Three a.m. on a rainy July morning. Her phone rings. Iraq is calling. Cheryl Gansner's heart pounds. The voice on the phone 6,000 miles away isn't her husband, Army Staff Sgt. Bryan Gansner with the 101st Airborne Division. It's a lieutenant colonel. A roadside bomb exploded. Bryan is seriously injured.
"All I could do was listen. I just said 'OK, OK, OK,' to everything he said," remembers Cheryl. "I was in shock. I didn't even think to ask if anyone else was injured or was he going to die."
Bryan was on a July 28, 2006, night mission six weeks before he was to come home from his second Iraqi tour of duty. It was a year and two months since he and Cheryl moved their wedding date to marry before he deployed. Bryan, the troop commander, rode in the convoy's third vehicle along an Iraqi road when a buried improvised explosive device exploded under his seat. The blast shattered his right ankle, right wrist and the heels of both feet. It opened his right knee, jerked his jaw, jarred his brain. Battery acid burned his skin. Shrapnel cut and embedded into his body.
He doesn't remember the explosion. He recalls knowing an IED had been found and others might be near. "What I've been told is when we got hit, I said, 'I guess we found the second one.' " Later he'd refer to that night as when "I got blown up."
Only Bryan was hurt. He didn't feel pain when he tried to open the Humvee door and noticed his bloody, mangled wrist didn't work. His men lifted him from the wreck and helped him try to stand. Then pain hit. It struck again when his boots were cut off. "I remember everybody talking to me, trying to keep me conscious. I remember I arched my back so they could take my belt because they'd run out of tourniquets. I remember lying on the ground, barking orders at guys."
Taken to a hospital in Balad and in a medically induced coma, the 28-year-old needed lots of blood. Forty soldiers lined up. Some got into fisticuffs over who'd give first. From Balad, Bryan was flown to a military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany. Four days after he got blown up he was in Ward 57 of Washington's Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Tubes ran to and from his body. His right arm was in a cast. Both legs were casted to the hips. When Cheryl first saw her husband the next day she kissed his forehead. It was the only spot that didn't hurt.
Bryan's battered body needed 34 days in the hospital, 15 surgeries, a myriad of medications and 20 months of rehabilitation. Surgeons rebuilt his heels with metal plates and screws. He underwent a knee reconstruction and skin graft. He learned to walk again. Less obvious but in some ways more serious wounds - a traumatic brain injury and post traumatic stress disorder - weren't yet realized.
Cheryl moved to Washington to care for her husband full time. She had to quit her Nashville social worker job and sell their Clarksville home. She completed stacks of paperwork to obtain his treatment, veteran's benefits and insurance. In the coming months and years the effects of his brain injury and post traumatic stress threatened their marriage and more. "Mentally it brings out the worst," Bryan remembers. "Until you get through that, you are the worst you can be in most situations. You overreact to things, get angry at things. You think you don't need anybody."
Their lives improved dramatically two years ago after he got hyperbaric oxygen therapy and different anti-anxiety medications. "We are thriving now," says Cheryl. "We are sort of on the other side of it all. I never thought that would happen."
On July 28 the Gansners will celebrate Bryan's fifth "Alive Day." Though it's the anniversary of the night that splintered their lives, it's a celebration of thankfulness. Bryan's alive; they are together. Bryan, who grew up in Missouri, joined the Army out of high school and had already been to Bosnia and Iraq when he met Cheryl Whaley in 2002 in Nashville. He was 24; for him, it was love at first sight. She was 20 and wanted no part of Army life. But the Middle Tennessee girl fell in love almost as fast. They married in May 2005 before he returned to Iraq for his second tour in September.
The IED blew up their plans when it blew out the Humvee floor. Bryan was going to leave the service and flip real estate for a living. They'd start a family. After his rehabilitation, they moved to Knoxville in 2007. They loved the Smokies they'd previously visited; he had proposed in Gatlinburg. "We decided this was where we would live when we got to start over," Cheryl says. They adopted a basenji mix puppy named Trixie for Bryan. The once avid runner "always pictured myself running with a dog, jogging with a dog. I don't do that now."
Bryan, 33, retired from the military after almost 12 years of service. He works on robots at Remotec in Clinton. There three years, he likes the work. The robots are used by the military and law enforcement. "It's a way to stay in the fight," he says. Cheryl, 29, works with other soldier spouses as program coordinator for Operation Homefront's national Wounded Warrior Wives program (http://www.operationhomefront.net/www/). A blog she began to share Bryan's medical condition with family and friends and then to chronicle their "roller coaster" led to the job last year. "Helping them helps me," she says. "I think maybe my story is the kind that gives people hope a little bit."
She still wants children. For a time Bryan didn't. "He's open to it now. I had to put the hammer down and say, 'This is something I'm not giving up.'" They do seem to be thriving. But Cheryl gets frustrated if someone says her husband seems fine. Those words discount the physical pain and emotional challenges the Purple Heart recipient overcomes daily. "He shows what a hero is, in my opinion - someone who takes adversity without a word."
