Love for wounded soldier upon return from Afghanistan

October 8, 2011

Rebecca Taber and the Army lieutenant kissed on the sidewalk outside her 16th Street apartment.

They had met through friends and had spent, at most, six hours together over the course of two evenings. In a few weeks, 1st Lt. Dan Berschinski was going to Afghanistan, where he would lead a platoon of 35 men. It was June 2009.

Rebecca, then 23, noticed the black memorial bracelet that he wore as a reminder that his soldiers’ lives would depend on his decisions. “It made me think that he was mature,” she recalled. The looming danger of his combat tour only added to the evening’s excitement. Rebecca felt as though she were playing a part in a movie.

(Love after war: See photos of Rebecca Taber and Dan Berschinski’s life together)

She had graduated from Yale University one year earlier, where she had been student body president. She was slim and pretty with a high forehead and dark hair. People told her that she resembled actress Natalie Portman.

Like most of her friends, she knew no one her age in the military and gave only passing thought to the wars. Speaking to students at Duke University last year, former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates lamented that “for a growing number of Americans, service in the military, no matter how laudable, has become something for other people to do.” He could have been describing Rebecca.

After graduation, she landed a sought-after job working for McKinsey & Co., a management consulting powerhouse that each year hires a small number of the country’s best college students. She was one of those earnest Ivy League graduates who come to Washington convinced that it’s their destiny to do something of consequence.

Earlier that night, at a U Street bar, she had asked Dan if he was scared of combat. The 25-year-old lieutenant said his biggest worry was making a mistake that would cause one of his soldiers to be injured.

As they kissed on the sidewalk, Dan’s mind shifted to less consequential matters. He wanted to get upstairs to her apartment, but she kept putting him off. She had work the next morning, she said. Her Indian roommate’s conservative parents were staying in her spare bedroom. She barely knew him.

He reminded her that he was leaving for war in just two weeks and gave it one last shot.

“Don’t let me die a virgin,” he joked. She turned him away.

The following morning Rebecca woke at 7 a.m. and headed to work. She was wrapping up one McKinsey assignment in Washington and weighing whether to raise her hand for a project the firm was taking on in Louisiana. It was a good, safe opportunity, but she wanted something riskier, with the potential for a bigger impact.

Dan rose a few hours later and drove south to visit his grandmother in North Carolina before he flew back to Fort Lewis, Wash., and then on to southern Afghanistan.

After lunch, Rebecca’s cellphone buzzed with a text message. “You’ve given me a new motivation for not getting blown up,” she read.

A ‘new lens’ on war

On July 19, Rebecca got her first e-mail from Afghanistan. Dan’s unit was at a logistics base outside Kandahar province, complete with Internet cafes, a T.G.I. Friday’s and its own bus system. “It really blows my mind to think that all of this has been constructed for the sake of killing some ridiculously poor people,” Dan wrote.

Rebecca said she felt as though she had a “new lens” on the war. On a visit home to Scarsdale, N.Y., she read the e-mail to her parents. Her father was the co-head of litigation for a big New York City law firm with a dozen offices scattered around the globe. Her mother was pursuing a master’s degree in music composition.

Her family history illustrated the military’s slow retreat from society. Both of Rebecca’s grandfathers were drafted into the military in the 1940s. Her maternal grandfather had spent three decades in the Air Force Reserve. He retired in the mid-1970s and gave his uniform to Rebecca’s mother, who hung it in a bedroom closet. Her father finished college just after the draft ended and never served.

When Rebecca was born, her grandfathers’ service seemed like ancient history. She attended Horace Mann School, a private New York prep school that routinely sends students to top colleges but almost never to military academies. She was driven, meticulous and, by her own admission, sometimes obsessive. She tracks her goals and accomplishments on daily, weekly, monthly and seasonal to-do lists.

During the two weeks Dan spent at the Kandahar logistics base, he and Rebecca e-mailed almost every day. He teased her for being “dorky” and worried about whether his unit was ready for combat.

