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Back from despair, in her words

Times Staff Writer

WITH her husband in a coma, unable to breathe on his own, Nancy Kules sat down at a computer and began to type. PRAY, PRAY, PRAY, she wrote.

It was Dec. 2, 2005. Nancy, a kindergarten teacher from Arizona, had flown across the Atlantic to be with her husband, Army 1st Lt. Ryan Kules, at a military hospital in Germany. His entire body was wrapped in bandages. All Nancy could see were his forehead, a toe and his blood-clogged ears.

Ryan’s Humvee had been hit by a roadside bomb in Iraq three days earlier. His right arm and left leg were blown off. He nearly bled to death. He had severe brain damage. Doctors feared he would not survive.

Nancy wrote to friends and relatives: I wish I were logging on with better news.... I will give you all the cold, hard facts.

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The ordeals of combat amputees in Iraq and Afghanistan have provided a familiar narrative after nearly four years of war. But less familiar are the stories of their spouses. For the next year, in 309 entries in an online journal, Nancy Kules laid out the facts and poured out her emotions.

Her journal opened a window on a searing experience shared by a growing number of spouses who have become collateral damage in America’s overseas wars. What began as an attempt to keep loved ones informed became a unique personal account of recovery and accommodation, of suffering and redemption.

“People think what a great story it is, and what blessings we’ve had, and how Ryan has overcome great odds,” Nancy said outside the couple’s Maryland home on a sunny winter morning. “But they don’t think about the daily repercussions of it. The heart of the matter isn’t something you can therapy away. It is what it is. It’s our new reality.”

For Nancy, and for thousands who have visited the site (www.caringbridge.org/visit/ryankules) to offer comments and contributions, the journal is an inspiration. But in its frank approach to tragedy, it is also a reminder that reality can be daunting, and that life for this couple can never be the same.

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The story begins just after Nancy, 24, received the phone call that military families dread. Summoned to a phone at her elementary school in Ahwatukee, Ariz., she heard a faraway voice say, matter-of-factly, that Ryan, 25, had lost limbs in an explosion.

She left work, packed and headed for the airport -- knowing that being told to fly to Germany meant that Ryan was too badly injured to make it back to the U.S.

“I honestly thought I was going to be bringing a body home,” she said.

Nancy was bombarded with contradictory information. After one doctor described severe brain damage, she threw up. Other doctors had assured her there was minimal brain damage.

“I wanted to know the truth, and I wanted to kick whoever gave me bad information,” she said.

On Dec. 3, 2005, the second day at the hospital in Germany, she wrote: It is easier to get the info to you this way, because it is difficult to talk about it out loud.

Between the grief, time changes, and jet lag, we are so unaware of time. I got to help clean Ryan up last night. I spent a good 4 hours taking a q-tip to his fingers, toes, ears and any other visible skin. It was somewhat therapeutic for me....

I want MY Ryan back, (past, present, and future) and all those memories that we share and I have been re-living for the past few days ... I have faith that this will happen.

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Dec. 7: I re-read the things that I have written, barely remembering some of it.... I find myself crying when I read these things. Not the kinds of sobs that shake my whole body, but a peaceful stream of tears running down my face.

With Ryan in a coma, Nancy spoke to him, hoping he would somehow understand that she was at his side.

“He was so badly broken,” she recalled recently. “If he was hanging on until we got there, I wanted him to know, ‘Baby, I’m here and I love you and if you gotta let go, it’s OK.’ ”

HE did not let go.

Ryan was transferred to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, still in a coma and fighting a high fever. There, Nancy noticed that his eyes were no longer locked in a fixed stare. They moved slightly.

Dec. 10: I knew for the first time that Ryan is aware that I am here. He is still not following commands, but when I looked in his eyes, I just feel like he is still there, frustrated that he cannot show this to us yet ...

The anguish of this discovery is startling. I feel like my time to deal with ‘me’ is over, and I now need to find the strength to focus on him .... I am scared of what Ryan will think. I am scared of what he already knows.... I think I need to go outside, stomp, scream, and cry a little.

Three days later, after a breathing tube was removed, Ryan spoke his first words since the explosion: “Hi, Nancy.”

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Nancy quizzed him. His name? “Ryan.” His dog’s name? “Peanut.” Did he love Nancy? “Yes.” Their wedding anniversary? “Um ... April?”

Dec. 13: Ha ha. I’ll take it .... It is a long, l o n g road ahead of us, but the progress of today helps us look toward tomorrow

Dec. 14: This evening, Ryan told me “my legs and arms are broken.” I just said “yes baby, but the doctors are working to help you. I have to go to the bathroom, I will be right back.” Then, I stepped around the corner and cried. My poor Ryan. My heart aches for him ...

