easier than driving all the tanks and equipment to and from the FOB each day. They might be there just a few days, sometimes weeks. Mike would try and give me a heads-up before the longer ones so I wouldn’t worry if we hadn’t heard from him. Easier said than done. I’d found that, with deployments, there would be degrees of worry as opposed to worrying or not worrying. He was a tanker in an impressive unit, sent out to deal with the ugliest of the ugly on the front lines. They have a reputation for setting the standard by which other units strive to achieve. Being one of a crew of four, Mike was the driver this particular day. The crew of D33 had run over IEDs before, surviving ten blasts to date. (I only found out about the previous ten after learning of the eleventh.) I used to think IEDs were more of an annoyance to our troops, as opposed to being a deadly threat. I’d seen them on the news; they looked like a dinner place-sized disc. What most of us hadn’t been made aware of is the determination of the insurgents and their creative ways to make these things deadlier.
This particular day, May 17, 2007, the IED the D33 crew ran over – to avoid a huge hole in the dirt road made by a previous IED – was wired to three propane thanks, all buried underground. The blast rocked the tank, all 78 tons of earth-rocking, life-saving steel, and bounced it up as it fell and landed on its side. The underbelly of the tank – where Mike, driving sat – was gutted. All the hydraulics were destroyed, and the tracks were shredded. The pictures are pitiful; two tow-tanks gently carrying what was left of Mike’s baby – D33 – back to base. That sad, broken, wonderful chunk of metal saved my son’s and his brothers in uniform’s lives. And they were all deeply in love with it. I can tell you that whatever money our government spent on that huge piece of steel was worth every penny. It’s no small miracle that they all survived.
Mike banged his head hard, for the 11th time. There is nowhere for your head to go when you are surrounded by metal. Helmet or no helmet, your head gets pounded. He was knocked unconscious, due to the traumatic brain injury. He also suffered from a severe neck strain with misaligned vertebrae. He lost a fair amount of hearing, racked his knees, strained his back, and aggravated the broken foot he already had. He also has spider fractures in both legs from the knees down. As with most of these guys, his first and only concern was concealing as much of his injuries as he could so he wouldn’t be separated from his guys. Having ‘invisible wounds’ made this somewhat easier for a time. But as time went on, without treatment, Mike’s brain injury continued to deteriorate, revealing the extent of the damage. The accompanying PTSD was affecting him as well, and the pain from the blast became unbearable. He could no longer bear the weight of his safety gear or his helmet.
He was ordered to be medivac’d immediately to Balad, Iraq for further tests. These showed far more extensive injuries that needed even further testing. He was flown to Germany for even more tests. These clearly showed that he was in no shape to continue the mission. He was informed that he would not be returning to his unit and would be sent stateside for emergency treatment. He had nothing with him. He’d left everything behind, figuring he’d be returned to help his guys. He was devastated and very angry that he would have to leave them back there to pick up the slack. Each of them vow to bring the others back home alive before they deploy. When injuries cut their time short, there is much guilt at not fulfilling that promise. They don’t deal with it well.
Mike arrived, via ambulance at BAM-C; Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. This is a phenomenal facility. The people there couldn’t be kinder and treat our wounded heroes with such care and dignity. Mike being wounded qualified us to be flown down on donated flyer miles. We were put up in the guest house right next to the hospital. Setting eyes on the brave young man I had spent two tours of duty worrying about daily was almost surreal. The lost look in his eyes broke my heart. I was shaking when I first saw him. He was obviously mentally and emotionally spent. We experienced the typical PTSD/combat behaviors in him anywhere we went; having to have a clear view of all doorways of people coming and going, falling asleep briefly at random times, being restless and unable to sit and relax, not tolerating loud noises, being ‘on high alert’ constantly. It didn’t take much to send his system into overload. Sleeping was a luxury that never happened; not with the things he’d seen, done, and smelled so deeply etched in his mind. The effects of this blast were magnified because he had lost his best friend just six months before when the young man had taken a mortar attack in the head. Mike had loaded his friend onto the chopper as he was dying from his wounds. Three weeks before Mike’s blast that sent him home, he had also lost his close friend and roommate. Mike is strong, even when broken, but there is only so much one can take. I had a really hard time leaving him behind when I needed to return home. I’m the Mom. I’m supposed to fix it or at least make it better. This was bigger than that. Driving away from him standing outside the hospital, looking so lost and broken wasn’t as hard as leaving him just before he deployed, but it was pretty close. At least this situation didn’t require conversations a mother should never have to have with her child; wills, end-of-life decisions in case we got to that point, etc. We’d already had those.