“I’ve trained for this crap for a long time, but the drills that I’ve practiced a thousand times are no longer just drills,” he wrote on July 27. “The next time my platoon reacts to enemy contact it will be the real deal, so that’s weighing on me a bit. And the pent up sexual energy doesn’t really have a calming effect either.”

Rebecca replied the next morning: “I can’t imagine how weird it must be to be getting ready for the real thing.” On Aug. 14, she sent him a last note: “I’m guessing your e-mail access isn’t great any more. I am thinking of you and hope all is well!”

By that point, Dan had left the big Kandahar base and moved with his platoon to a small combat outpost in the Arghandab Valley, where Canadian troops had taken heavy casualties and had not been able to dislodge the Taliban.

One bomb, then another

Dan’s 800-soldier battalion was losing a vehicle a day to roadside blasts and ambushes, a situation he described in a hand-written letter to Rebecca as “infuriating and terrifying.”

On his first day in the Arghan­dab, two engineer vehicles exploded about 100 yards in front of him. An hour later, his platoon was in its first firefight. “I wish I could describe to you what all of this feels like,” he wrote. “I’m just incredibly proud of all my guys and terrified that one of them is going to get hurt . . . . I’m absolutely falling in love with my men.”

Two days after he mailed the letter, the Taliban ambushed one of his sister companies. Dan’s platoon was ordered to help the unit. He was moving across a footbridge when Spec. Jonathan Yanney, his 20-year-old forward observer, stepped on a makeshift bomb and was killed instantly. Dan was thrown face first into the dirt. He was not hurt.

Dan’s soldiers were searching for Yanney’s equipment and remains when the company commander told Dan to march his platoon through a muddy mangrove orchard and meet up with the rest of their unit.

Dan was angry his soldier had died on a mission that he believed was, from its start, poorly conceived. He was furious that his platoon had not been able to find all of Yanney’s body.

Later that night, he was walking back to his platoon’s position after a meeting with his company commander. It was a route through which dozens of soldiers had passed without incident. Dan stepped on the trigger of a buried bomb.

The explosion fractured his jaw, shattered his arm and blew off his legs. A young medic worked to stop the blood gushing from Dan’s femoral arteries. An evacuation helicopter, which had been sent to pick him up, mistakenly diverted to a firefight. Dan’s soldiers debated whether to stuff him in the front seat of a two-person scout helicopter that was in the area. The medic said that Dan needed to lie flat or he would bleed to death.

He faded in and out of consciousness. “Yanney got off easy,” one of Dan’s fellow soldiers recalled him saying. “My life is [ruined].”

His soldiers screamed at him to open his eyes, and Dan began to think about how angry his parents would be if he died.

After an hour of waiting, an evacuation helicopter touched down.

An invisible war

Two days later, Rebecca stepped out of a meeting in Washington and noticed she had a missed call on each of her cellphones. Both were from Sabrina Howell, her Yale roommate, who was dating Dan’s brother. She had introduced Rebecca to Dan.

In a hushed voice, Sabrina told her that Dan had stepped on a bomb. Rebecca, sobbing hysterically, called her parents. They had never met or even seen a picture of Dan. The war in Afghanistan was not a part of their world.

“Oh, my God,” her mother said. “I am so, so sorry.”

Rebecca met Sabrina at a Caribou coffee shop four blocks from the White House. The initial reports about Dan’s injury were sketchy, Sabrina said. Dan was still in Kandahar in a medically induced coma. Both of his legs were gone, but his brain appeared to be functioning. No one was sure how long it would be before he was healthy enough to move to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.

Sabrina tried to comfort her friend. Military doctors were making big advances with prostheses, she said.

Rebecca attempted a little humor. “Men wear long pants,” she said. Dan could still have a normal, happy life.

That evening in her apartment, Rebecca decided to write down every mundane detail of her day. She wanted to understand why she felt so disoriented and overwhelmed. She needed to make sense of her emotions.

