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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, March 6, 2005

A Life Changed by War

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By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer

Married just two years, Staff Sgt. Eric Cagle and his wife, Amanda, had modest hopes and dreams.

Eric and Amanda Cagle share a hallway kiss after completing a day of occupational therapy at the VA Medical Center in Minneapolis.

Allen Brisson-Smith • Special to The Advertiser

Staff Sgt. Eric Cagle, as photographed in Iraq before the bomb explosion that changed his life.

Cagle family photo

After Hawai'i, Eric, 25, wanted to be stationed in Colorado to be near mountains, and to teach his wife to snowboard and ski.

He loved the Army, intended to make it a career, and planned to become a helicopter pilot.

Together, they watched home-repair TV shows and dreamed of "something with cobblestones, old English-style architecture, vaulted ceilings," said Amanda, 23.

In a flash of high explosives, it was gone.

On Oct. 14, as Eric Cagle drove up to an Iraqi national guard compound in Huwijah, northern Iraq, a roadside bomb detonated, shredding one side of his Humvee.

Shrapnel knifed through his cheek under his left eye and embedded in his brain. For the Arizona man, a 1st Battalion, 27th Infantry "Wolfhound" out of Schofield Barracks, it was just the start of many bad things to come.

In surgery, his carotid artery burst, leading to a massive stroke. An infection caused swelling, and doctors were forced to remove the right side of his brain.

His right eye is sutured shut to allow an ulceration of the cornea to heal, and his left eye has only a sliver of sight.

Of the more than 270 soldiers from the 25th Infantry Division (Light) and U.S. Army, Hawai'i, wounded in combat in Iraq or Afghanistan, Cagle has the unenviable distinction of being the most seriously injured.

The avid runner joined the Army nearly seven years ago, in part because of the physical nature of soldiering. In Hawai'i, the Cagles loved snorkeling and hiking by Friendship Garden in Kane'ohe. He had previously deployed with the 101st Airborne Division to Afghanistan.

These days, everyday tasks are all the adventure Cagle can handle. He is mostly paralyzed on his left side and is confined to a wheelchair.

Making a bologna sandwich is a test of dexterity. The former squad leader's attention span is short, he nods off constantly, and in a cruel irony, as a result of his brain damage, he is more easily agitated and frustrated — exactly when he needs more patience.

No regrets about serving

Eric Cagle works with occupational therapist Deb Voydetich, learning all over again how to make a sandwich.

Allen Brisson-Smith • Special to The Advertiser

He has regrets, but not that he joined the Army, or went to Iraq.

"I've always liked the Army. It's a good life, and I'm proud of my time in the Army," Cagle said in his now slightly slurred speech.

He's coping.

"I'm adapting. I get bummed out every once in a while."

He doesn't want pity.

"I don't want people to feel sorry for me. I want people to think of me as a soldier who did his job and loved doing his job."

Perhaps most of all, he has hope. And others are optimistic about him.

Cagle's first big goal is to walk again. His second is to become an architect.

Dr. Larisa Kusar, one of Cagle's physicians at Minneapolis VA Medical Center, said "he has done remarkably well, considering his injuries," and already has exceeded expectations.

"He is going to have some permanent deficits, but given everything, I think he will still succeed and be very independent and functional despite those deficits," Kusar said.

Cagle and his wife, Amanda, flash a couple of shakas during a lighter moment at the VA Medical Center in Minneapolis.

Allen Brisson-Smith • Special to The Advertiser

In the range of images and reports that come out of the two war zones — from families happily reuniting after long deployments to death on the battlefield — Cagle's mother, Linda, says the type of serious injury experienced by her son isn't publicized enough.

She saw those injuries firsthand at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. while her son was there from Oct. 17 to Dec. 17 and before he was transferred to the traumatic brain-injury program at the Minneapolis hospital.

"Getting involved with families, you talk to this one, you talk to that one," the Tucson, Ariz., woman said. "There's a lot of pain and devastating situations out there, and I do not think we're hearing enough about this in the media."

Linda Cagle isn't sure if it's media self-censorship or "we just don't want to hear the bad things" about war.

"It's much easier to see the ones coming back who are being hugged and kissed by their wives," she said.

Officials with the Minneapolis hospital estimate that up to 63 percent of service people injured in close proximity to powerful roadside bomb or rocket blasts suffer traumatic brain injury from the jarring explosions.

A Grim one-year tally

Eric made a bologna sandwich for himself and a turkey sandwich for Amanda. "Here Honey, happy anniversary," he said as he handed Amanda hers. March 22 is the second anniversary of the couple's wedding.

Allen Brisson-Smith • Special to The Advertiser

More than 2,200 Hawai'i National Guard soldiers just arrived in Iraq for a tour of duty. In a year of duty in Iraq that's all but ended for about 5,800 other Hawai'i-based soldiers, including Guard and Reserve troops, and a tour winding down for 5,900 soldiers in Afghanistan, four service members have gone through amputations at the knee or below. There have been amputations of a foot, part of a foot, a hand and two fingers.