Even with counseling, coping with the effects of Bryan's traumatic brain injury and post traumatic stress was rough. What he calls "getting my head straight" took three years. "We didn't have a marriage," she says. "It was me taking care of him, trying to keep him calm in public settings and him being angry at me." "I thought about suicide a couple of times. I never tried," Bryan says. He'd yell. They'd fight. Or he'd ignore her, isolating himself in their basement. "At first you don't think there's anything wrong with you," he says. "You just know you are pissed off at everything and kind of in a bad mood. I slowly realized nothing made me happy anymore. It's not until you get better you recognize that everything pissed you off all the time."
At times he wanted a divorce. Once she packed her bags. But they stayed together. "Mainly we sucked it up and dealt with it. Bryan never complained about the pain. I really love him. He has good values, he is a good person. You stick it out," says Cheryl. The bottom fell out in 2009. Bryan stopping taking medicine to fight depression and anxiety. "I decided the meds they had me on obviously weren't doing anything. So I got off them. I got a lot worse."
Cheryl, anxious to somehow help her husband, did research and suggested hyperbaric oxygen therapy. He enrolled for 40 treatments in a New Orleans free clinical study for TBI and PTSD veterans. In each treatment he inhaled 100 percent oxygen while lying in a body chamber with increased atmospheric pressure. The therapy helped the blood flow in his brain. Test results showed HBOT gave Bryan better memory and brain function. After the treatments, he had fewer episodes of PTSD, was less depressed and less anxious.
"Our lives turned around," says Cheryl. "The only bad thing about hyperbaric therapy is that it doesn't last forever." Back home he shocked his Veterans Administration doctor with the news he was off his meds. The physician prescribed different medicine that worked better. Convinced of HBOT's benefits, Bryan got 40 more one-hour treatments at the University of Tennessee Medical Center.
"One of the things I had lost was my 'edge,'" he says. "I always was a go-getter, very sharp, very quick. I lost that. I would find myself searching for words." HBOT "brought back my edge more than anything."
Out of the shadows When she felt her worst Cheryl Gansner reached out to others and found ways to find herself. She volunteered helping children with special needs ride horses at a Knoxville therapeutic riding academy. "I wanted to bow out every week. But those kids counted on me. I felt incredibly good afterward. When you help someone else, you help yourself." Cheryl Gansner fourth from the left, with other wives at an Operation Homefront’s Wounded Warrior Wives retreat. Her bathtub became a refuge. Every week she soaked while reading People magazine, a publication that had never appealed to her before but became an escape. She found friends and support from other spouses on Wounded Warrior Wives' online forums. She attended the group's retreats, events she now coordinates. At one getaway, the women climbed a cliff. There, "all of us screamed. It felt pretty good."
Her blog (http://wifeofawoundedsoldier.blogspot.com) became therapy for her as she journaled her life with Bryan. Now it is often solace for others. She advises wounded warriors' caregivers "to hang on and to do it as long as you can. And if you can't do it anymore, that's OK. Take time to do something for yourself or volunteer where you have to be there. You have to find something for yourself or you will literally explode from the stress.
"Nobody asks how all this affects the wives. I was a shadow behind him. Now people are starting to thank me for my service. But it's taken a few years for people to realize the price caregivers do pay."
No regrets Cheryl Gansner is happy. "I believe in the power of positivity. If you think positively, the outcome will be positive." Their identities are no longer all consumed with being a wounded warrior and his wife. "We've adapted," she says. The outdoor lovers both water and snow ski and whitewater raft. Bryan wakeboards and scuba dives. He does gets headaches and sometimes forgets things. His feet and legs, which still carry shrapnel, ache. When he walks or stands a lot he may need a pain pill. But what were once 15 daily medications are now three. "Every day my goal is to walk without limping. I accomplish that most days," he says. Says Cheryl: "He's still a giving person. He's a good listener. ... He's slow to write someone off. He's very analytical, and he always thinks before he says something." An HBOT "booster" he needs is in limbo. The VA doesn't pay for the treatment. "They don't believe in it," says Cheryl. The Gansners face $40,000 in bills for the earlier Knoxville therapy. Cheryl says since Medicare denied the claim with incorrect wording, their military insurance isn't paying. They've appealed. She calls it putting on her "boxing gloves" to fight for her husband. "For three years I lived by the second because I didn't know who he was going to be. Then it got where I could live day by day. Eventually it got to the point where it was months. I haven't gotten to where I can think about it in terms of years," she says. "It's always a fight. Now I'm fighting insurance. Or something throws a wrench into the normalcy you have gotten used to." Bryan doesn't regret his service; he'd serve again. Neither does Cheryl, although she wishes she could erase the pain he still combats. "I wouldn't change the fact he was hurt because it's how we evolved into who we are now. "I am a scriptural person. I prayed about it every day - that parts of him would come back. And they did."