Phone calls at 6 a.m. sound like an alarm clock because that’s the jarring effect they have. And I’m not talking about lost sleep. People don’t call us at that hour to report how well things are going.
For Hillary Wayman, you can ratchet up that angst because her husband, Sgt. Jarrod Wayman, was a Marine in Afghanistan when her wake-up call came. Fear squared.
“Hello?” Please, God, a wrong number.
She was answered by an unfamiliar man’s voice. It had the flat and disembodied sound of a stranger perhaps working his way down a call list. A business call of war.
The business that at that moment had the power to shatter her life.
“I heard, ‘Hello,’ and that he was from Marine Corps headquarters. Immediately, I knew Jarrod had been injured, and that he wasn’t dead. There would have been a knock on the door for that.”
The man confirmed that something had happened to Jarrod. Something bad. One word jumped out from what he said — a terrifying word, a hated word. She heard him say, “spinal.” He also said Jarrod’s arm had been shattered.
“My world stopped. It’s like you’re standing completely still, but everything around you is moving. It’s just, it feels like your heart is ripped out of your chest, and I had no words. Every military spouse halfway expects that call, but when it happens, you are totally caught off-guard.”
The shock of it threw Hillary’s mind into barbed wire.
“I just, I thought it was a joke at first. That was my desperation. I didn’t know what else to hope, to think. But the guy, I feel horrible for him because I said some things I normally wouldn’t say. I was very upset. I said, ‘How dare you tell me this?’ Almost like it was his fault. I was angry at him. You know, the whole ‘Don’t kill the messenger’ thing?
“What upset me the most was knowing Jarrod was somewhere by himself in a lot of pain, and I wasn’t there to help.”
Hillary kept her son out of school that day and waited by the phone to hear from Jarrod. Finally, after 12 hours of watching the clock’s maddening creep, the phone rang, and she heard a familiar, “Hey.” He was calling from a hospital in Kandahar.
“I said, ‘Are you OK?’ He goes, ‘I broke my back.’ And my world dropped again.”
Hillary talked to their son, Gavin, then 5, and tried to explain what had happened. The boy had been around a Marine base enough to know that not all news is good. However, all she could really do was ask him to be hopeful and to pray with her. Her daughter, Bailey, then 3, only sensed something was wrong.
There is on Camp Pendleton a pleasant middle-class, stuccoed neighborhood that could be La Mesa or Chula Vista. Minivans and bikes on their sides share driveways. Women unload groceries, UPS trucks search house numbers. Life, just rolling along.
But in that neighborhood there is a tension that simmers like August heat waves, because much of what ticks the time away is waiting for troops whose bottom-line job is to kill people and break things, and to do it against other troops determined to do the same to them.
That’s the truthful nature of war, and it’s inaccurate to use soft words to describe the challenge of these men and women who handle the doing and the waiting.
Hillary, 30, and Jarrod, 29, were high school sweethearts from south Texas, near Houston. They’ve been married for eight years, and he’s been a Marine for 10. They could be cast in “Oklahoma.” She, fresh-faced and pretty. He, country rawbone. Each with a Texas accent: soft vowels in no hurry. They also share a small-town upbringing with strong families and church loyalties that Hillary says anchored them through the coming ordeal.
Staff Sgt. Jarrod Wayman was a demolition specialist on his fifth deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan. On Dec. 11, almost 10 months ago, an improvised explosive device detonated under his armored vehicle. One serviceman was killed. Of the five remaining, Jarrod’s injuries were the worst.
He was sent to Germany, then to Walter Reed military hospital in Bethesda, Md., for surgery, and then to San Antonio VA hospital in January for two months of rehabilitation.
Today, he is paralyzed from the knees down. He has “drop” feet, which means they can’t be held at right angles to his legs. His left arm has been reconstructed, which he is learning to reuse. He is wheelchair-bound. The family is tensely awaiting a decision on what pension he will be given after discharge; it could be months distant.
