By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 28, 2006
A few weeks after an explosion tore off his legs and part of his right arm, Army Sgt. Joseph Bozik felt the time had come to tell his girlfriend she no longer was bound by their plans for marriage.
He asked his mother to leave his hospital room at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center and addressed his girlfriend, Jayme Peters. "Be completely honest with me," he said. "If you want to go home, that's fine."
As she broke into tears, Bozik said he'd be okay, and he would understand completely. He knew she had not bargained for a husband like this.
Along with its impact on bodies and minds, the war in Iraq has deeply affected military marriages and relationships. It has presented some young couples with an age-old choice: wed before departure to the front or wait until homecoming. And it has forced married couples to endure long, repeated separations.
But experts say the hardest challenge can be when a spouse or lover comes home catastrophically injured.
"The young stud that the woman married, when he comes back injured, is no longer a stud," said one Army counselor.
Couples have had to face reunions in which the returning soldier or Marine has lost one, two or three limbs, has been disfigured or paralyzed, or has suffered a permanent, debilitating brain injury.
The couple must reexamine the foundation on which their relationship is built, experts say. The two might have to accept new roles, in which the spouse may be the chief breadwinner and caregiver. And the injured service member may feel like less of a person and wonder if he or she is still really loved.
Kay Eady, 50, a teacher from Albany, Ga., said she often tells her husband, Clarence, 41, who is recovering at Walter Reed from the loss of a leg in Iraq: "You're more a man to me now -- for someone to go through that and come out smiling."
But Michael J. Wagner, director of Walter Reed's medical family assistance center, said he once heard a spouse say in front of her injured husband: "How can I deal with this? He's not even a whole man anymore."
One young soldier at Walter Reed recuperating from a double amputation said recently that his war injuries were the last blow to his four-year marriage. He said his wife already was unhappy with his two tours in Iraq.
Speaking anonymously because he is in the midst of a divorce, he said she left the hospital partway through his recovery, telling his mother she was not coming back.
"That was rough," he said. "I got on the phone to her and talked to her and cried. . . . I was like, 'I got nobody.' That was the hardest thing. If she had just stuck it out a little longer."
Combat in Iraq and Afghanistan has produced 424 amputees, according to a Walter Reed spokesman, and 459 traumatic brain injuries have been treated at the Naval hospital in Bethesda, which specializes in brain-damaged casualties.
Steven Tice, a veteran trauma counselor who lost an arm and a shoulder in Vietnam in 1970, said it also is possible for the challenge of a major war injury to enrich a marriage in the long term. Tice married in 1970 after returning from Vietnam, was divorced in 1977, then remarried his wife the following year after getting counseling for combat stress. They have been together for 36 years and have three children.
"I think it can be a key to a thriving marriage," he said in a recent interview. If a couple can come out of such a calamity "with compassion for each other, and assist each other in negotiating the planet, you've got some healthy individuals."
* * *
Jayme Peters was sitting in her car outside a CVS pharmacy in College Station, Tex., about to open a Gatorade when she got a frantic phone call from Joey Bozik's mother, Gail. "Something's happened to Joey!" Gail cried. "Something's happened to Joey!"
It was Oct. 27, 2004, and Gail had just learned that Joey had been terribly wounded in an explosion in Iraq. He had lost both legs and one arm.
Joey, now 28, was a strapping, 6-foot-1 soldier. He'd been working out, was in top shape and was too smart and alert. God had plans for him, Jayme thought. He couldn't be wounded.
A native of Wilmington, N.C., he had been serving in Afghanistan when a mutual friend connected them via e-mail in March 2003. Now 24, she was a college gymnast from Tyler, Tex., and student at Texas A&M.
They courted after he got home and soon were making plans. She would finish college; he would pursue a career in federal law enforcement.
Then he learned he was being sent to Iraq. They looked at engagement rings, and he had planned on proposing to her once he got home.
Just before he left, they talked about what might happen. Jayme told him she didn't care if he lost limbs. The only circumstance in which they might part ways would be if he suffered a severe brain injury.
"I think you would want me to go on with my life," she said she told him. "That's the only reason I will leave you. Otherwise, don't you ever let it cross your mind."
Neither of them really thought he might be maimed.
"That wasn't the plan at all," he said.
* * *
Carrie and Adam Kisielewski decided that marriage couldn't wait until he returned from Iraq.
What if he was killed in battle?
"I wanted to have the chance to say we were married," she said. "I didn't want to go through my life thinking I never had a chance to marry him."
So they married last June. In August, the Marine lance corporal and an officer were searching an empty school near Fallujah when they triggered an explosive device. The officer died, and Adam lost his left arm at the shoulder and right leg below the knee.
