Sunday, August 25, 2013



There are, more often than not, those times with Gracie and her soldiers that are overwhelmingly intense.  Times that take your breath away, times that change you forever, times that hold the secret of life.  Their stories and their stories with Gracie are woven into my life story.

People over and over again tell me that they couldn’t do what I do.  They ‘just couldn’t deal with it.’  I usually smile and don’t answer, but in my heart I know that this isn’t what I do, this is who I am.  And despite my high school English teacher’s warnings of double negatives, this is something “I can’t, not do.”  Love is not what I feel, it is what I do.

 Last week I was remembering a time at the Fisher House and a certain soldier. I swear I could not remember whether he had legs or not.  Strange!  Then I wondered what difference does it makes.  Isn’t that just what the dogs do?  Don’t they accept the soldiers and patients regardless of their appearance?  I don’t even notice anymore, if a limb is missing.  There are so many, it is now routine to me.  The courtyard between the two Fisher Houses and the Center for the Intrepid is sometimes like rush hour with young men in wheelchairs, many missing both legs.  All are handsome, vibrant, strong, smiling, determined, resolute and gritty. Some come wheeling over to wherever Gracie might be, reach down and pet her as if it were a normal occurrence, maybe say something or maybe not, then off they go to lunch or doctor’s appointments or therapy. 

Like most Saturday’s Gracie and I had entered the front hall of the Fisher House to the wafting aroma of Saturday morning bacon and eggs prepared by a local church.  This is always a bit distracting to Gracie whose nose often leads her into trouble, or to tidbits that might make it to the floor, or if my head is turned, a child or soldier handing her a tiny crumb in secret. 

We went into the TV room to set up her water dish behind the large brown leather wing chair as always.  Nick was snoozing in one of the other chairs.  To the average person there was nothing appeared different to the casual observer.  But I noticed instantly that for the first time in a year and a half he had legs.  His prosthetics were on!  Nick had been through hell, seriously burned and losing both legs.  But he was making the turn.  He now can drive a specially converted car and has a girlfriend.  Life is good.  His dad who has been with him for the entire time, had finally gone back home.  Nick was going to be okay.  And as he reminds me with a grin, ‘I’ll be a little bit taller than I was before.”  Soon he said his goodbyes, patted Gracie and began the laborious process of standing with his crutches.  He then threw a back pack on and headed for his room.  For me this was huge.  I had never seen him in anything but his wheelchair. I put my hand over my heart and took a deep breath. 

In the meantime, Gracie had found an old friend, Jacob.  Watching Nascar races and eating a huge plate of scrambled eggs, bacon and fresh fruit on the sofa, Jacob, in his usual warm and hospitable way, asked if I had had my breakfast. He has been at the Fisher House for 17 months and is in the final process of being released and will soon be going home to Pueblo, Colorado.  Gracie ran to his side, sniffed him and then gave him ‘kisses’ on the cheek for the several little pieces of crunchy bacon he offered her.  Then she was off to find more friends.

We went outside to take a little ‘break’ in the grass to discover that it had not been mowed in a good while.  Gracie had quite a crowd in hysterics as she was almost lost in the tall grass.  She loved it and the more laughter she received the more she enjoyed the journey, with only the top of her back and tip of her tail visible, and her long ears waving like the American flag that flew high above her.

We headed back to a patio table and sat and talked for a while with Maria, the wife of a wounded soldier from Ft. Riley, Kansas.  Maria was beautiful and young and looked tired beyond her years.  Gracie and I were alone with her, as she told us about her husband and his injury.  I asked what she did to take care of herself.  She said when Adam was in doctor’s appointments at the hospital and then therapy she tried to rest a little in between.  She shared that she was her husband’s sole caretaker.  There was no one else.  With a tear in her voice she said, “You really know who your friends and family are when something like this happens. And quickly you know who they aren’t.”

I asked if her husband were sleeping and she said he was inside finishing breakfast.  She soon went and got him. As he came out, Adam laid something on the patio table and we all sat together.  I wanted to take a photo of Maria and Gracie and was struggling with my new camera.  As I tried focusing on Gracie, I noticed in the viewfinder that there was a hat or something on the table.  I put the camera down to remove the distraction from the shot, but when I did I realized it was an army helmet.  I looked at it and then at Adam and then Maria.  Maria simply said, “That is the helmet Adam had on when he was shot through his head.”  The reality of the situation and Adam’s injury came through loud and clear.  I had a cold, eerie feeling, but I couldn’t let it show.  Maria pointed out the entry and exit holes that took a large part of Adam’s brain.  The same bullet that went through the helmet changed Maria’s life, as well as Austin, Brandon and baby Lea, their three young children. And it changed mine.

On this hot first day of summer, I felt angry and bitter at this discovery on the patio table and deeply saddened for the family that had been cheated in such a horrific way.   Gracie was on her pink rubber backed mat on the table next to the helmet.  I wanted to record this moment, and as I focused the camera I realized that Gracie’s little tongue was gently touching the bullet’s exit hole.  It was as though she had some sixth sense.  It was as if she knew.  I snapped the picture and then told Gracie to “leave it.”  She did and quietly laid her head down on the mat just inches from the helmet, as I took another and then another photograph.  This helmet worn in Iraq by a courageous young husband and father of three exceptionally handsome children had come along way.  I asked Adam if his buddies had saved it for him.  And he simply said, “Yes ma’am.” 
Adam needed to get inside out of the sun and heat and to rest.  Gracie and I said our goodbyes and I told Maria I would email her the photos that afternoon.  When I got home I downloaded them and it was suddenly more real that before.  I emailed them to her, with a note that should she need anything at all to call me, or if she needed to just get away and go to lunch.  She wrote back almost instantly, “I love the pictures. You can but them in your website.' If you want we can sit down and tell you what happened, from the time he got shot till now so you can put it in your website to see if you get some donations for the therapy dogs. I really love what you are doing. It helps the injured soldiers and their families. When I was spending time with her, (Gracie) I just forgot for a second how my life has changed. Thank you so much for taking your time to visit us here at the Fisher House.” 
Maria, as well as a growing number of other military wives, has been thrust into a life as caretaker for her severely injured husband, as well as their three young children.   She has been forced to navigate a new life.   All I could offer was little Gracie and lunch for this young woman. 

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