When word got around the base about Jarrod’s wounding, the Marine-wife sisterhood response kicked in. “I called a friend. About five minutes later, she was at my door, and once the news got out, people just started showing up, calling, texting. Everybody came together to help.”
When something like that happens, Hillary, and people rush to your side, is that a good thing or do you just want to be alone?
“I wanted to be alone, but I couldn’t. No one would let me. But in the same sense, when I was alone, I just broke. I didn’t sleep for days. I didn’t eat. I tried to sleep. I couldn’t. It got to the point where my mom would call my friends and say please make sure she eats.
“I was literally cleaning my house and organizing closets for six days straight, nonstop. I was heartbroken. My mind couldn’t stop, and my main concern was for Jarrod, who was in Germany at that point. I was constantly waiting for his phone calls and to find out where we were going. They finally called and told me to pack for Walter Reed.”
Hillary and the children arrived in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 16 with only Ocean-side clothes. The Marine Corps, however, was quick to provide winter clothing and an apartment in the Navy Lodge.
When Hillary and the kids first entered Jarrod’s hospital room, she could sense the tension the kids felt seeing their father bedridden and in pain. Jarrod tried to reassure them, and her, as well. She wasn’t fooled. She knows the Marine ethos and the stiff upper lip that goes with it.
The stay at Walter Reed was filled with back and forth trips to the hospital, meeting with doctors, asking, “What’s going on? What’s next?” And then going back to the apartment and trying to have it make sense to the kids.
The extent of the injury to Jarrod was not clear because his pain medication clouded some of the effects. He had his arm reconstructed and then waited to undergo back surgery.
The neurosurgeon told her that Jarrod had three broken vertebrae with one crushed, and that surgery could make things better, or make them worse. “I was terrified to hear that,” she says.
On Dec. 23, Jarrod underwent 10 hours of surgery. On Christmas Day, Jarrod said he had no feeling below his knees and on the back of his thighs. On Jan. 7, the family left for the VA hospital in San Antonio. At the end of March, they came home to Oceanside.
“That’s when it all began,” Hillary says.
Tuesday: Part II — reconstructing a life together.
AFTER MARINE’S DEBILITATING INJURY, COUPLE REBUILDS LIFE
In Monday’s column, I wrote about Marine Staff Sgt. Jarrod Wayman being severely injured by an improvised explosive device blast in Afghanistan in December. His wife, Hillary Wayman, described the trauma that crashed into their lives.
Part II: Reconstructing a life together.
At the end of March, after surgery and two months of rehab, Jarrod and Hillary brought their children back to Camp Pendleton and into new quarters. His injury necessitated moving from their two-story into a single-story house. It was home, but it wasn’t the same.
When was the first time you realized this was going to be tough?
“About an hour after we got home,” Hillary says.
“At first, it was all rainbows and butterflies just because we were so excited to be home. After a few days, though, reality set in. Just to go to the grocery store became a process.
“Jarrod, not being able to help with the kids … he was always a very hands-on dad: helping with bath time or fixing their dinner or playing outside. That was really hard for him. It still is. He’s still as involved as he can be. It’s just a different way.
“He’s all Marine, and he has been for 10 years. To have someone have to help with the smallest things just doesn’t work for him. It took a lot of me telling him, ‘It’s OK. Let me do it.’ I could see the frustration of his pain and wanting to be active with the family, but at the same time needing to be lying in bed or quiet.”
What would he say?
“I hate this.”
“The first couple months of being home, I just kept saying, ‘I can’t understand what you’re going through, but you’re alive, and I’ll take it.’ ”
He would say?
“He would roll his eyes at me.”
Was there dissension between you?
“I think, really, as crazy as it sounds, it brought us closer, because I’ve never seen the emotional side of him before. I’ve never seen the vulnerable side of him before. It made me love him even more.”
It’s important to be able to get away from each other.
“It is, and we’re learning that. We’ve finally gotten to the comfortable part.”
Jarrod’s prognosis is a medical mystery. No doctor can predict his eventual outcome. He’s hopeful to eventually walk with the help of devices, but that’s to be determined.
