On July 28, 2006, Cheryl Gansner’s husband Bryan was six weeks from leaving Iraq when his convoy, driving through Kirkuk, rolled over a pressure-switch IED that exploded under his seat. His injuries: shattered heels, a shattered right ankle, broken top and bottom of his tib/fib, shrapnel wounds to the entire right leg, knee damage, fractured wrist, battery acid burns that resulted in a skin graft, traumatic brain injury, and PTSD. To date he has had 15 surgeries.
“He lost a lot of blood, and they had to wake up the other soldiers to donate because they ran out,” Cheryl says. Cheryl, 28, is a program coordinator for Operation Homefront’s Wounded Warrior Wives Program, which according to its website “provides emergency financial and other assistance to the families of our service members and wounded warriors.” She also blogs regularly about her experience as a way to help others. “It still shocks me every time I see it,” she writes in a Dec. 28, 2010 entry at her blog site, Wife of a Wounded Soldier. “The huge indentation in his thigh where he is missing muscle, the skin graft scar that is purple and red, the black pepper of shrapnel throughout his entire leg, the calf muscle that was cut repeatedly, the bumpy uneven skin.”
Cheryl and Bryan met in Nashville in 2002, four years before the incident in Iraq.
(Special thanks to Like It For Time for allowing us to reprint the following interview with Cheryl. “Like” it for TIME is raising awareness of the military family experience in a decade of war. This year, they’ve asked people to help them prompt TIME magazine to name the military family as Time’s 2011 Person of the Year.)
LIFT: Was he already in the military when you met?
CHERYL: Yes, and I wasn’t too keen on the fact that he was. I never saw myself marrying someone that would be away for long periods of time, fighting in wars, raising a family practically alone. I saw my family members living with PTSD from fighting in wars, and I didn’t want that to happen to me.
LIFT: How did he change your mind?
CHERYL: Bryan was a genuinely sweet man with a love for his job and country. He was confident in who he was without being arrogant. He trusted me when he deployed the first time with his finances and affairs when he was telling his soldiers never to do that. He let me be me without trying to change or alter me. It’s hard to let a good man go, so I didn’t.
LIFT: What bothered you the most during deployments?
CHERYL: The media, of course. Only the negative is portrayed. The length of the deployments was too long, and it is hard living with your cell glued to your hip at all times. The doorbell ringing during deployments bothered me because I was afraid it was Causality Affairs telling me my husband was coming home in a box. Never knowing when they might call you. Not knowing if they are safe or where they are.
LIFT: What do you wish more people understood about the experience of having a loved one go to war?
CHERYL: That it is not romantic. It is terrifying, but the most honorable thing one can do.
LIFT: How were you notified of his injury?
CHERYL: His LTC personally called me once they had him somewhat stabilized. My mother happened to be spending the night with me so she was there when I got the call.
LIFT: What kind of care has he received since he’s been home? Are you happy with it?
CHERYL: He had the top ortho surgeon at Walter Reed, and he did a beautiful job on his heels and ankle. The doctors here are impressed with the quality of his surgeries. He did get MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) from the hospital. His hospital room was disgusting. I personally changed his sheets every day and bleached his room. His nurses were amazing, and we still are friends with them. They really took the time to care for him and also teach me how to change his wound dressings. The physical therapy was amazing as well. The VA has been trying, but we expected that. We had an outside ortho surgeon, who volunteers his time at the VA, to reconstruct his knee because we were advised by a VA doctor not to use the doctors the VA employs.
LIFT: What was it like for you after he came home?
CHERYL: I became his full time caregiver for a year. It was hard, as I don’t handle blood well and the smell of his healing/infected wounds is ingrained in my brain and nose. It was the hardest time of my life, and I was very angry and exhausted. After his physical wounds healed, we dealt with the PTSD and depression. That was the hardest thing to deal with. I had no idea how to help him.
LIFT: How was your marriage affected by what happened?
CHERYL: For three years, we only survived. We had a communication breakdown, and he isolated to the point that he rarely spoke to me. Once he hit rock bottom, he got hyperbaric oxygen therapy for his brain injury and changed his medications. That was when we were able to connect again. He is now doing better. The PTSD still surfaces and his memory will never be the way it used to be, but we are managing a lot better.
LIFT: What ultimately motivated you to become a program coordinator for the Wounded Warriors Wives program?
CHERYL: I wanted to help others and give them hope that they can survive this. It is my dream job, and I am thankful every day that I get to connect to these amazing women. We provide – 1:1 support/consultation – Online discussion forum/Facebook Page – Caregiver Care Packages (Wal-Mart Foundation) – Quarterly newsletters – Quarterly Caregiver Retreats – In person “community” groups (currently at 3 locations) […and so much more. – LIFT]
LIFT: Approximately how many people currently benefit from the program?
CHERYL: We have about 250 members to date. The wives are usually very emotional when they receive their care package, because it is the first time anyone has thanked them for their service and sent something just for them, not their warrior. Our facebook page is very active and the wives are always sharing information and supporting one another. We share a unique bond that doesn’t acknowledge rank, age, or geographical differences. We are all bonded because we have experienced something life changing and traumatic.
LIFT: Based on what you see in the media and hear from others, how do you feel military families/the military community is perceived?
CHERYL: I have had civilians question why I ever married a military man. They ask me if he would join the Army again after knowing he got blown up (the answer is yes). They ask me if we are angry at President Bush for the war. They ask how we feel about the war. I think a lot of them don’t understand why people would choose this as their career. I think they don’t understand the lifestyle. With that being said, we have seen the most patriotic non-military people in this world. They have blessed us with their support. There are those who have started non-profits to support our military and wounded warriors. It is amazing.
LIFT: What elements of being a military family did you most enjoy before your husband retired?
CHERYL: I loved my military wife friends. They are the most amazing women I know. I loved the feeling when he did come home or the calls/letters from overseas. I loved being able to go to the ER and not being charged, it is truly a blessing. I loved to see him in uniform and what wearing it meant—he was protecting my freedom. I like being married to a Hero. I love his battle buddies and how they became our family.
* Cheryl and Bryan, who is now retired from the Army, continue to move forward. Cheryl writes in a January 24, 2011 blog entry, “[F]our years later, I realize that ‘wife of a wounded warrior’ is no longer my identity. We don’t feel the need to tell everyone we meet that he was blown up.” Wounded Warrior Wives was founded in 2007 to benefit any female caregiver of a wounded, ill, or injured service member or veteran.