Burned Soldier Continues Long Road To Recovery

Staff Sgt. Robert Henline flexes his biceps in a photo taken in Iraq. i i

Army Staff Sgt. Robert Henline flexes his biceps in an undated photo taken in Iraq before he was wounded. Courtesy of the Henline Family hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of the Henline Family
Staff Sgt. Robert Henline flexes his biceps in a photo taken in Iraq.

Army Staff Sgt. Robert Henline flexes his biceps in an undated photo taken in Iraq before he was wounded.

Courtesy of the Henline Family
Robert Henline and his wife, Connie, at home in San Antonio. i i

Connie Henline quit her job to care for her husband at their home in San Antonio, Texas. Robert Henline suffered burns over 38 percent of his body, mostly to his face, the rest of his head and his left arm. Courtesy of the Henline Family hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of the Henline Family
Robert Henline and his wife, Connie, at home in San Antonio.

Connie Henline quit her job to care for her husband at their home in San Antonio, Texas. Robert Henline suffered burns over 38 percent of his body, mostly to his face, the rest of his head and his left arm.

Courtesy of the Henline Family

Staff Sgt. Robert Henline is in the process of trying to reclaim his life. Burned badly in Iraq, he's one of thousands of wounded U.S. troops being treated at an Army burn center in Texas who are finding that their injuries are difficult to treat and their recovery periods are long and unpredictable.

Henline was wounded last year when his truck hit a roadside bomb. A month before the accident, Henline began his third deployment in Iraq, where he was a transportation specialist. He coordinated convoys of supplies and troops for the 82nd Airborne.

"The vehicle was flipped upside down about 15 meters from the hole itself, which was about 5 feet wide [and] 2 feet deep," Henline says.

Henline, burned over almost 38 percent of his body, was transported to the military's combat burn unit at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio.

Combination Of Challenges

Surgeon Evan Renz, who supervises Henline's care, says the soldier's wounds were extensive.

"It was a combination of challenges: the depth of injury, the extent of surface area involved and then finding donor tissue to cover," Renz says.

Henline has what are called full thickness burns, meaning a majority of the skin was destroyed. Most of the burns are concentrated on his face, head and left arm. Doctors have had trouble getting skin grafts to take.

The burns on his head went down to the skull. He's had five unsuccessful surgeries to try to put skin on it.

Henline underwent his most recent surgery last week. It's one of a series of surgeries he'll have over the next few weeks, in which doctors will replace scar tissue from his neck with a fresh skin graft with the goal of making it easier to rotate his head.

"They took a full thickness from my stomach. Basically I got a tummy tuck, which was kind of nice, but they took that full thickness and put it on my head and about 80 percent took," he says.

Henline's left arm was so badly burned that most of the muscle mass was destroyed. He spends a few hours every day working with an occupational therapist at the burn unit who tries to rebuild his muscle.

He wears a cast on his left wrist to keep it immobilized, but the cast needs to be removed twice a week so therapists can work on his range of motion.

Family Matters

Henline says the recovery has been grueling. He now depends on his family in ways he never would have imagined.

"My wife and I — our relationship, there's not a whole lot of husband and wife these days," he says.

Connie, Henline's wife of 16 years, spends much of her day cleaning and tending to her husband's wounds.

"He can't really fix meals. He can't take a shower anymore by himself," she says. "So you've kind of lost that partner."

Henline says it's been hard for him to adjust to how his injuries impact the little things in his daily life.

"I can't play catch with my son, and I can't go shopping with the girls very easily, so there's a lot of changes the kids have gotten more used to now," Henline says. "But still they wish the old dad was here, which I understand. I wish he was here, too."

Henline still draws a paycheck from the Army, but Connie had to quit her job to take care of her husband. He collected some benefits from injuries related to burns on his face and his head, but Connie complains he doesn't qualify for some benefits related to his arm injuries.

"They're not eligible for the same benefits as amputees are because they haven't lost a limb – but in my husband's case he lost the use of his left arm — so whether it's there or not there, he can't use it," she says.

Henline says that some days are more difficult than others, but he is glad to be alive.

"I watched my daughter go to prom last week. She looked beautiful. It was a really nice moment that I could have missed," he says.

More To Come

After all he's been through, Henline recently learned that his medical traumas are not over.

Doctors have decided that physical therapy on his arm is not working. They have decided to amputate. The surgery is scheduled for October. He will then be eligible for some of the amputee benefits he currently doesn't qualify for.

His wife took news of the surgery badly.

But Henline says he is at peace with the decision. Amputation, he says, will allow him to move on with his life.

Terry Gildea reports for Texas Public Radio.

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