Thinking he was dying, Adam asked his buddies to tell his wife he was sorry he wouldn't be able to buy her a house. "They pretty much told me to go to hell, that I'd have to tell her myself," he recalled in an interview. "They gave me a reason to stay alive."
Once Adam, 22, reached the intensive care unit at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Carrie, 27, moved to a hospital guest house to be near him.
They had been married about 12 weeks and never had genuinely lived together.
An Army friend had warned her that a grieving Adam might push her and other loved ones away and shut them out of his life.
Mostly, she was overwhelmed by how helpless he looked, sedated in the hospital bed.
He was just starting to emerge from the haze of drugs when one day she walked in and he began to cry. His heart rate jumped, she said, and a doctor asked her to leave.
She didn't know what to think.
"I was just afraid that he wasn't going to want to see me and didn't want me in his life," she said.
She had gone back to the guest house when Adam's mother called.
"We need you over here," she said his mother told her.
"I'm only coming if Adam asks for me," Carrie said.
"Yes, he's asking for you," his mother replied.
To this day, Carrie said, neither she nor Adam is sure why he was upset. "I don't know if it was because he didn't want me to see him that way or he was upset that he wouldn't be able to take care of me. I don't know."
Adam recovered quickly. He said he never wondered if she still loved him. He knew she did.
In January, he and his wife moved into a new house in Thurmont near her parents, finally beginning their married lives together.
"It's an adjustment," she said.
Sometimes, in a restaurant, she must help him cut his steak. But then he will go race around on his ATV, which terrifies her.
They know they have seen much more than most couples in their first months of marriage. "I figure if we can make it through this one, we're smooth sailing for the rest of however long," she said.
* * *
At night, after all the visitors were gone from his hospital room, Joey Bozik would think about his girlfriend. He was coming to terms with what the land mine had done to his body, and most of the time he felt happy to be alive.
But how happy would she be with a man who had lost both legs and an arm?
"Is Jayme going . . . to want to stay with me?" he recalled wondering. "Is she going to want this lifestyle?"
They had to talk about it, and he knew he had to offer her an out. She knew it, too.
"I knew that he was eventually going to tell me that I could go," she recalled. "He was just that kind of guy."
And that pained her, she said, because she didn't want him to doubt her even for a moment.
She recalled that they had the talk right before Thanksgiving of 2004 in his fourth-floor hospital room.
"Why do you want to stay with me?" she said he asked. "Why would you want to stay with me?"
She began to cry.
"I pretty much told him that I loved him," she said. "I was willing to be with him the rest of my life if he would let me."
They were married Dec. 31, 2004, in a hospital chapel. Sitting in a wheelchair, he looked tired but happy. He wore a dark jacket with a red boutonniere and had his wedding ring on a thin chain around his neck. She wore a lacy white dress and veil. They had cake and flowers and played a CD of wedding music she bought at a local bookstore. "It was a good time," she said.
Since then, their lives in Mologne House, the hospital's long-term recovery residence for the most seriously wounded, have been filled with adjustments to the new reality.
As Joey recovered, was fitted for three artificial limbs and underwent months of physical rehabilitation, she did the laundry, the shopping, the scheduling, the driving. For a time, she had to open his sodas, help button his shirts and arrange things so he could bathe himself without asking for assistance.
She watched him undergo his exhausting therapy and got him dinner. They were together a lot. Sometimes they both looked drained. She had to be careful not to do everything for him. "He wants his own dignity, his pride," she said. And he had to learn to ask for her help.
Last month, after nearly a year and a half of recovery, they left Mologne House for good and headed back to North Carolina.
They packed Joey's spare artificial legs in a big blue sports bag and, helped by a visiting high school pal, Martin Wysocki, began loading their belongings into a trailer hooked to their Nissan out in the parking lot.
Waiting in their third-floor room, Joey seemed pensive as Jayme taped the last boxes. A warm breeze blew the curtains. The TV chattered. The erasable wall calendar on which she had logged much of their lives had been wiped clean.
When it was time to go, he slipped on the artificial legs with the hydraulic knees, adjusted the suction in the camo-colored sockets and headed for the lobby in his electric wheelchair.
She slung a courier bag over her shoulder, grabbed his two canes and went to the front desk to pay their $1.22 phone bill. "This is the beginning of the next stage of our lives," she said.
Outside, Joey backed the wheelchair up the trailer ramp and stood unsteadily. Jayme stepped to help him, handed him a cane and guided him down the ramp.
She climbed in the driver's seat, and as he maneuvered to the passenger side, he sang, "I got some spurs that jingle, jangle, jingle."
Then, under a clear blue sky, they drove away.