LESSONS LEARNED. A Blown Up Wife’s Blog on Life – Leaving Walter Reed

By Paige Wetzel, wife of Army Sgt. Josh Wetzel

Walter Reed is a terrible, wonderful, exciting, boring, mystery of a place.

In the time that my husband has been at Walter Reed, he has undergone over thirty surgeries, spent countless hours in physical therapy learning how to walk, worked with an occupational therapist to learn to use his left hand again, had a rough stint with infections, detoxed from some of the world’s most powerful drugs, and accompanied me to dozens of marriage counseling sessions. He has also learned how to run, hand cycle, swim, mono-ski, drive, and even be a father to a beautiful baby girl; all without legs. The bad memories here echo in my mind just as loudly as the good. The amount of fear, prayer, and faith reached a lifetime high within the confines of Walter Reed Medical Center. The lessons I learned about unconditionally loving someone are unforgettable. Yet, with Josh’s retirement upon us, I can’t help but think about what will truly stick with me decades from now—that’s the friends we have made here.

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A facility like Walter Reed is nothing like anywhere I have ever been. It is the only place we will ever go where the majority of patients are just like Josh. Imagine living in an apartment building where every room in the building housed a person missing a limb. Picture going to the doctor’s office for a routine checkup and every person in the waiting room is in a wheelchair. Think about picking up a new pair of legs or arms as often as you get your oil changed. You’ve heard the term, ‘There’s an app for that,’ well here, ‘There’s a prosthetic for that.’

The signature wound of OIF and OEF veterans is amputated limbs. While amputations are a terrible way to leave theatre, they are what bond the soldiers of Walter Reed together. We live in a world where wheelchairs, amputations, and robotic joints are more common than seeing someone walk their dog in the morning. But, how common will it be when we have all left and begun our lives as civilians? Ten years from now, my husband will be leaning on the fence of a little league field in our once new hometown watching our children play ball, and because of his signature wounds, people will forever recognize him as an Afghanistan vet.

How strange will it be to look back and remember a time when we spent two years living in a hospital and amputees were a dime a dozen? Will we ever miss it? I know we will miss each other. Just like the bond these wounded soldiers share, the wives and children share one too. I bond with other wives here because we have all experienced the life of a caregiver. Although we are labeled ‘the dependent,’ our husbands are completely dependent on us. It is hard to truly understand the role reversal. Our husbands didn’t exactly make a living baking cookies. Their jobs required strong bodies, 24-hour availability and experience with deadly weapons (and that’s when they were stateside). One bad day at work and we go from sending care packages full of candy to brushing his teeth, bathing him, putting him on a bed pan, calling his nurses, monitoring his medicine, feeding him like a baby, changing his clothes, talking to his doctors, pushing his wheelchair, tracking his appointments, using medical equipment that we shouldn’t be touching, shaving his face, taking him to surgery, and sleeping on a bed in the corner of the room that makes a 2×4 seem comfortable. Not to mention mending our husbands’ mental wounds sustained from complete loss of independence. Our resumes in crash-course nursing are quite impressive. Some of the incidents my fellow wives have experienced are enough to define the love in their marriages in a single moment.

How tough will it be to tell our children about the time their strong, independent father couldn’t even feed himself? How odd will it be when we have grown old and he is more self-sufficient as a seventy year old than he was the year he turned twenty-six? Although my daughter is only five months old, she has made friends with children who were either born into this environment or were abruptly taken away from their homes to come to Walter Reed to help Daddy get better. She is one of several children that ride a wheelchair sitting in Dad’s lap, cheer him on during him physical therapy, and play ‘ride little horsey’ on a pair of nubs. She will graduate to the responsibilities of the older children when she is a little bigger. The bigger kids carry their Daddies’ limbs, know how to operate power wheelchairs, and can dismantle and assemble prosthetics faster than most adults. Those aren’t really skills needed in kindergarten, but they are skills that only children of amputees have.

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After thinking about my past, the present and my future, I think I will go ahead and label my time at Walter Reed as the weirdest time of my life. What other scenario in life can you watch your husband and other soldiers literally defy death multiple times while inheriting cutting edge technology that will help them regain their independence again? What other place will my husband ever go where the 3R80 hydraulic knee is a conversation starter between strangers? And where on earth could we ever find people who have been where we’ve been and seen what we’ve seen?

Nothing excites me more than closing this chapter of our lives and starting a new one as civilians. While my time here has been more than unorthodox, I have decided that Walter Reed has also been the second biggest blessing of my life behind the birth of my baby girl. The circumstances leading to this place were above unwelcome, but the return on time invested has proven to be fruitful, worthwhile and life changing. The men here have kept me humble, the women here have kept me sane, and the guy I married has kept me thankful. I love my country, I love our military, and I love what God Almighty has done with the last two years of my life. My prayer is that these friendships last as long as the wounds that started them.

“The Semper Fi Fund and America’s Fund have helped us in countless ways,” Josh said. “They paid for a dress uniform for the military ball, they paid for Paige’s tuition one semester, they funded a baseball trip where we got to see six baseball games (and stadiums) in seven days, and they helped us buy a car. America’s Fund is an amazing organization because they simply see a need and try to meet it—with no strings attached.