Columnist

Joe Briseno wasn’t there for a lot of the early moments of his three kids’ lives.

That’s not unusual for Army dads like him who were deployed to foreign countries when diapers needed changing.

So now, at 57, as he fights through the regrets and the what-ifs and the tears, Joe tries to be thankful for the second chance — albeit a cruel one — to be there every minute for his oldest child and only son.

Jay Briseno was 20 when he was patrolling a marketplace in Baghdad and everything changed.

His dad told him not to go into the military, like his grandfather and step-grandfather and aunts and uncles had.

Joe and Eva Briseno are at home with their son, Jay, in Manassas. Jay Briseno was shot in the back of his head in 2003 in a marketplace in Baghdad, Iraq. His spinal cord was severed, rendering him paralyzed from the neck down and on full life support. (Charles Ommanney/The Washington Post)

“We told him we could pay for college, that he didn’t have to go into the military,” Joe said.

But Jay said it was in his blood. And he joined the Army Reserve right out of high school to help pay for classes at George Mason University, where he was studying forensic science. He was called up to serve in 2003, shipping out on his 20th birthday.

He told his parents that he liked interacting with the Iraqis — he was with a community-building unit. But not all of them liked the Americans there. Just a few months into his tour, an Iraqi man shot Jay in the back of the neck with a revolver, severing his spinal cord. A soldier in his unit pulled Jay out of the market and got him to safety.

He was flown to Kuwait, then Germany, where his parents were prepared for the worst when they saw him. Military officials have told them that their son may be the most severely injured service member of this war to survive.

He was flown to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington and then moved to McGuire VA Medical Center in Richmond, where he went through dozens of surgeries. That December his parents brought him home to Manassas Park where they had turned their basement, then their living room, into an intensive care unit.

For a decade, they struggled in that small home to move Jay, to bathe him, to work around the machines, the tubes and the hospital bed. A year ago, Houston-based Helping a Hero and two Virginia nonprofit organizations, Azalea Charities and the Quality of Life Foundation, built the family a new home in Manassas. It has a lift, wide doorways and accessible bathrooms so Jay could have his first real bath in more than a decade.

A police and military procession escorted them when they moved last fall.

Caring for the now 32-year-old Jay is far more difficult than caring for an infant.

His body has to be turned every two hours. Each of his thin, atrophied limbs has to be washed, massaged, exercised and lotioned daily. His feeding tube needs to be cleaned, his trach tube needs to be adjusted and all the machines that keep him alive need to be monitored 24 hours a day.

Although much of America has moved on from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Brisenos are among the thousands of American families who will never see the end.

Joe quit his job as a software quality inspector to care for his son full time, becoming his son’s physical therapist, respiratory therapist, wound-care nurse, GI nurse and case manager.

His wife also helps care for Jay, but she worked in a medical office until recently. And their daughters visit and help out, but one is married with two children and the other is about to marry.

It is Joe who has taken on many of the day-to-day duties. In 12 years, Jay’s feet haven’t touched the ground; they look as soft as a baby’s. The care that Joe has provided is so meticulous that his son has never had a bedsore.

Jay is one of the 1.3 million Americans — more than half of those deployed — who went to war and are now fighting the physical and mental effects of service.

Medical advances are saving more lives, so there is a growing group of caregivers like Joe — about 1 million parents caring for their severely injured adult children, according to a study by the Rand Corp. and Caring for Military Families Elizabeth Dole Foundation.

The foundation helps families navigate health-care systems, figure out government benefits and connect to other groups. Joe is usually one of the only dads at the support group meetings and in waiting rooms and at foundation conferences. Most of the caregivers are women.

Mom Eva retired from full-time work in 2003 to help care for Jay. In 11 years, the two of them have left their home together only four times.

No one other than family comes to visit Jay anymore.

Jay had a girlfriend in high school, but Joe doesn’t know what happened to her.

His friends — the guys he bonded with on the football and track teams, the friends he made when they were all too young to legally drink — turned 21, went to bars, fooled around, got married, had kids.

They had little in common with the friend who seemed to age backward, back into infancy.

Because he is paralyzed from the chin down, blind and suffered brain damage in the attack, Jay can only interact in the smallest ways, with eye rolls and a slight grimace.

“We don’t really know how much he understands,” Joe said.

Once, the soldier who was there that day in the Baghdad marketplace with Jay and pulled him out and saved his life, visited their Manassas home.

“He looked at Jay and he told me he was sorry that he saved him, that if he knew this is the life Jay would have, he should’ve let him die,” Joe said. He took almost a minute to finish that thought. Gulping, closing his eyes, shaking his head, pressing his lips together hard.

“And I told him no. No, he did the right thing. We’re blessed to have Jay here.”

And he went over to Jay, straightened the Redskins blanket covering him and kissed his boy all over his face.

“I love you,” he told his son. And in the eye language they’ve created of blinks, eyelid flutters and eye rolls, Jay certainly said that back to his dad.

“It’s like we got a baby boy in 2003,” he said. And he tucked Jay’s ragged, 30-year-old teddy bear into his wheelchair. He had already spent an exhausting four hours that morning caring for his son. There were only 20 more hours to go that day. Then he and his wife would start anew the next day. And the day after that.

For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.