Cover Story

Battle Worn

Richard Twohig's children, Lizzie and Damon, play in the house their father rented in Athens, Tenn., after the three left Knoxville.
Richard Twohig's children, Lizzie and Damon, play in the house their father rented in Athens, Tenn., after the three left Knoxville. (Mike Smith)
By Paula Span
Sunday, February 25, 2007

THE SHADES IN RICHARD TWOHIG'S GARDEN APARTMENT ARE DRAWN TIGHT AGAINST THE SUMMER SUN. This is partly because it's 94 degrees in Knoxville, Tenn., this afternoon, but also because light can trigger one of his bad headaches, the kind that make his knees buckle. His kids have grown accustomed to dimmed surroundings.

They've been cavorting on the living room carpet, Lizzie with her fuzzy pink dog named Princess, her little brother, Damon, with his prized jeep. Their chirpy ebullience isn't unusual for a 6-year-old and a 3-year-old who haven't had much chance to romp outside today but noise can bring on Twohig's migraines, as well. "Why don't you go up and play a while?" he suggests mildly, and they troop upstairs to their shared bedroom.

The apartment, which the family moved into three weeks ago after a nomadic year, still feels a bit empty. There's a couch and a coffee table and a big TV in the living room, but the walls are bare. Twohig wishes he had a yard for the children and their real dog, a boisterous Great Pyrenees named Athena. Still, the place is clean and comfortable, and he can manage the $570 rent on the disability checks that the Department of Veterans Affairs sends each month.

"If I have a good day, I try to take them up to the park at the school," he says, knowing that the kids should probably be outdoors more. It's only a two-minute drive. But he doesn't have so many good days.

Since he was thrown from a moving armored vehicle in Baghdad in May 2003, and landed on his head, the former Army corporal says he has suffered from near-constant headaches. This afternoon's is the easier kind to take: He figures the throbbing registers a 6 or 7 on the 10-point scale that injured vets learn to use to quantify their pain. The more severe headaches come perhaps once a week now, he says, and even the heavy-duty drugs he takes can't really blunt them: "Before, I would pass out in the shower, things like that. You kind of learn when they're coming on. So when I feel lightheaded and my legs get weak, I crouch down" so he doesn't fall. Those are the sort he rates a 10.

The headaches are one of the disabling conditions Twohig incurred in the line of duty, the Army acknowledges, along with a "mood disorder with depressive features." He appears fit, in his patched jeans and T-shirt: 6-foot-2 and, now that the bloat from earlier drug regimens has dissipated, 180 pounds. Tattooed snakes and samurai, souvenirs of Fort Bragg, twine up his arms. With his blue eyes, cleft chin and crew cut, Twohig looks like the same paratrooper -- Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division -- who easily handled 25-mile marches wearing a 35-pound pack and carrying an M4 rifle.

But he isn't. He often forgets what his mother, retired Marine Corps Maj. Belinda Twohig, tells him on the phone moments after she has said it. He's lethargic; he can't concentrate. If he has to enter a mall, he calculates which entrance will let him come and go with the least amount of human contact. A guy who used to happily devour an entire sausage pizza and some cheese sticks for dinner, he now has scant appetite and, troubled by nightmares, sleeps perhaps three hours a night.

He can't imagine holding a job in this condition. "What can I actually do?" he asks. "Physical work gives me migraines. I vomit all the time . . . I'm on morphine; I'm addicted. I'm just a mess."

Ask him his age, and he takes a long, thoughtful pause before replying. "Twenty-five."

Despite the migraines, the tinnitus (ringing in his ears), the chronic shoulder dislocation and other documented physical problems, he works hard at caring for the children, doing their laundry, cooking them simple meals, supervising them with great patience. (Their mother, from whom he is separated, serves with the Navy in Virginia.)

"Damon, either sit up in your chair or go upstairs and play," he cautions calmly, when the kids grow restive watching the Cartoon Network. "Do not sit on your sister." He rarely raises his voice.

In fact, Twohig's response to most things is muted. He doesn't laugh much, doesn't seem to take much pleasure in Lizzie and Damon's exuberant antics. It might be the meds or the pain or the prospect of a life in which he may never work, but there's a flatness to his personality that his family finds new and troubling.

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