I cannot imagine waking up and suddenly having to deal with the loss.

That same day, Ryan called his wife “Miss Nancy.”

I got all teary eyed because of this ... I don’t know why he called me Miss Nancy. That was hard. I am sure he will get around to “baby” or at least Nancy soon enough but ...

The loss of his limbs weighed on Ryan. “I didn’t freak out, but I would realize it all over again the next day, anew,” he recalled. “People ask if I woke and started screaming because I’m missing an arm and a leg. Well, it was gradual -- it happened over and over.”

Doctors discovered mucous and blood clots in Ryan’s lungs. Because of breathing problems, he was re-intubated and unable to speak.

Dec. 16: 2 steps forward, 100 steps back. We feel like we have lost a week+ of progress in one night.

Dec. 18: I am happy as a clam this evening. His vital signs are great, the clots have not presented any new problems as of yet, and he gives me kisses whenever I ask for them (mostly) :)

Ryan had not yet been told that two of his soldiers died in the explosion.

Dec. 23: Ryan told me that he had been waiting for us to have some time alone so he could ask ... the question that I have been preparing for, but dreading. “What happened to the other men from my platoon?”

It broke my heart to tell Ryan, but he was understanding and lay in quiet contemplation after I broke the news. I cried.

The journal records Ryan’s three dozen surgeries (he remembers only three) and his long medical odyssey from coma to intensive care to therapy to rehabilitation. It captures Ryan’s first attempts to feed himself, his first “breakout” from the hospital for a day trip, his struggles to learn to walk on a prosthetic leg. He left the hospital as an outpatient in mid-January 2006.

July 12: Ryan is able to walk, AND drink a Slurpee at the same time. The small things in life ...

The entries document with candor and passion the couple’s “roller coaster ride.”

Nov. 29, the one-year anniversary of the explosion: Even through times that felt very dark and lonely, this website has been a beacon of support, and a lifeline to others that were (and are) willing to share in our pain and concern, or joy and accomplishments

I can honestly say neither of us has ever experienced anything more challenging, or demanding. Although things have been almost impossible to bear at times and even harder to understand, the number one thing ... is to try our best to learn from the situation. What can we take away from all of this that will leave us stronger?

RYAN is among 100 Americans who have lost two limbs in Iraq or Afghanistan. An additional 448 have lost one limb, and four have lost three.

Promoted to captain in July, he is walking, with effort, on his prosthesis. He can drive a car. He has undergone therapy to become left-hand dominant. His right arm -- he was right-handed -- was severed too high up for a prosthetic arm to fit effectively.

Nancy says his brain function is as good as ever, though Ryan cracked, “Some would argue that I’ve always had reduced brain function.”

He and Nancy have taken trips around the country in which Ryan has gone snowboarding, snow skiing, water-skiing, whitewater rafting, biking, fishing and canoeing. He visits Walter Reed twice a week for physical therapy.

“The neighbors know me as the guy with the left arm who walks kind of funny,” he said. “They don’t know me any other way. I’m kind of accepted as a normal member of society, and that’s the goal in rehab.”

Ryan plans to work as an intelligence analyst for a private company that does contract work for the federal government. “I can’t get back into the fight on the ground anymore, so this is my way of getting back into it,” he said.

Nancy plans to return to teaching someday, and is “slowing down” on the journal, she said.

“It’s time to kind of get back our privacy,” she said. “We still want to share the highlights of our life, but in a more normal way. Now, thank God, the updates are kind of ordinary. It’s not do-or-die information anymore.”

They are now “just a normal couple in their 20s, dealing with all the little things couples deal with,” Nancy said.

“But for every day for the rest of hopefully Ryan’s very long life, he will wake up every morning and face the challenge mentally, physically and emotionally, strapping on body parts in order to function,” she said. “That doesn’t go away.”

Recently, the journal reported a new development: The Kuleses are expecting their first child, a girl, in May. They’ve already named her: Jillian Deme Kules. The “J” honors Sgt. Jerry W. Mills Jr., 23, and the “D” Sgt. Donald J. Haase, 28, the soldiers killed in the explosion.

“It was a relief to know there wasn’t anything, uh, you know ... well, you get blown up, you sort of wonder what else might not be working,” Nancy said.

“Yeah, you gotta make sure everything works,” Ryan said.

“Well, everything’s working fine,” Nancy said. “It’s not just for show.”

“Good way to put it there, Nancy,” Ryan said.

Nancy’s journal no longer focuses on Ryan’s recovery, or her own. The main topic now is the latest baby news.

Sept. 23: Ryan and I cannot wait until our little one is old enough to understand the meaning behind [her] name.

david.zucchino@latimes.com


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