'Am I Ever Going to Be Loved Again?'
Laura Sauriol & Ferris Butler
Sunday, October 18, 2009
Ferris Butler, a 28-year-old platoon leader and ninth-generation serviceman, was closing in on his sixth month in Iraq when his armored vehicle rolled over a hidden explosive, catapulting the 17,000-pound truck into the air above the dusty road. Moments later, in the Yousefia twilight four days before Christmas 2006, he would look down to see his legs shattered, his feet mangled and bloody.
Capt. Butler was flown from medical centers in Iraq to Germany and finally to Walter Reed, where doctors operated on his lower limbs, offered the relief of pain medication, and didn't answer when the soldier asked whether he was going to lose his legs.
Everything was there: the bones -- however fractured -- and all 10 toes. They would try, it was decided again and again, to spare him the life of an amputee. He saw the other soldiers with their prosthetics, and always thought, "I don't want that."
The daze of shock and prescribed narcotics was cut, one January evening, when a brunet college student with big eyes and a singsong voice appeared in the doorway of Butler's hospital room and asked if he wanted dinner. "Well, yeah, I want dinner," he said, and silently thought, "Will you have dinner with me?"
"She was just absolutely beautiful," he recalls.
She was Laura Sauriol, a 19-year-old sophomore at Mount St. Mary's University, who began volunteering at Walter Reed the previous year after reading an article about Operation Second Chance, an organization that helps wounded soldiers. "Something told me, 'You have to do this,' " she remembers. And before long she was spending four nights a week at the hospital, delivering meals and movies and video game systems -- "anything to help pass the time because they were just stuck in a bed for so long."
More than Butler, Sauriol -- who had a strict policy about not fraternizing with the soldiers -- noticed his family. The Port Tobacco, Md., native was among the lucky, with parents close enough to visit almost every day. By the end of January, his doctors determined the front of Butler's right foot was unsalvageable and needed to be removed. After four months in the hospital, where Sauriol would check on him regularly, Butler moved to outpatient housing to recover.
There he fell into "pure, unadulterated depression," recoiling from social settings, suffering guilt at the thought of leaving his troops in Iraq, wondering, "Am I ever going to be loved again? Am I ever going to date again?"
"I always grew up and felt like I'm this big bad tough guy and here I am rolling around in a wheelchair," says Butler, a University of Maryland graduate. "There's nothing tough about being in a wheelchair."
That summer his left foot became infected, forcing doctors to amputate so that Butler "basically had two heels left." Learning to walk that autumn was frustrating, awkward and acutely painful.
By the end of the year, after 52 surgeries to try to save his legs, Butler agreed with his doctors that the 53rd would remove his left leg below the knee. "I kind of became more comfortable with the thought of being an amputee and wearing a prosthetic."
In February, weeks after the amputation -- which Butler says "was just absolutely the best decision" -- Sauriol ran into him in the lobby of the outpatient hotel. As often happened when soldiers moved out of the main hospital, she'd lost track of Butler and suggested they catch up over breakfast at a nearby restaurant.
Sitting across from him at Eggspectation in Silver Spring, Sauriol was struck by how different this Butler was from the one she'd met lying in a hospital bed the year before. She'd never before seen him laugh. Now he was all chatter and jokes and energy.
"He was in such a better place in his life and back to his old self," she says.
Butler began texting Sauriol, inviting her to watch college basketball games and hang out after her dinner deliveries were made at the hospital. At the end of the night, he would always escort her out to her car and ask for a hug. One evening, just after he'd arranged to take her to the Melting Pot as a thank-you the following week, she found herself with butterflies during their embrace.
"I thought, 'Whew! Where did that come from?' " recalls Sauriol, now 22.
The following week he left Walter Reed without his wheelchair for the first time. Over dinner she decided -- since he was on his way to a discharge and military retirement -- to exempt him from the "no dating patients" rule. That night, as he'd dreamt of doing for over a year, he kissed her.
It would be the first of many; the soldier and the volunteer were serious within weeks. When Butler decided to amputate the other leg that summer, Sauriol spent every night in the hospital with him. Last December Butler, now 31 and working in commercial real estate, arranged to take Sauriol on a tour of the White House and -- with permission from first lady Laura Bush -- proposed in front of the Blue Room's Christmas tree.
On Oct. 4, a breeze whirled her veil as Sauriol met Butler under a cloudless sky and an arch of hydrangeas to marry before 130 guests. The wedding was a gift to them, donated by the Chesapeake Bay Beach Club in celebration of its 10th anniversary.
Declared husband and wife, Butler, who now walks with a barely perceptible limp, and his bride went to a sandy stretch by the water. "She's compassionate and charismatic -- a total package," he said. "And I think everyone has that total package out there, it's just that mine happened to walk into me when I was laying in a hospital bed."