By Albert Samaha
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In his hospital room at the James J. Peters VA Medical Center Bronx, Rivera has put up pictures of her son before he had begun his second tour in Iraq, before she found herself talking with other mothers, comparing what percentage of brain their sons still had in their heads.
"Who's my boy? Who's my soldier?" she asks Reyes. He scrunches his left eye, his sign for not understanding.
"You're my sweet boy," she says, coming closer to her son's face. He's lost all peripheral vision and his eyes bulge a little. He's barely recognizable from the photograph posted to the wall of a muscular soldier standing in front of Saddam Hussein's palace. His urine bag hangs near the spokes of his wheelchair. The stomach tube that rests on his chest is his new mouth; nutrients and medications are pushed through it to keep him alive.
Reyes slightly nods his head, but Rivera can't get a smile; her son's face won't allow it.
This isn't the first time Rivera has talked to a reporter about her son's condition. She met Washington Post reporter Dana Priest while Priest was investigating shoddy conditions at Walter Reed, once the nation's top recuperative facility for war veterans. Rivera and her sister, who also shares caretaking duties for Reyes, condemned Walter Reed for maltreatment and disorganization and for saddling the family with a $3,519 bill for Rivera's stay at a hotel on the grounds of Walter Reed, Mologne House.
The Post's stories exposing conditions at Walter Reed, published in late February, caused the dismissal of the hospital's commander, Major General George W. Weightman, and forced the resignations of Army Secretary Francis J. Harvey and Army Surgeon General Lieutenant General Kevin Kiley. The stories also prompted inquiries into the state of VA hospitals around the country. By then Reyes and his mother had moved back to New York, but conditions at the local VA facility, she says, aren't much better. Rivera feels compelled to provide daily care: Near the beginning of their 17-month stay, Reyes was left unattended under scalding water during one of his weekly showers and the water caused a third-degree burn on his leg. His aunt found the burns when she saw Reyes squirming and moaning uncomfortably in bed.
In the Post series, Reyes was mentioned several times and was included in an Internet photo essay. As a result of the Post's reporting, conditions at Walter Reed and VA hospitals will likely improve. But that won't lessen the fundamental pressures on Aida Rivera or the others like her whose lives have been derailed to care for their family members whose minds and bodies will never heal.
"Because we can keep them alive, our society is trying to figure out what to do with these people," says Smith, the medical historian. "We don't have a good way to take care of them yet."
Every morning, Rivera makes the 12-block hike to her son's bedside. She's given up her own apartment, resigned from her job, and now, at 45 years old, has moved back in with her mother. Her mother cooks her meals and her 44-year-old sister gives her spending money. The family tries to stretch Reyes's Veterans Administration benefits.
One acknowledgment that the Iraq war is sending back more severely wounded troops was legislation in 2005 that created Traumatic Injury Protection Under Servicemembers' Group Life Insurance (TSGLI), which, for a dollar a month added to what soldiers pay for life insurance, pays out a maximum of $100,000 in the case of traumatic injury. Congress made it retroactive to the beginning of the conflict and has paid out $170 million to date.
Through his TSGLI and a monthly stipend calculated for a soldier with no dependents, Reyes should be receiving $2,700 each month, according to the VA.
On her way to the hospital, Rivera walks in Timberland boots and wears a Purple Heart dog tag around her neck, symbolizing the Purple Heart medal her son was awarded for his wounds in the war. She used to wear dress shirts and slacks for work; high heels with skirts or dresses to go out at night. But now there's no motivation for thatit's simply T-shirts, baggy pants, and throwing her long, dark, wavy hair into a ponytail. She's five feet tall and curvy; she's lost more than 20 pounds since her son came home. Caring for him, she says, is the most excruciating but effective diet plan she's ever been on.
When the nurses chatter just outside his room, the sound puts Reyes into a frenzy; he waves his hands around his ears. Rivera says a normal background conversation for him sounds like a garbage compactor full of aluminum cans. The noise annoys Rivera, too. Not just because it's too loud for her son, but also because, she says, it's painful to hear the nurses banter about the concerns of their livesgetting their nails done, a new weave they got at the hair salon, or what their kids need at schoolwhen her life is so radically different from theirs.
Rivera's mother recently was diagnosed with breast cancer; her daughter is going through a difficult pregnancy; her first husband (Reyes's father) died of brain cancer in December; and doctors recently diagnosed her sleeplessness and crying as symptoms of depression. She was prescribed Paxil, but so far she doesn't think the antidepressant is helping. Rivera tells the nurses to be quiet, the same way she has each day for the 17 months her son has been there.