A Year at War: Families Bear Brunt of Deployment Strains

Published on The New York Times, by JAMES DAO and CATRIN EINHORN, December 30, 2010.

Life changed for Shawn Eisch with a phone call last January. His youngest brother, Brian, a soldier and single father, had just received orders to deploy from Fort Drum, N.Y., to Afghanistan and was mulling who might take his two boys for a year. Shawn volunteered … //

… While directing fire from his armored truck, Sergeant Eisch saw a rocket-propelled grenade explode among a group of police officers standing in a field. The Afghans scattered, leaving behind a man writhing in pain. Sergeant Eisch ordered his medic to move their truck alongside the officer to shield him from gunfire. Then Sergeant Eisch got out. 

“I just reacted,” he recalled. “I seen a guy hurt and nobody was helping him, so I went out there.”

The police officer was bleeding from several gaping wounds and seemed to have lost an eye. Sergeant Eisch started applying tourniquets when he heard the snap of bullets and felt “a chainsaw ripping through my legs.” He had been hit by machine gun fire, twice in the left leg, once in the right.

He crawled back into his truck and helped tighten tourniquets on his own legs. He was evacuated by helicopter and taken to a military hospital where, in a morphine daze, he called Shawn.

“Are you sitting down?” Brian asked woozily. “I’ve been shot.”

Shawn hung up and went into a quiet panic. He could not tell how badly Brian had been wounded. Would he lose his leg? He called the school and asked them to shield the boys from the news until he could get there.

Outside school, Shawn told Isaac, Joey and his 12-year-old daughter, Anna, about Brian’s injury. Only Isaac stayed relatively calm.

But later, Shawn found Isaac in his bedroom weeping quietly while looking at a photograph showing his father outside his tent, holding a rifle. Shawn helped him turn the photograph into a PowerPoint presentation titled, “I Love You Dad!”

For Shawn, a gentle and reserved man, his brother’s injury brought six months of family turmoil to a new level. Sensing his distress, Lisa urged him to go hunting, a favorite pastime. So he grabbed his bow and went to a wooded ridge on his 40 acres of property.

To his amazement, an eight-point buck wandered by. Shawn hit the deer, the largest he had ever killed with a bow. It seemed a good omen.

A few days later, Shawn flew with the boys, his father and Brian’s twin sister, Brenda, to Washington to visit Sergeant Eisch at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. At the entrance, they saw men in wheelchairs with no arms and no legs. Others were burned or missing eyes. Shawn feared what the boys would see inside Brian’s room.

But Brian, giddy from painkillers, was his cheerful self. His right leg seemed almost normal. His left leg, swollen and stapled together, looked terrible. But it was a real leg, and it was still attached. The boys felt relieved.

Within days, Brian was wheeling himself around the hospital and cracking jokes with nurses, a green-and-yellow Green Bay Packers cap on his head. While Joey lost himself in coloring books and television, Isaac attended to his father’s every need.

“I feel a little more grown up,” Isaac said. “I feel a lot more attached to him than I was when he left.”

One doctor told Brian that he would never be able to carry a rucksack or run again because of nerve damage in his left leg. Someone even asked him if he wanted the leg amputated, since he would certainly be able to run with a prosthetic. Brian refused, and vowed to prove the doctor wrong. By December, he was walking with a cane and driving.

For Shawn, too, the future had become murkier. It might be many weeks before Brian could reclaim his sons. But he also knew how glad the boys were to have their father back in one piece.

“Brian came home,” Shawn said one evening after visiting his brother in the hospital. “He didn’t come home like we hoped he would come home, but he came home.”

“Every single day I think about all those families and all those kids that are not going to have a dad come home from Afghanistan,” he said. “That hurts more than watching my brother try to take a step because I know my brother will take a step and I know he’s going to walk down the dock and get in his bass boat someday.”

It was late, and he had to get the boys up the next morning to visit their father at the hospital again. The holidays were fast approaching and the snow would soon be arriving in Wisconsin. Shawn wondered whether he could get Isaac out hunting before the season ended.

Yeah, he thought. He probably could. (full text).

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