He has medical coverage and is on full pay, so money is not a problem. When retirement papers come through, they plan to move to San Antonio to be close to VA rehab facilities and their families. He might go back to college. His longtime goal was to go into some form of construction, maybe remodeling houses and then flipping them. But …
“These six months have been tough, in several ways. We realized we can’t go to friends’ houses like we used to. We can’t go out on weekends like we used to. Just the simple things — like getting inside someone else’s house — were (unworkable) because there were steps to get up or he couldn’t get into the bathroom.
“It got very depressing and very lonely. We didn’t see friends for a while. People would come by but for an hour here or an hour there, but nothing like we were used to.”
Well-meaning questions and curious stares bother Jarrod a lot. Even imagined slights are still slights when you think you see them.
Hillary explains: “He said that he’s noticed when we’re at Walmart or anywhere, people back up like he’s got a disease or something. He said he feels like people avoid him because they don’t know what’s wrong with him. I think it bothers him because they don’t get it that he’s in that chair because of war.”
They attempted a July getaway to Lake Arrowhead that went sour. The cabin they reserved was not accessible to the disabled, as promised, and there were no options. They finally ended up in a hotel, and Hilary says when they went out, the stares and whispers bothered him.
They went home early and haven’t ventured out on anything similar since.
Obviously, Jarrod will have to build a protective shell of some kind, but other than the passage of time, only he can figure out how that will be done.
He has to accept his diminishment of family leadership in a hundred little ways that are important to a hands-on guy like him — changing light bulbs, touch-up painting, taking out the trash, things that other husbands grumble about.
“We have our tiffs,” Hillary says, “but we don’t go to bed angry. We talk. We talk about our feelings. Every now and then we’ll have like a long sit-down where we just let it all out on the table. We get it out. I don’t hold anything against him, and I don’t think he holds anything against me. I hope not.
“I’ve kind of like been in mommy mode with him. I tried to protect him. I wanted to protect his feelings, but at the same time, I wanted to keep him in a little bubble. I don’t want him to ever feel like he’s the elephant in the room, or I don’t want him to feel ashamed of who he is or why he is the way he is.”
Do you still have a tendency to mother him?
“I’m getting better.”
Did he resent that? Appreciate but also resent?
“Yes. Both,” she says with a little lip-curled smile.
Has this in some ways made him a better person?
“Definitely. He’s stronger. It might sound crazy, but he shows more strength when it comes to showing his emotion. Really. He never showed emotion before. I wouldn’t say he wears his heart on his sleeve, but he’s definitely more vocal. He has to be, because he can’t be what he was.”
Jarrod is moving into bounce-back mode. Within days, he’ll take delivery of a vehicle modified to his driving needs. Last week, he went with Wishes For Warriors on a deer hunting trip to central California.
“He’s ready to get his life back,” Hillary says.
The challenges to their marriage are out there: They were very young when they married. Many military marriages fall apart because one or both can’t handle the life, and the imbalance of living with one in a wheelchair often crushes marriages.
They are aware of all that and are undaunted. Hillary says their marriage is stronger than ever, and divorce will never be an option. They keep it that way by love, communication and humor, even wheelchair jokes.
“He’ll give me a hard time because he’ll say that all I ever do is talk behind his back and push him around. I’ll give him a hard time right back.”
Hillary knows that understanding is the key, and to let him know you understand. “Just letting him stop and vent and bitch and whatever it is he needs to get out. I finally say, ‘It’s OK. You’re alive.’”
This is mainly Hillary’s story, and that works out because Jarrod is a proud and private man. Sharing his feelings and thoughts with a big part of San Diego County is not a goal to which he aspires. However, he makes clear that his love for — and appreciation of — Hillary is something he would gladly shout out in his best sergeant bellow.
When Jarrod went to war, he had the courage to confront those wanting to kill him. Now, he is calling on a different kind of courage not found on a recruitment poster.
In this current battle, he’s got a buddy in the foxhole who’s got his back and will stand guard while he sleeps.
He’s not alone, but neither is she. They’re in it together.
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net
His email is [email protected]