Fighting the continuing battle for veterans
December 9, 2008
By Jim Feehan
Soldier’s mom becomes voice for wounded warriors
Cynthia Lefever continues to make noise.
And she said she won’t stop trying to get national officials to improve medical care for returning Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans with traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress.
She’s intimately aware of the devastating effects of blast injuries. Her son, Rory Dunn, a 2000 graduate of Liberty High School, was nearly killed four years ago by a roadside bomb in Fallujah, Iraq. The bomb exploded above his Humvee, killing two of his friends. His forehead was crushed from ear to ear, leaving his brain exposed. Shrapnel destroyed his right eye and his hearing was severely damaged.
He was flown by helicopter to a hospital in Baghdad, where doctors worked to save him. Five days later, he was flown to a hospital at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, where family had gone on “imminent death orders” to say their goodbyes.
“Doctors gave him a 2 percent chance of survival,” Lefever said.
Despite the grim prognosis, Dunn did survive. One day after he arrived in Germany, he was transferred to Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C., still in a coma.
“When he arrived at Walter Reed, neurosurgeons said Rory’s injuries were the worst they had ever seen,” Lefever said.
The journey for mother and son the past four years has been a study of perseverance — Dunn defying the odds each step of his recovery and Lefever battling the Army to ensure he continued to receive critical care from Reed’s top-notch surgeons. Almost six weeks later, Dunn emerged from his coma.
“Within days of coming out of a coma, Army leadership was at his bedside putting a pen in his hand to start the discharge process with the ultimate goal of getting Rory off the books,” Lefever said.
“When we let these wounded warriors languish in bed and presume that all that can be done is to change their diaper and turn them regularly and get them out for fresh air, that’s ridiculous. I just think it’s immoral and unethical.”
Honored for her work
Lefever sought the help of various organizations and agencies providing assistance to Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans and their families. She also called Sen. Patty Murray’s office. Murray, a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, has become a friend and ally. In 2005, Murray awarded Dunn his Purple Heart.
In May, Lefever was a recipient of Murray’s Golden Tennis Shoe Award. It’s an annual award given to extraordinary Washingtonians doing amazing work and advocacy on behalf of others, Murray said.
“We honor Cynthia — not just for leaving her own job and her own home to fight for her son — but because of what she has chosen to do above and beyond that,” Murray said at the award ceremony at the Washington State Convention Center. “Cynthia’s fight to disclose poor treatment – and the paperwork battles she has faced – has allowed hundreds of other soldiers to receive better care.”
Prior to her son’s injury, Lefever worked in the state’s community college system, working on programs for displaced homemakers, battered spouses and teens at risk.
Her work on behalf of returning war veterans is appreciated by her son.
“She’s willing to go out of her way, without pay, and fight for veterans,” Dunn said. “She’s got the true American spirit.”
In April, Lefever accepted a job as a case manager with the U.S. Army Wounded Warrior Program, administered by the Army Human Resources Command.
It assists severely wounded soldiers and families from injury throughout recovery.
“For me, it was an opportunity to help the wounded warriors and their families and caregivers, and from the very onset, not get screwed,” she said.
The job offered great pay, benefits and bonuses. The military faxed her a copy of the employment contract, which included a clause that barred her from speaking to the media or working with Murray’s office. So, Lefever turned down the job.
“I need to be able to speak out about what I see,” Lefever said. “It’s important that somebody makes noise.”
In September alone, Lefever attended seven conferences across the country speaking out about traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress.
“I start every speech with, ‘Hello. My name is Cynthia Lefever and my special talent is pestering and badgering,’” she said. “I will continue to pester and badger until I get an answer or see progress or change.”
Traumatic brain injury continues to be undiagnosed and underreported by the military, and the Veteran’s Administration refuses to partner with civilian organizations working with traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress patients, Lefever said.
“We’re five years into the war and we continue to see catastrophic trauma injuries,” she said. “Several soldiers are being redeployed who have multiple blast injuries, and I think that the service members underreport, fearing they will lose their job and benefits. They are pressured to be silent by the military.”
Emotional scars linger
Lefever said she was surprised when her son joined the Army about a year after graduating from Liberty, where he was a good student who played basketball and football.
Dunn volunteered to go to the Middle East, even though he was opposed to the invasion of Iraq, further solidified by the U.S. not finding any Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, Lefever said.
President Bush is misguided in saying troops are supporting the war effort based on the number of soldiers redeploying, she said.
“Soldiers who want to go back are going back because of survivor guilt,” she said.
As the physical scars fade, the emotional ones linger for Dunn.
“Rory is hypervigilant and alert,” Lefever said of her son, who is now living on his own in Renton.
Neighbors and shopkeepers recognize him and know he’s an Iraq war veteran. When he goes into Seattle, it’s a different story, as those who don’t know Dunn might be apprehensive around a young man with an eye patch over his right eye, Lefever said.
She’s working to educate communities across the state about traumatic brain injury. She said she wants police, firefighters and emergency responders to recognize the signs of traumatic brain injury, so they can respond appropriately in an emergency. She got the Veteran’s Administration to provide medical alert tags for all severely wounded veterans, especially those with traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress.
Meanwhile, her son has regained his life, she said.
“He’s walking, talking, hunting and fishing,” she said. “In May, he jumped out of an airplane and he’s preparing to go to college.”
Healing comes slowly
Family members also suffer symptoms of post-traumatic stress. Lefever said she has had nightmares of her 10-month ordeal at Walter Reed Medical Center.
“I’m at Walter Reed coming around a corner, coming face- to-face with a soldier who looks like he’s a 14-year-old, beautiful, baby-faced and his arms and legs are gone. That image will haunt me until the day I die.”
Post-stress trauma is a normal reaction to the abnormal circumstances of war. Soldiers are trained to be killing machines; they’re supposed to be strong, but it comes with a cost, she said.
“When you have watched civilians being run over by a tank under orders, I don’t see how anybody can be OK,” Lefever said.
On another occasion, an Iraqi man who was helping the U.S. military was shot, his body blown into two pieces. Dunn and other soldiers were ordered to return the man’s body to his family.
“Rory thinks about the wife and the children that were screaming and crying as he deposited the two halves to the family,” Lefever said.
Families of wounded warriors and the community need to know that traumatic brain injury is a physical injury, not a mental disorder, she said.
Lefever fears history may soon repeat itself.
“Unless our society is educated and informed about traumatic brain injury, we’re going to see our veterans again retreat into the mountains and hills, become homeless, fail at relationships, become unemployed and we’ll have a repeat of what we saw when the soldiers returned from Vietnam,” she said.