Raising Roberto (Again)

A devastating brain injury in Iraq leaves soldier Roberto Reyes with a support system of one—his mother

What Rivera knows of traumatic brain injury—or TBI, as it's referred to in hospitals—she learned herself. The military gave her a quick rundown when she arrived at Walter Reed, but she was in shock and remembered little. She doesn't have Internet access at home, but as her son recovered, she used a computer in the hospital lobby to search for information. She's watched the speech therapists work with him and she knows how to temper his pain by putting pillows beneath his arms. But she says the thing that stresses her out the most is not knowing what's going on in her son's mind.

Connell says that while it's helpful for a family member to have knowledge of a loved one's injuries, it's not the best idea to be a full-time caregiver. When traumatically injured veterans are discharged from the hospital, their monthly stipend goes up; the extra money is available to help pay for a professional caregiver, someone other than a family member. "Experts in the field of care for the catastrophically injured will typically recommend that the family not be the primary caregiver for the very obvious reason that it is so incredibly physically and emotionally taxing," Connell wrote in an e-mail.

Rivera, however, has decided she'll take care of her son, and now she wants Reyes to eat again, something he hasn't done in months. Nurses leave the hospital tray of food on a table far from his grasp, covers still on the plates and the silverware wrapped up. It angers Rivera that the nurses don't even give him a chance. If she weren't there the one moment he may be ready to take a bite, the opportunity would be lost. In the hopes that he will eat, she spends much of her money buying food each day—Reyes's old favorites like a slice of sausage, bacon, and mushroom pizza from Silvio's down the street. After classes at Columbus High School, he used to get two slices. He'd stack one atop the other and the 227-pound boy would wolf them down.

From New York to Iraq and back: Roberto Reyes
photo: Mara Altman
From New York to Iraq and back: Roberto Reyes

Rivera cuts a warm slice in half and holds it up to his mouth.

"Maybe if you take a bite and start chewing and taste the flavor, you'll remember you like eating," she says.

He contorts his eye, leans his head on his hand.

"Mom," he says. "Put my sneakers on!"

She puts down the pizza and feeds him high-protein formula through his stomach tube.

While in Iraq, Rivera heard from Reyes every other week. He didn't say much, but told her there was a woman named Lily in his life and he had a surprise in store when he got back. She dreamed her son would make her a grandmother, and she suspected Lily was going to help.

Stuffed animals sit on the shelves—given by friends who don't call anymore, who don't stop by anymore, even though they all said they would. A Purple Heart hat is propped above his bed, and on a poster on the wall facing Reyes, the WWE Divas are oiled up and flexing. His mother hopes the women will spur a memory, recapturing something of the ladies' man he used to be. In albums tucked away in his dresser, photos from the past show him posturing—chest out, shoulders back, and biceps bulging, with tattoos of the United States and Puerto Rican flags—with "player" or "lady killer" scrawled beneath the images in his own handwriting. She knows he won't ever be the same, but refuses to believe he will never get back some of his old self.

Rivera leans over his bed. "You going to get married?"

Reyes contorts his face. She thinks about the man he was going to be. He was going to go to college after completing his military service, he was going to join the NYPD and patrol the Bronx streets.

"Are you going to have babies and name one . . . "

She stops mid-sentence as Reyes rubs a towel across his chapped lips.

She admits that curiosity got to her one day, and with her sister's help, she tried to contact Lily, thinking maybe, just maybe . . . but she learned that Lily had recently married.

"Take me home!" mumbles Reyes.

"You'll be home soon, Papi," says Rivera, stroking his shoulder.

"Mom!" repeats Reyes, rattling the rail on his bed. "I want to go home!"

But there is no home to go to. Rivera and Mendez are currently working with an Army caseworker under the Wounded Warrior Program. They are trying to come up with enough funds to build Reyes an adaptive home. A veteran with 100 percent disability can apply for a grant of up to $55,000 through the VA to help with modifications: outdoor and indoor lifts, ramps, and widened doors. Brian Bixler, chief of adaptive housing for the VA, says that 200 veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan have qualified for adaptive-housing benefits, but only 60 are in the process of actually using their benefits. Building, buying, or even adapting a home in any state often costs more than what the benefit allots. "The rest of the funding is their responsibility," says Bixler of the veterans. Ground hasn't been broken for a home for Reyes yet; finding all the necessary funds makes moving out of the hospital a longer process. Part of the caseworker's job is seeking out more money from various federal, state, and local programs as well as not-for-profit agencies.

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