“I shaved my legs this morning,” she typed. She had debated what shoes to wear — high heels from Nine West or pointy, low-heeled Ralph Laurens. She had mistakenly said in a business meeting that Billings was a city in Minnesota instead of Montana. “I couldn’t stop thinking about it,” she wrote. “Probably the worst mistake at work I have made yet.”

“It is just not fair,” she typed, thinking of Dan. “It is just so sad. You weren’t there long enough. This wasn’t supposed to happen.”

Rebecca stared at pictures of amputees on the Internet and tried to imagine Dan’s thin face and blue eyes on a legless body.

She expected that the New York Times or The Washington Post would do a story about Dan and the two soldiers killed the same day. “I distinctly remember telling people that it was going to be all over the news,” she said later. But there were no stories in the papers beyond a couple of small-town obituaries. Dan’s war was invisible.

A week passed before Dan was healthy enough to fly to Washington. Rebecca tried to visit soon after, but Dan’s family held her back. Dan was too sick for visitors, they said. He was having a bad reaction to his new medications.

Rebecca worried that he did not want to see her. She had already begun to think of DVDs they could watch together in his hospital room. She was determined to be his friend. “I remember thinking, ‘If he will stay positive, I will be there for him,’ ” Rebecca said.

In mid-September, she got the okay to visit Dan. His brother Rob and Sabrina drove Rebecca the four miles from her apartment to Walter Reed. Rebecca was so nervous she had chills.

Sabrina reassured her that seeing Dan would not be “scary or strange.” Rob popped in to the room to make sure that his brother was dressed.

The lower half of Dan’s body was covered by a sheet. There were no bumps where his legs would normally have been. To Rebecca, it seemed like an optical illusion. She smiled and reminded herself to maintain eye contact.

After about 30 minutes, she left. In the hallway outside Dan’s room, Rebecca immediately began dividing the other wounded soldiers into two categories. They were either better off than Dan or worse off.

By late October, Rebecca was visiting Dan at Walter Reed a few nights each week after work. It was hard for him to talk or eat with his broken jaw. So she brought plastic containers of soup from Whole Foods. They watched lots of movies.

Dan carried some anger about the war, which he thought was bloated and wasteful. But he considered himself lucky. He felt responsible for Yanney’s death, but it did not haunt him. He experienced no nightmares, no post-traumatic stress disorder and none of the memory loss associated with traumatic brain injury. He still had his hands.

And he had his genitals. “There are some things you can live without and some things you can’t live without,” he observed. Since 2009, scores of soldiers and Marines have lost their sexual organs to explosions.

In November, Rebecca’s parents came to Washington and went out to dinner with Dan, his family and some of her friends. She matter-of-factly warned her parents to ignore the noise from the colostomy bag he needed to empty his bowels. Dan insisted on picking up the $800 dinner bill.

A few weeks later, Dan moved into Malogne House, an outpatient dormitory on the Walter Reed campus. To celebrate his discharge, Rebecca took him out to dinner.

They flirted a bit over dessert. Dan wondered whether she would let him kiss her. He still had an open wound in his stomach where the colostomy had been reversed.

“She has every right not to be interested,” Dan recalled thinking.

He and Rebecca went back to her apartment and sat next to each other on her couch. There, they kissed for the first time since his injury.

“You know, I am missing my legs,” Dan joked. “Is that an issue?”

“I never dated a guy because he had nice knees,” Rebecca replied. “But I do like nice arms.”

Rebecca’s college roommate worried that Rebecca was mistaking empathy for romantic love and would find herself in a relationship that she could not end. “Who could break the heart of an Army officer who lost both his legs?” Sabrina recalled thinking.

Rebecca’s mother fretted as well. “I kept saying, ‘If you don’t think you would have wanted the person that Dan was before he got hurt, then you should really think about whether you want that sort of relationship now,’ ” Andrea Taber recalled.

‘I am going down’

Dan’s battalion returned from Afghanistan in June 2010. It had been a brutal deployment. Some 25 soldiers from the 800-man unit had been killed, the highest fatality rate of any battalion by that point in the war.

