All Better Now
(Ollie connected with Heroes on the Water while at Brooke Army Medical Center, San Antonio. Ollie, Megan and their family have been a part of the HOW family of warriors and volunteers who spend time together on the water kayak fishing. We are so grateful to have shared time with this amazing family and appreciate the sacrifices they have made for our freedom. – HOW)
All Better Now
By Rebekah Sanderlin, Military Spouse Magazine, March 2014
For wounded warriors and their spouses, life after injury can be different—and better—than ever before.
• Kelly and Jesse Cottle weren’t expecting to get famous overnight. But then their very talented photographer, Sarah Ledford of ShutterHappy Photography, posted a touching photo of Kelly carrying Jesse that quickly went viral.
With the lightning speed that we sometimes witness in the digital world, this beautiful couple became synonymous with strength, resilience and the positive approach that so many military couples bring to the challenge of life with permanent injury.
Jesse and Kelly’s story is one so many military couples can relate to: This handsome Marine met the girl who would become his wife when she was still in college. They fell happily in love. And it was that love that helped carry them both forward after he lost his legs during deployment in Afghanistan in 2009.
They got married last year. And now that Sarah’s lovely photos have brought them a measure of national attention, they’re glad to be inspiring others.
We’re thrilled that Sarah has shared with us the gorgeous photo of Kelly and Jesse that is used on our cover. Their positive energy practically jumps off the page, and to us it so truly represents the loving and forward-looking approach that so many military couples take as they adjust to life as a “wounded warrior” family.
On the pages ahead, you’ll meet yet another inspiring military couple—Megan and Oliver Hughes. The Cottles and Hughes are just two among so very many military families that are living with injuries and not letting that circumstance slow them down. Perhaps most fascinating of all, many of these couples find their love and their marriage more intense and wonderful than ever before.
• It’s the call every military spouse fears. The call that tells you your life will never be the same. Megan Hughes got that call on April 13, 2011—and she says her life is better because of it.
“It was a lot worse to fear and worry about it than it was to actually experience it,” Megan said. “I like where we are now. We’re better together.”
But it’s taken nearly three years for her and her husband Ollie to get to that point.
On that day in 2011, Ollie, a soldier in the Army’s 1st Infantry Division, was on his second deployment to Afghanistan. He was sitting in the front passenger seat of an all-terrain vehicle when an IED exploded underneath him. The blast pushed the floorboard up to meet the dashboard, crushing Ollie’s legs between them.
He didn’t lose consciousness, though. He was alert enough to realize that his left leg was mostly detached and his right leg was crushed. He pulled his left leg off by himself and then tied a tourniquet around the stump and called for a medic. He even gathered all of his things so they could be accounted for, and then remained awake until he arrived at the field hospital in Ghazni.
It was April 13 in Afghanistan, but in the U.S. it was still April 12—Megan’s birthday. And she began to wonder why she hadn’t heard from her husband.
Megan was the Company FRG leader and was used to getting calls from the Rear Detachment Commander, particularly whenever bad things happened with the soldiers. So she wasn’t surprised to see his number on her caller ID. She answered the phone by saying, “It’s never good news when you call.”
But the Rear Detachment Commander simply asked her when was the last time Ollie had called. Megan knew then that the news was going to be very bad.
“I don’t remember what he said exactly, just that he told me that there had been an accident and Ollie had injuries to his lower extremities. All I could think was, ‘what are ‘lower extremities’? What does that mean?’ I had to Google it.”
• A NEW JOURNEY BEGAN From Ghazni, Ollie was taken to Bagram, and then to Landstuhl, Germany, where he was originally listed as being in “Very Serious Injury” condition, the category of injury in which soldiers are not expected to live long enough to be brought back to the United States. Megan was told to prepare to travel to Germany.
Fortunately, Ollie’s condition was soon upgraded and Megan received word that he would be moved to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. She could meet him there. Four days passed between that heartbreaking phone call and the moment she was reunited with Ollie.
A sergeant from Ollie’s division met Megan and one of her friends at Walter Reed and waited with them. Ollie was in surgery when she arrived. The sergeant repeatedly checked on him and reported back to her. Finally, she was told that Ollie was out of surgery and ready to see her.
In his room, Ollie moved his blanket aside, revealing his missing leg and the massive damage to his remaining leg, which had suffered 22 breaks between his shin and toes. It was the moment they had both been dreading.
“But, you know?” Megan said, thinking back on that day, “I was fine. I really was.”
Seeing Ollie didn’t shock her or terrify her, she said. He was just Ollie—minus one leg.
He stayed at Walter Reed for a month and was in surgery every other day. Megan and Ollie do not recall how many surgeries he has had altogether. They’ve lost count. After Walter Reed, Ollie was moved to Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, where he stayed for another month.
• STRENGTH IN NUMBERS
And then the transition back to normal life began—and not only for them. A few weeks before Ollie’s accident, a friend had a similar combat injury and lost both of his legs. Then, in those four days between when Megan got the call and when she saw Ollie at Walter Reed, another friend’s husband was shot and another soldier in Ollie’s company was killed.
