The Space Between Battlefield and Home
Wounded Veterans Ready Themselves For Altered Lives

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 1, 2005

The packing boxes scattered throughout Room 454 are filling with books, videos, clothes and gifts -- the amazing amount of things that piled up during eight months at the hotel. They will be shipped home first.

A few days later, Trish Autery will gather her suitcases, take some tissues to dry her tears and walk out the door that has a tiny American flag hung near its number.

And that will leave just Marine Lance Cpl. Ryan Autery, 20, the son she has cared for all these months, to pack what remains, close the door for the final time and catch a plane home, from the District to Nashville.

His luggage will contain an artificial left arm -- a spare to accompany the one with which his body and mind have made peace here.

Nobody ever wants to stay at Mologne House.

Soldiers who escape dying in battle by the narrowest of margins find their way here, to this hotel on the grounds of Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Northwest Washington.

The lobby, with illuminated chandeliers and oriental carpet, can be crowded with amputees. Peepholes in most room doors are at wheelchair level. And the snazzy maroon and gray hotel shuttle goes to the hospital around the corner, not the airport.

Mologne House is a place where grievous wounds can heal, where awful recollections can be put in some context and where residents prepare to go back into the world physically and psychologically changed.

Once Autery departs, Room 454, with cream-colored wallpaper, blue and yellow bedspreads and a view of the telecom towers on Georgia Avenue, will be readied for its next guest. More than 90 percent of the 199 rooms are occupied by soldiers and Marines wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan and members of their families.

In the end, because everyone is there for the same reason, checking out of Mologne House can be emotional.

"It's sad," Trish Autery, 47, said. "I've cried many a time watching [other people] leave. But you're so happy for them. . . . You're ecstatic that they're going, but you may not see them again."

Soon, it will be the Auterys walking out the lobby doors, leaving behind the hell of their past 11 months, and others waving goodbye.

Trying to Forget

Ryan Autery's calamity was scarcely noted when it happened last August.

The headline was: "Marine injured in bomb explosion that claimed life of another."

The 236-word, nine-paragraph Associated Press report out of Murfreesboro, Tenn., announced that the then-19-year-old from LaVergne, near Nashville, "lost a limb" when his Humvee hit a land mine in Najaf, Iraq. Another Tennessee Marine, Cpl. Brad P. McCormick, 23, had been killed, the report said.

Autery doesn't like to talk about that day. Asked what he remembers, he replies: "Everything." But it's depressing, he said. "A very touchy subject." He's been trying to forget it, though he has McCormick's surname tattooed above the cross on his right arm.

"Some people have the ability to block out traumatic events," he said. "I, apparently, do not have that ability."

The attack happened Aug. 19 in Anbar province, "out in the middle of . . . nowhere." He had just checked his watch. It was 11:15 a.m.

A Marine rifleman right out of high school, Autery was in the back of an open Humvee when it was rocked by an explosion. The blast shredded his left arm, which was amputated just below the elbow at a combat support hospital nearby. He had been in Iraq five months.

He was taken to a hospital in Baghdad, then to one in Germany, then to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, then to Walter Reed for its amputee rehabilitation program. He was at Walter Reed until October, when he was released to Room 454.

The wounded are sent to Mologne House when they are well enough to leave the hospital, said general manager Peter A. Anderson, but still need help and treatment for their injuries.

Except for a few more hospital stays and a couple of excursions, Ryan Autery has been there the whole time.

Autery's mother and father, Rick, who served in the Marines in the 1970s, arrived the day their son was flown to Bethesda, and his mother has been with him almost nonstop since. In the hotel room, she slept across the night table from him, in the bed nearest the door, while he bunked nearer the TV set.

Autery's recovery did not go smoothly. The amputation was complicated to treat. One operation took 10 hours. At another point, a skin graft failed, and he had to have his stump sutured to his side to promote a new graft. He also suffered a bacterial infection and then a reaction to antibiotics, his mother said.

In addition, "he was very emotionally damaged," his mother said during an interview in the Mologne House dining room last week. "He'd come down here for formation, go to the hospital, do his therapy, come straight back here around lunchtime and you wouldn't see him the rest of the day. He'd lock himself in that room.

"So I didn't feel like I could leave him at that time," she said.

Weeks passed, then months. Out the window of 454, mother and son watched fall and winter come and go. Spring arrived, then summer again. "We have officially been through leaf changes, blizzards and heat waves and some pretty hellacious thunderstorms," he said.

In November, his father went back to his job at a Nissan plant in Tennessee. Trish lost her job and started taking college accounting courses online, doing homework with a laptop computer on her bed, beneath a framed drawing of the Lincoln Memorial. Ryan turned 20 in December.

As time went by, Room 454 got messy. The two argued over the TV. He loved the safety of the Cartoon Network, where there was little to trigger bad memories. "I didn't want to watch that 24 hours a day," she said.

"Thank God we get along," she said. He was "the baby" of her three children. "She and I have always been close," he said. He was glad to have her near.

"I basically needed her here," he said. "I wanted to be by myself, so I could learn to live by myself. But at the same time, I would get really lonely. . . . Also, in the beginning, having to deal with a lot of the emotional aspects of what happened to me, it was a big help having her here because I had a shoulder to cry on and somebody to talk to."

And the hotel was a godsend, with the Marine Corps paying the bills, she said. "If I had to worry about where I was going to be in relation to him, I don't think I could handle that."

In the spring, he got his first artificial arm: He ordered one done up in Marine Corps camouflage with a Purple Heart badge attached. "They can pretty much do whatever you want," he said.

He learned to tie his shoes with his right hand and his left hook. And he adopted the grim Mologne House humor. "You lost a limb," he said. "What are you going to do? It ain't going to grow back."

He and his fellow amputees would joke and have T-shirts made with outrageous slogans about their injuries. "If you can find humor in your own tragedy, then you're definitely a lot better off," he said.

As he came out of his shell, he and his mother began visiting newer hotel guests to reassure them that everything would be all right.

"You sit there and cry with them," Trish Autery said. She would tell others: 'It'll be okay. He's going to come through it. You'll come through it and probably be in a better place when you get to the other side.' "

Ready to Move On

The Auterys have almost reached the other side. "I'm perfectly fine," Ryan Autery said, "with the exception of carrying around a big hook. . . . I can run, swim, jump, play, whatever, I can still do it." He joked: "I swim in circles, though."

And it is time to go. He hopes to leave a week or so after his mother. He will return to his parents' home and has thought about going back to school to become a history teacher. Mainly, he said, he needs to get home and be back around civilians.

As for the past year, he said he would do it all again, except for one thing. "Knowing what I know now. . . . I would just change what happened Aug. 19."

One day last week, he flopped on his bed in Room 454 beneath a drawing of the Capitol framed on the wall. The floor was cluttered with jeans, comic books, boxes and his spare, battery-powered artificial arm. His mother sat on her bed, beside a white teddy bear, a laptop and an open accounting book and prepared him a ready-to-eat tuna fish snack. He reminded her to include the relish.

"I like this place," he said, yawning as he lay on his back with his arms outspread. "It's a nice place. It's beautiful. But I will not be upset at all about leaving. . . . I know when I check out of this room my next stop is my actual room at home."

His mother agreed. She will definitely miss the people of Mologne House, she said. "But not the place."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company