Newlyweds work to save marriage after war leaves him paralyzed
SALTSBURG (AP)— The attraction between the tall, lean Army sergeant and the petite blonde was instant. After a night of slow dancing at a bar, Joe — on a 10-day leave — just had to see Peggy the next day.
He offered her $150 if she’d call in sick to her waitressing job and go out with him instead. Flattered, the single mother of three agreed to see him after her shift ended.
Before you know it, they were married and Joe was off to Iraq.
For two months, Joe Jenkins would be fine. But then he would find himself on one of the most dangerous battlefields of the war: In a rooftop firefight in Fallujah, a bullet would pierce his spine, leaving him without the use of his legs, paralyzed.
Now, Joe is back home and everything has slowed down.
As Joe, 36, learns to live in a wheelchair, both he and his wife are angry — angry at how the injury has begun to pull apart their marriage.
“It’s not fair and who do you blame? You can’t blame anybody,” says Peggy, who is 40. “We didn’t even have a chance to start a life together before it totally changed.”
Sitting around their kitchen table in November, Joe is sullen, his head drawn down. To comfort Peggy, he strokes her right hand with his right thumb. At times, she squeezes his nerve-damaged right hand to ease bursts of pain.
“I don’t want to be in here for the rest of my life,” Joe says, talking about his wheelchair. “I want to be able to take a walk with my wife and hold her hand.”
Even when soldiers return home uninjured, the adjustments are enormous — for the veterans and their families. Disabilities only make matters more difficult.
“When a soldier goes to war, the family goes to war. When the soldier gets wounded, the family gets wounded,” says Michael Wagner, who heads a family assistance program at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.
The Army recently said it was expanding its programs to help keep soldiers and their spouses together, even providing vouchers for romantic getaways. Studies have shown divorce rates as high as about 20 percent over two years among couples where one spouse has been sent off to war.
Spouses of veterans have a very difficult time understanding what their husbands or wives have been through, says Dr. David Fassler, a Vermont psychiatrist who has worked with military families.
For the wounded soldier back from war, the challenges — physical and psychological — are daunting.
“They’re coping with the trauma of what they’ve been through, the trauma of the separation, the fact that life in their family has gone on while they’ve been away,” Fassler says. “Then there’s the whole issue of emotional adjustment and acceptance of your disability.”
For Joe and Peggy, the challenges surface every day.
The couple live with her father because he has a handicapped-accessible home. They spend their days going to doctor’s appointments, picking up prescriptions and haggling on the phone with bureaucrats.
“It’s hard on us,” Joe says in his military-like, matter-of-fact manner. “It’s definitely caused some problems for us.”
Two days after first meeting Peggy at Big Dogs, a bar outside Pittsburgh, Joe returned to his Army post in Germany. The romance would have to continue by phone, which it did, sometimes in calls twice a day.
Three months later, in June 2003, they decided to get married.
They wanted to marry on a beach in Jamaica, and Peggy even put money down on a Caribbean cruise. But when Joe got word that he was going to be transferred to Fort Drum, N.Y., they moved up the date so the couple and Peggy’s children could move to the post together.
She planned the Aug. 16, 2003, wedding in three weeks. They rented a fire hall, and Peggy bought a straight, floor-length gown off the rack. About 40 friends and family members attended, watching them dance to Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow’s duet “Picture,” a song they had danced to the night they met.
Their honeymoon was a week together at the barracks in Germany.
Within months of moving to Fort Drum, Joe was shipped out to Iraq. Peggy, new to military life, tried to set up her home and adjust her family — children now ages 6, 15 and 18 — to their new schools and surroundings.
In April 2003, Joe’s unit made its way into Fallujah. They were on the fourth day of what was supposed to have been a three-day mission to block the Iraqis from escaping the city as Marines swept in.
As a firefight erupted, Joe was with other soldiers on a rooftop firing his weapon when he ran out of ammunition.
“I went to get more and as I was moving, that’s when I got shot in the neck. And it threw me backwards,” Joe says. “I pretty much knew right there that I was paralyzed.”
Peggy, watching TV at home in Fort Drum, got a call from Joe. The children were asleep. It was April 29, 10:41 p.m.
“Baby, I’ve been shot in the neck. I’m OK,” he told her. Peggy began crying, screaming. She ran to a neighbor’s house to seek solace.
Joe spent about two weeks at Walter Reed, where Peggy says the Army made the family feel welcome. The hospital had food waiting for Peggy and the children when they arrived and a nearby Red Cross station provided toiletries and clothing for Joe.
After that, Joe was taken to a Veterans Affairs hospital in Cleveland specializing in spinal cord injuries. A social worker encouraged Peggy to return home and take care of the family while her husband stayed at the hospital to learn to cope with his injuries.
But both Peggy and Joe thought he would do better at home. He left the hospital after a little more than a month, with a warning they didn’t yet appreciate how difficult it would be on their own.
“We thought being together would help,” Peggy says. “It was harder than being in the hospital.”
In January, Peggy and Joe are back at their kitchen table talking about how he’s been progressing. The body language is different this time, though. Joe holds his head higher as he talks. Peggy is more defiant.
Joe has gotten stronger and learned to be more mobile in his wheelchair. He no longer relies on Peggy to help him get in and out of the chair, or to bathe or dress. He’s taking classes through the VA to learn how to drive a specially adapted car. He gets calls once a week or so from a VA liaison who is pushing him to get more active, maybe take some classes so that he can work again.
Baby steps, they agree. Baby steps.
Peggy pushes him, too, to exercise and be more aggressive about his rehabilitation. She encourages Joe to practice at home what he’s learned at physical therapy sessions, which he stopped going to because they both were dissatisfied with the care. She also tells him he needs to learn to take his wheelchair apart himself; she saw a disabled man at a hockey game do that.
She goes to a friend’s house every morning to drink tea and chat, the kind of break that is recommended for all caregivers.
For a couple that courted over the phone and then lived together only briefly before he was deployed, Peggy and Joe now spend all of their time together.
But Peggy says the more she tries to motivate him, the more it comes across as nagging.
“If I push, then I’m pushing him away,” she says. “If I don’t, then I sit here and see him suffer.”
Joe sits quietly, listening to her talk about their relationship. It’s hard for him to hear, he says, and hard to talk about himself.
They fight over money. The Army didn’t discharge Joe until Dec. 1, and he was still waiting for his first retirement check, they said.
Recently, Joe ran out of the methadone he takes for the pain in his right hand. It’s taken weeks to arrive, and the two argue over who should make the follow-up call.
They joke that they should have two phones in the bedroom — one on Peggy’s side of the bed and one on Joe’s side — so they can talk to each other. It worked so well when they were courting.
The couple — who took a real honeymoon, a cruise, in October — is seeing a marriage counselor. They have been to three sessions so far, and Joe expresses doubts that it’s actually working. He says maybe they need to talk with a different person.
He says he’s not real motivated to do anything. Sometimes, he blames himself for getting shot. Maybe he should have moved differently on that rooftop, he thinks.
“It’s hard to talk about it. She’s my wife. I just feel like she shouldn’t have to hear it,” Joe says. “It’s not her fault I’m like this.”
Despite the troubles, they say they want the same things: to buy a house, to get job training for Joe and to stay married.
And despite the daily fights, they still have tender moments. Going to the door with visitors to their home, Joe tells Peggy how pretty she is. She blushes, then smiles.