In late July, Rebecca and Dan flew to Fort Lewis for the battalion’s end-of-deployment ball, held in a fancy hotel near the base. Rebecca wore a purple and pink cocktail dress, and Dan donned his formal uniform.

He had lost his entire right leg and had only a thigh on the left side. In almost 10 years of war, no one with Dan’s amputations had been able to walk for more than short stretches. Dan was still struggling with his prostheses, but he wanted to be standing when he greeted his soldiers.

Rebecca had spent the day getting her nails and hair done. This was going to be her introduction to the real Army. She expected the banquet to be a little like a prom, with military uniforms instead of tuxedos.

It was more like a drunken wake.

Before the ball began, Dan and Rebecca were chatting and snapping pictures outside the banquet hall with several soldiers from his platoon. The heels on Dan’s dress shoes were throwing his balance off.

“I am going down,” Dan whispered urgently.

He grabbed Rebecca’s strapless dress, yanking it down to her waist. She latched onto the wife of one of Dan’s soldiers. The three of them fell in a pile, and the woman, an epileptic, suffered a mild seizure. Rebecca pulled up her dress and laughed off the fall.

The scene inside the hall was almost as disorienting. Rebecca met the Army medic who had kept Dan alive as they waited for the rescue helicopter. In her mind, she had pictured him as a young doctor, but the soldier looked as though he was barely out of high school.

He mentioned that he was leaving the Army and returning to school.

“Are you planning on going to medical school?” she asked. He was looking for a good community college, he replied.

Rebecca tried to tune out the grisly conversations as soldiers visited with Dan, reliving the day he was wounded. Music thumped in the background and pictures from the deployment were projected onto the walls. A slender, blond woman named Lisa Hallett stopped by the table and began chatting with Rebecca.

Her husband, Capt. John Hallett, 30, had been killed in Afghanistan seven days after Dan was wounded. Lisa had three small children. Her youngest was born two weeks before her husband died. He had missed the birth. Shortly after her husband’s funeral, Lisa had written to Dan that she would have given anything to have her husband come home with no legs.

Rebecca remembered reading the letter in the hospital. “I had this image of the person writing to Dan as a middle-aged woman,” Rebecca recalled. “Instead, she was this young, beautiful woman.”

The lights dimmed and a slide show memorializing the battalion’s dead played on a screen in the front of the banquet hall. A picture of Lisa’s husband appeared, and the young widow began to cry. Rebecca hugged her. “I felt like she needed someone to be there for her, which is a strange thing to say about a woman you met 10 minutes ago,” she said.

When the slide show was over, Rebecca left the hall alone and returned to her hotel room. “I remember being so profoundly sad,” she said. “Here is my boyfriend, who just fell on the floor because he has no legs and can’t wear dress shoes. And here is a woman who is going to raise three kids by herself because her husband died, and both of these guys could have done anything with their lives.”

Dan returned to the hotel room a few hours later and found her asleep, still in her dress.

Rebecca’s influence

Earlier that summer, Dan was honored in Peachtree City, Ga., where he was raised. There were pictures of him in uniform with the words “Our Hometown Hero” written beneath. There was a three-mile fun run to raise money for his recovery and a parade with more than 500 motorcycles, firetrucks and police cruisers.

Dan’s parents ran a small printing business in the middle-class Atlanta suburb. His brother Rob had been a star student at the local high school, earning admission to Yale and paying for it with an Air Force ROTC scholarship. Two months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, New York Times columnist David Brooks had celebrated Rob as “that rarest of creatures, an Ivy League member of the ROTC.”

The columnist predicted that a renewed ethic of service would bind together a fragmenting country. Instead of dorm rooms with refrigerators, this generation of college students would opt for barracks. Such high-minded sentiments, however, were quickly forgotten.

Dan was more typical of the teenagers drawn to the military. He was a good student, but not an A-plus striver. After high school, he spent a year at Marion Military Institute, an Alabama community college that admitted students who fell just short of gaining admission to the U.S. Military Academy. In 2003, he made it to West Point, where he graduated in the middle of his class.