The whole company was on edge. And, though she hated it for them, Megan was grateful to know other families who were going through similar challenges.
“Once we entered into ‘wounded warrior wife’ territory, the other wives were afraid of us,” Megan said. “And I get it. It was early in the deployment and they still had eight months to go. They had to do whatever they had to do to get by. I don’t blame them.”
At Walter Reed, and again at Brooke, Megan said she often found herself in the role of an advocate—for Ollie primarily, but also for their four children, who had trouble adjusting to their new school. She found herself fighting daily for the needs of her family.
“I’m no longer intimidated by any barrier,” she said. “That’s the cool thing to come out of all of this. I don’t take ‘no’ for an answer.”
Ollie was in a great deal of pain due to the injuries in his remaining right leg and doctors continued to try different pain medicines to see which would work best. But the drugs made Ollie paranoid and caused intense mood swings. During that time Megan found herself being more like a mother to him than a wife.
“He was angry at the world and he was angry with me because I was the one who had to tell him no,” she said. “I was the one he had in front of him to yell at.”
• NEW HORIZONS
In time, Ollie was able to stop taking the pain medicine and their lives returned to normal—or at least to their new normal. Ollie retired from the Army last August and they moved to North Carolina, to a small town between Raleigh and Fort Bragg, where an organization called Operation Coming Home is building and giving them a house, modified specifically for Ollie’s injuries. They’re scheduled to move in on April 10.
Megan says that Ollie’s injuries have become so normal for them that sometime they both forget that he is missing a leg. But some things are definitely more difficult for him now. He can’t just get up in the middle of the night if he has to go to the bathroom, she said. He has to first put on the prosthesis and then the brace on his other leg.
“In some ways it’s not a big deal, but in other ways it is an ordeal. We used to tangle up our legs in bed as we slept — we don’t do that anymore. But, after spending so much time with Ollie, it surprises me now when I see a ‘full-bodied’ male. It always takes me a minute to figure out why they look so different.”
• BETTER DAYS
Most surprisingly, Megan said she and Ollie are grateful for the experience, grateful even for his injury. “Our relationship is stronger than it ever was,” Megan said. “We have more perspective. We’ve seen a lot of marriages fail and a lot of people die. We’ve learned to let each other change and grow. We’ve learned to live together as equals and partners.”
They’re even expecting a new baby now, their fifth child— a boy—to be born in May. They call him their “victory baby.”
“He is a victory over Ollie’s injuries,” said Megan, “a victory over the war; a victory over all the forces that tried to split us up.”
This is the first pregnancy Ollie has been entirely home for, and Megan is excited to have him around for the newborn days, too—another experience they haven’t been able to share in the past. She said many positive things have come out of what most people would assume to have been an entirely negative experience.
“I feel like my character has been refined,” Megan said. “After losing his leg—I feel that ‘we’ lost it, not just him. It was easy to cut out all the unnecessary crap of life. Fears, worries and anxiety are no longer a part of my life. The years of deployment stress I experienced didn’t prepare me for the battles I would fight or for the hardships we would face. The stress wasn’t helpful. It robbed me of good times. Now that we have faced nightmares and emerged victorious, I no longer let worry rule my life. Bad things will certainly happen in my future, but they aren’t happening now. So I will savor every moment of this—him being home to cook, having normal couple arguments face-to-face, and every single time I am awakened by his snores. Whereas before the injury I lived in fear, now I live in gratitude. We are most certainly the lucky ones.”
WORDS FOR SPOUSES OF NEWLY WOUNDED TROOPS
“Caregiving is very lonely. You’re constantly focused and hyper vigilant. You don’t have time for yourself. But it is imperative for caregivers to take at least a little time for themselves. You have to let yourself heal and grieve. It really does get better. The first few months home are the worst. But you can do it, you’re not alone. You think it’s an end, but it’s not. It was horrible, but you get on with your life and you’re OK.”
WHAT DO WOUNDED WARRIORS NEEDED TO HEAL?
“The things that really helped Ollie come back were small local non-profits that took him out to do things without many expectations. Heroes on the Water was great for Ollie. They took him kayaking and fishing—things he could do without his legs that were fun. Another group took him biking with handbikes. These guys come back and they need a place. When they’re only seen as heroes or as loose cannons, they’re not part of the community. It’s easier to say ‘thank you for your service’ than it is to take someone fishing. We’ve gotten outstanding support from the community, but we joke that it’s because Ollie’s injuries look pretty on a poster. Others have a harder time because their community doesn’t see their injury.”
WHAT MEGAN WANTS OTHER MILITARY SPOUSES TO KNOW
“You can survive the worst and you can thrive in it. Ollie’s a lot softer and more understanding now. We’re better together. Whether your spouse has visible injuries or not, you’re their best advocate—and you may have to fight the system to get the help they need.”