Vet's Recovery Takes Family's Dedication

Impact Of War

The U.S. has been at war for more than seven years, yet the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan directly touch very few Americans. Most of those who have paid the price are members of the all-volunteer military and their families.

Weekend Edition's four-part "Impact of War" series is a collaboration with member stations and NPR's Impact Of War project. These stories explore how the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have affected service members and their loved ones.

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For Army Staff Sgt. Robert Henline, recovery has been difficult. During his third tour in Iraq, he suffered severe burns over 38 percent of his body when his truck hit a roadside bomb in March 2007. He says recovering from his injuries has been slow, but good.

"Things are at the point now where we're definitely seeing the light at the end of the tunnel," Henline tells guest host Alison Stewart. "Things are looking more positive every day."

Henline's left arm was also severely damaged in the blast, and there's still the possibility that it might be amputated.

"One doctor thought amputating would be the best solution; another thinks he might be able to save it after a few surgeries," Henline says. "But I think I'm happy with the amputation. I've been through 32, 34 surgeries already." Henline says it's more important to him to get functioning in society as soon as possible.

A routine day for him means hours of physical therapy, weight lifting or running laps to build up his stamina and stretch out the scars that spread across his body. He's already made progress that he wouldn't have hoped for a year ago, he says.

Last year, for example, he underwent five unsuccessful surgeries to grow skin on his head. "It had actually burnt down to the skull," Henline says. "That was the hardest part to get to regenerate." Success came at last when they tried what Henline calls the "tummy tuck" — taking skin from his abdomen and grafting it onto his skull. "It's looking really good now," he says.

A Family's Dedication

Henline's wife, Connie, hasn't been able to work since her husband came back from Iraq.

"I think we've been [at the hospital] 20 months now, and he still has six to eight more surgeries," she says. "And then I'll go back to work."

The family also goes through the ordeal of recovery, Henline says. "The kids got a new dad they gotta get used to. Connie has to take on a new role. You kind of lose the romantic side of being husband and wife," he says. "She almost has another kid that she has to take care of."

"It's an up-and-down roller coaster of emotions and a long ride," Henline says. "But like I said, we've got the light at the end of the tunnel now, and things are looking really good."

Between Henline's military paycheck and disability supplement, the Henlines feel lucky that Connie can devote all her energies to the family and her husband's recovery. She looks forward to spending Christmas together with just her husband and their three children.

"Luckily he's had no surgeries for the last month and a half, so he's doing really good," Connie says. "We can do Christmas things that we used to do years ago."

"Last year, I just kind of propped up in the recliner and watched the kids open presents," Henline adds. "But this year, I've been out shopping and having fun buying the kids gifts and stuff like that. Just actually being part of it."

Opening New Doors

Henline keeps his focus on the positive. "Usually my sense of humor comes out," he says, "I think that helped me a lot through this."

"In the long run, I realize there are certain things I can't do, especially being in the military, but there's other things I can do, like motivational speaking. Helping others who are going through something like this or going through their life — and that's the kind of stuff I enjoy. There's a lot of really positive things that come out of this."

Henline looks forward to seeing his daughter graduate from high school next year. He's thankful he's still around to share these special moments with his family. "I get to see her graduate, go to her prom, and stuff like that."

"That's really a big thing," he says. "And, you know, you just look for the next thing. The next positive thing."

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