Twenty-six have died. Soldiers like Staff Sgt. Timothy Pollock, 26, who lost part of his face in a March 2004 small-arms attack in Kirkuk, continue to be treated at advanced care centers. Pollock is at a traumatic brain-injury facility in Richmond, Va., Schofield Barracks officials said.

Advances in medical care have saved or speeded recovery for some. Body armor with chest and back plates that can stop a 7.62 mm rifle round have protected others.

"If you look at where our soldiers have been wounded, it's the extremities," said Lt. Col. Patrick Rice, the rear detachment commander for many of the 25th Division units deployed.

Rice, who has made 95 percent of the injury notification calls to families, recalls a soldier who about three months ago took a bullet to the jaw in Afghanistan and needed reconstructive surgery.

"Fantastic medical care," Rice said.

" ... We thought it would be six to eight months of recovery. He's already back in his unit."

Spc. Charles Woolwine of Company A, 1st Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment, lost his lower leg in a May 2 roadside bomb and small-arms attack while on a vehicle patrol in Kirkuk. Staff Sgt. Todd Nunes would die of his wounds at the Kirkuk Air Base medical facility.

Five months after losing his leg, Woolwine was learning to deal with stairs and curbs with a prosthesis at Walter Reed. The Army on Monday agreed to keep Woolwine on active duty, something he desperately wanted.

"If he could have jumped and slam-dunked a basketball, he would have," Rice said. "He was just filled with emotion and elation. That's all he wanted."

For the Cagles, recovery is a slow and uncertain process. Pretty much all of Eric's motor cortex on the right side of his brain and some of his frontal lobe is gone, Amanda said.

A dent on the right side of his head will be covered by a plate back at Walter Reed. He's expected to return there in May, his mom said.

His left eye droops because of scar tissue, and his smile is now a lopsided effort because of the paralysis.

A lot of involuntary actions such as blinking and swallowing now require extra effort from Cagle.

He has a short attention span, can forget to eat the food that's in front of him, and his emotions can be dulled or exaggerated.

Cagle himself is aware of the personality changes. One of his biggest frustrations is "not being who I used to be," he said. "I'm a different person. I do things differently."

Re-educating muscles

Eric Cagle is fitted for a neck brace to help reduce his continuing pain.

Allen Brisson-Smith • Special to The Advertiser

But Amanda sees a lot of the old Eric still there.

"The guy that I fell in love with and married is very light-hearted and silly," she said. He was never afraid to dance around and be silly if it made someone laugh, she said.

In fact, the nickname given to him by his buddies at Fort Campbell, Ky., was "Giggles."

"He was a clown. He did giggle and laugh a lot," she said.

On Friday, he labored over the construction of a bologna sandwich for 10 to 15 minutes as occupational therapy.

Upon completion of a turkey sandwich, he handed it to his wife and, sporting his lopsided grin, quipped, "Here Honey, happy anniversary," a reference to two years of marriage as of March 22.

Eric still has pain in his head and side, but it has been getting better.

"There definitely is some hope," Amanda said. "The left-arm muscles are starting to show initiative. The leg, hip muscles are kicking in."

Eric can move around in a wheelchair and stand with assistance. Walking is a long-term goal that will take a lot of re-mapping in the brain and learning to re-control muscles, she said.

Amanda Cagle admits none of this has been easy.

"It's up there on the list of life experiences," said the Nashville, Tenn., woman. Both Cagle's wife and his mother have come to accept what happened and to not dwell on the what-ifs.

Eric was scheduled to be among the first returnees to come back in November. But the Schofield soldiers' mission was extended through the Jan. 30 Iraq elections. Some of the six other soldiers in Cagle's Humvee were knocked unconscious but were not seriously hurt, Amanda said.

"It (Eric's injury) has happened, so we need to go forward," said Linda Cagle. "I don't do a heck of a lot of looking back. You can drive yourself nuts. I'm just very thankful he's still alive."

'We'll be able to make it'

Cagle works with physical therapist Michelle Peterson at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center, where he's slowly learning anew how to walk and climb stairs.

Allen Brisson-Smith • Special to The Advertiser

Walter Reed Army Medical Center brought contact with lots of other families whose soldier sons and daughters suffered amputations and other injuries, but usually not in the same category of loss as Eric's. The family became part of a group of silent sufferers.

"It's very tragic to see all these (injured) guys," Amanda said. "But at the same time, once you have the worst injury you could possibly have, everything else, it's just like, man, that's really sad, but you can't say anything about it."

She stays at Fisher House near the hospital, a charitable housing program for military families, and sometimes has Eric over for the day. They went to a shopping mall for his birthday.

A day after the couple's anniversary, Eric will go on VA disability retirement. He'll get compensation based on each individual injury — yet to be determined — and get all the medical and adaptive aids he'll need, his wife said.

They expect to get a $50,000 VA grant to use toward a house in Arizona. With Amanda getting a job and income from the VA, "we'll be able to make it," she said. "It won't be horrible."

Soldiers from Hawai'i write or e-mail Eric Cagle to see how he is doing. Ever the squad leader, he still thinks a lot about his fellow Wolfhounds.

"I miss them, and I'll see them as soon as I can," he said. "I hope they are doing OK. My prayers were with them the whole time they were in Iraq."

Reach William Cole at wcole@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-5459.