He loved the physical aspects of Army life: the long runs with his soldiers, the patrols through the woods. He was funny, smart and not afraid to question his superiors. “I really don’t want to stop being a platoon leader, and I don’t know what I’m going to do if I do ever get out of the army,” Dan wrote to his brother one month before he left for Afghanistan.

Dan hated the idea of riding in a parade through Peachtree City. He complained to Rebecca and argued with his father in an attempt to avoid it. But his father prevailed. Dan waved to the crowd from a convertible at the head of the motorcycle procession. “It was the most uncomfortable that I have ever been,” he said. “I am joking here, but the reason I was being recognized was because I was a bad infantryman. The enemy beat me. . . . I don’t need people to feel like they have to thank me because otherwise I will be disappointed that it was all for nothing.”

The truth is that Dan is mostly fine. Doctors at Walter Reed view him with admiration and some puzzlement. He has been able to set aside his trauma and move forward with humor and little regret.

Rebecca attempted to read Dan the emotionally wrought journal entry that she wrote on the day she learned that he had lost his legs. After a few lines, he asked her to stop. “We were going out to dinner, and I didn’t feel like getting bummed out,” he recalled.

She tried again a few days later, but she could tell he was not paying attention. “Dan, are you even listening to this?” Rebecca asked before giving up.

Dan loves Rebecca’s drive, focus and ambition. She expects Dan to match her determined pace.

A year ago, she bought a white board and set it up in the living room of Dan’s apartment in Silver Spring. She wrote two weekly to-do lists for him. One is “Dan’s Personal To Do’s,” which usually includes working out at the hospital rehabilitation center, swimming and studying for the business school admission test, or GMAT. They hope to attend Harvard or Stanford business school together next year.

The other list consists of his “Professional To Do’s.” Dan is teaming up with a plastics manufacturer in Ohio to start a business selling storage chests to the Defense Department.

The first time Dan’s brother and father saw the white board and the lists, they erupted with laughter.

“It strikes everyone as hilarious,” Rob said. “It is Rebecca’s influence.”

Now Dan maintains the lists. Since losing his legs, he has become more conscious of how people see him. “I understand that most people will look at me and go ‘that guy’s life is screwed,’ ” he said. He realizes he needs to show people that he is a success. He wants Rebecca to push him.

Today, Rebecca is on leave from her consulting job and works as the deputy chief of staff to the Delaware education secretary. She lives with Dan on weekends.

Rebecca sometimes wonders whether she would have felt the same attraction to Dan if he had come back from Afghanistan intact. She lists the qualities in him that she most values: his strength, his humor, his ambition. “I am still kind of torn whether these sides existed or whether the injury brought them out,” she said. “The qualities I admire most in Dan weren’t immediately apparent to me.”

As a couple, Dan and Rebecca have developed shared rituals. Rebecca designated Aug. 18 as Dan’s “blown-up day.” This year she offered to throw him a party and invite some of their friends. Dan said he did not want to dwell on the anniversary. Instead, Rebecca came home early from work and made him spicy shrimp with mango. She wished him a happy blown-up day and they shared a quiet meal.

They have forged unspoken understandings. More than two years after the blast, Dan is still struggling to walk on his prostheses. A simple maneuver like stepping over a one-inch-high door threshold requires his full concentration and often leaves him drenched in sweat. Rebecca has learned to resist the urge to hover. “He gives me a look that says, ‘I can take care of it,’ ” Rebecca said.

“Dan lost his legs in Afghanistan, but he got me,” Rebecca kidded recently. They were sitting in Dan’s apartment, which has the temporary feel of a college dorm room. On the kitchen counter is a photo of his platoon, taken the day after Dan’s blown-up day.

“I would have gotten you anyway,” Dan retorted.

More than most Americans, Rebecca has come to understand the sacrifices that accompany military service. She told Dan that she could never have moved from base to base while he pursued an Army career. She could not have subjected herself to the worry and stress of waiting out combat deployments.

Without his injury, she never would have dated him.

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