Paperwork errors once he was relocated back to Fort Hood put him in the wrong barracks. He didn’t know where he was supposed to be. All we knew was that all his medical care suddenly dropped off the radar. When I’d call to ask why we couldn’t get appointments scheduled, calls returned from doctors, and meds refilled, I was told that he’d now have to be ‘more proactive about his care’. My question to them was, “How is a person with a brain injury expected to even remember where they need to be, and when?” Long story short, six months later, the mistake was found, and Mike was moved into the medical barracks, where he should have been all along. The lack of ongoing medical treatment set him back a lot, as did his refusal to seek medical care out in the field right after the blast. Both these issues will limit his ability to achieve his previous level of capabilities. But, he has no regrets about that decision, so I need to be at peace with it.
Interestingly, after Mike was shipped stateside from Iraq, a crew went in and packed up his belongings to have them sent home. He had called and told me to expect some rather messy, smelly things to arrive. What we didn’t know was that his stuff was shipped to a facility in Maryland first. An entire crew of amazing military people went through everything, cleaned it, folded and ironed all his clothing, sorted everything else, and shipped it home to us. When the boxes arrived, I was prepared for the worst. As I opened all six huge totes, I was blown away by the clean, fresh smell. As I went through everything, I remember crying, thinking that people who don’t even know my son took the time to carefully and gently organize everything I had expected would take me days to do. They even took loose change from his pants pocket and put it in a little velvet pouch with U.S. Army embossed on the front. I called the number on the packing list to thank them profusely. They were so kind, saying that it was their job to care for our wounded and KIA men and women and that they were happy to do it. Every time I find myself frustrated with any aspect of this experience, I find myself completely humbled by the genuine kindness of people that continues to touch us in the most unexpected ways.
So, here we are, two years out from the blast that didn’t take my son’s life. I’m thankful for that beyond measure, and sad that I feel guilty every time another one of our military is killed and that I’m grateful that it isn’t my son. Mike will be in pain and have challenges from his experience that will be with him for life. He will have pain forever. His brain will not come back 100%. The pain of losing 114 of his unit-mates will always hurt. The guilt of leaving his ‘brothers’ behind will haunt him. But, he will always say that he would rather this had happened to him than one of them. As proud as I am to have kept it together while he was gone, I also feel that I selfishly drew strength from him. But I was determined to conduct myself with dignity. I didn’t want him to hear on future trips home that his mother was a complete mess while he was gone. He deserved better than that. I had decided that if he could hold up his end of things over there, I owed it to him to do the same here. I also, selfishly, figured if he thought things were fine here, I had a better chance of getting him back alive if he wasn’t distracted by things on the homefront.
I don’t know what’s worse at times; worrying while he was deployed that I’d never see Mike again if he was killed, or seeing him struggle at times now that he’s home. I’m so very thankful to have him home finally, but it’s hard either way. I am grateful every day that I get to hug him and see his beautiful face, but I see his pain when I look in his eyes. And it kills me that I can’t make it better for him.
Mike has since received his Purple Heart after being denied 13 times due to clerical and other errors. We continue to navigate the monstrous VA, insurance, disability, and other systems that are designed to help us put him back together. It can be overwhelming. But we are very thankful to have him here. We love him and support him and always keep his lost brothers in uniform and their families in our prayers. This experience has impacted our lives in so many ways. None of us will ever be the same. But at least we still have each other and we are, and will always be, so proud of Mike’s choice to serve his country.
Mom of Spc. Michael J.A. Payeur
Tanker, 1st Cav, U.S. Army