Group Helps Injured Marines Return to Civilian Life

When troops get seriously injured in Iraq, multiple surgeries at a military hospital are often required, and it helps if there's usually a family member there. A Marine charity, The Semper Fi Fund, is making it easier for families to stay by the bedside over the long course of recovery.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

When American troops are seriously injured in Iraq, they often depend on family members to help them through hospital stays and multiple surgeries. Now a group of volunteers is making it easier for families to stay by the bedside. NPR's Joseph Shapiro has this report in our series the Span of War.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO reporting:

For Marine Corporal Ryan Groves, the place he calls home these days is a military hospital. He's been here for nine months. He figures he's got another nine months of hospital life to go, at least.

Corporal RYAN GROVES (US Marine): I've gone through some times, some really down, down, down depressed times, you know, in the last nine months.

SHAPIRO: Last October, Groves survived a mortar attack. His left leg was amputated. Doctors are still trying to save the right one. He's battled pain, infections, blood clots and failed operations. There's been setback after setback after setback.

Cpl. GROVES: There she is.

Ms. RENEE BARDORF (The Semper Fi Fund): Hey.

Cpl. GROVES: Hey.

SHAPIRO: Renee Bardorf has just rushed into Ryan Groves' darkened hospital room at Bethesda Naval Medical Center near Washington. She'll spend the evening visiting a dozen Marines.

Ms. BARDORF: Well, hello.

Cpl. GROVES: Hi.

Ms. BARDORF: It's good to see you.

Cpl. GROVES: You, too.

SHAPIRO: Volunteers play an important role at Bethesda Naval Hospital. Some of the most active are mothers or wives of troops who fought in Iraq.

Ms. BARDORF: It's very sobering sometimes for me to go to the hospital because I know that that could be me.

SHAPIRO: Like Renee Bardorf and the three other Marine wives who started The Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund. It gives out checks to wounded Marines and their families.

Ms. BARDORF: And that's how each of the four of us felt when we started this fund, is that we understood very clearly that we could be that person at the bedside.

SHAPIRO: Bardorf takes Ryan Groves' empty wheelchair and pulls it up next to him. He sits in the recliner with his right leg propped up in front of a TV turned to sports. Bardorf's in heels and her long dark hair is pulled back in a tight bun. She's dressed like she could be going off to a summer cocktail party, only tonight, her dinner is in her pocket, a handful of red licorice. She says The Semper Fi Fund comes first.

Ms. BARDORF: Semper Fi means always faithful, and the Marine Corps stands by that. And as part of the Marine Corps family, we stand by that.

SHAPIRO: Some nights, Bardorf comes just to chat, like last weekend, when Groves developed a bedsore on his heel, another bitter setback. Bardorf listened to his frustration and then helped him see it as just another short delay in his long rehab. Other nights, like tonight, Bardorf comes with a white envelope...

Ms. BARDORF: This is for you and for your mom.

SHAPIRO: ...with a check inside.

Ms. BARDORF: And it's just, as you know, because we do this a lot just to help out with some of the expenses that you have while you're here.

Cpl. GROVES: My family appreciates it.

SHAPIRO: When a Marine gets injured, the Marine Corp pays one time for tickets to fly family members to the hospital and then tries to find volunteer groups to pay for phone bills, car rentals and hotels. But the expenses add up here, and back home, there's still the mortgage, the rent, the utility bills.

Ms. TERRY HUTSON-GROVES (Ryan's Mother): Well, we do worry about finances because, obviously, with me not working, that's a lot of money a month. I mean, we're not wealthy people.

SHAPIRO: That's Ryan Groves' mom, Terry Hutson-Groves. She's been at her son's bedside from the moment he came out of his first surgery here nine months ago. She had to quit her job taking orders at a company that sells machine parts. Back home in Ravenna, Ohio, her husband works extra hours as a foreman at a factory that makes potting soil. At Bethesda, there's usually someone, a mother, father, husband or wife and at least one of them has given up a job to stay here.

Ms. HUTSON-GROVES: In our home, both of us have always worked. We've had to. I think in most cases, it takes both people these days.

SHAPIRO: The Semper Fi Fund began with $2,000 collected from a church. That was just a year and a half ago. Since then, Renee Bardorf and her friends have raised and given out nearly $2 million in checks, often about $1,500 at a time. They've helped about 1,000 wounded Marines. Bardorf says The Semper Fi Fund doesn't ask for receipts or for explanations about how the money is spent. They keep things simple.

Ms. BARDORF: I try to visit Ryan and his mom and try to help them out about every four weeks so that she can stay here. And I think that this really helps to keep them focused on just the healing and recovery as opposed to worrying about those bills at home.

SHAPIRO: For Ryan Groves, the money pays for his fiancee to visit, for his mom to go to Subway or McDonald's to buy his lunch so he doesn't have to keep eating hospital food. There are lots of expenses for his mom and for people who visit.

Ms. HUTSON-GROVES: I'd go broke. I would go broke. I mean, it would be very difficult for my husband and I right now.

SHAPIRO: Recently, Terry Hutson-Groves drove five and a half hours back home to Ohio. She stayed one day, then drove right back to Bethesda. She's open about the family emergency that took her home.

Ms. HUTSON-GROVES: Yeah, my youngest son is going to be a daddy.

SHAPIRO: He's a senior in high school. When Hutson-Groves talks about this, it becomes clear just how much stress it puts on a family when a loved one comes back from war with a serious injury. She's left another daughter in the house and her baby. Last fall, Hutson-Groves missed the birth of still another granddaughter. She worries, too, about her elderly father, that he's driving when he shouldn't now that she's not around to help. But Hutson-Groves says her biggest responsibility right now is to help her son recover at Bethesda.

Ms. HUTSON-GROVES: Well, it is very important to him to know he's not going through this alone. I'm not coming home without my son.

SHAPIRO: By helping the Groves family and others through The Semper Fi Fund, Renee Bardorf gets something back, too, a better sense of her own Marine husband. Dave Bardorf commanded a tank battalion in Iraq. He survived ambushes, mortar attacks, gunfire. He came home safe. It puzzled Renee Bardorf why her husband then wanted to go back to Iraq.

Ms. BARDORF: I'll never fully understand the mind of a Marine, even though I sleep next to one every night. I'll never understand the desire to go back to combat or to go back to your unit after going through such a traumatic event.

SHAPIRO: At Bethesda, she sees the bonds among wounded Marines and better understands what drives her husband and better accepts it.

Cpl. GROVES: I've learned a lot from her, I'll tell you that.

SHAPIRO: Ryan Groves says having a serious injury and getting help from The Semper Fi Fund has changed him, too.

Mr. GROVES: My plan was to go to law school and be a big, powerful, money-hungry lawyer in some big 500-lawyer firm, you know, just be successful.

SHAPIRO: He's thinking differently about his future.

Cpl. GROVES: I don't want to get too deep here, but I see people like Renee whose life is helping Marines like myself. I know you've probably heard about the brotherhood that you can build in combat and everything. It's unbelievable, and for her to care as much about them as I do, it's just amazing. I would almost feel guilty not doing the same.

SHAPIRO: Recently, Ryan Groves moved out of Bethesda Naval Hospital and over to Walter Reed Army Medical Center. He's started training on a new prosthetic leg.

Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.

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