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With Iraq War Come Layers of Loss

On Christmas Eve a year ago, the couple arrived at Summer's mother's house for dinner as some neighbors were setting off firecrackers. John wouldn't get out of the van. "He couldn't take the noise," Summer said.

With children who are 5 and 7, she has been unable to return to work as a claims supervisor for an insurance company and had to ask for help from the Red Cross to pay the mortgage and water bill. Army administrative problems left the family without pay and health insurance for the children for months at a time.

"I looked for whoever could help me, or I got on the phone and started yelling," Summer said. "As hard as it gets and frustrating -- and I scream -- you just have to keep going."

John, 40, said he feels frustrated, too, but recognizes that many other wounded troops are even worse off. "There are so many people like me," he said, his words slurred. "People need to know."

'Working Our Way Out of It'

With a long scar on his face, metal holding his jaw together and more reconstructive surgery ahead, 23-year-old Sgt. Doug Szczepanski Jr. often finds people staring at him on the street. "Sometimes I'll make up stories and tell them it was a shark attack, or a skateboarding incident," he said. "Then when I tell them the truth, they'll look at me all weird and say, 'What? You got blown up in Iraq?' They don't know what to say."

Szczepanski was wounded in September 2005 when a suicide bomber exploded an Opel sedan packed with artillery rounds next to his convoy north of Baghdad.

"I was scanning to the left and it came up to us really quick," Szczepanski said. The blast blew his face open down to the collarbone, blinding him in the left eye and nearly severing his right ear. Shrapnel pierced his head and his upper body was covered with second- and third-degree burns.

His parents saw him six days later, when he was transferred to the hospital at Fort Sam Houston in Texas. "He was unrecognizable, he was so swelled up and burned," his father, Doug Sr., said in a phone interview from their home in Bay City, Mich. "You first see your child like that and you're so confused. You don't know if you should cry, sit down, throw up. We just wanted to get on the airplane and go back home and pretend none of this happened."

But relying heavily on their faith, the family persevered.

Szczepanski's mother, Amy, closed her business as a home child-care provider to care for her son, losing about $1,300 a month in income. "We probably would have lost our home without help," she said. "We're still working our way out of it." A survey this year by the nonprofit Coalition to Salute America's Heroes, which has helped the Szczepanskis and the Adamses, showed that more than half of families of the seriously wounded experience a drop in their standard of living.

Szczepanski has given up his goal of becoming a police officer like his father, but because he was spared brain injury -- "a miracle," his mother says -- he plans to obtain a degree in criminal justice and pursue a job in that field.

'I'm Willing to Give My Life'

Sgt. Matthew Boone, 26, of Anderson, Ind., is serving his second tour in Iraq now; he thinks he will probably be back for a third. He also has served in Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa since 2001, when he joined one of the most deployed units in the Army, the 2nd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division.


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