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Divisions Arise in Wounded Iraq Veteran's Family
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Divisions Arise in Wounded Iraq Veteran's Family

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Divisions Arise in Wounded Iraq Veteran's Family
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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

We begin today by returning to the story of one soldier who was nearly killed in Iraq. Last April, we told you about Army Sergeant Tim Ngo. He was 20 years old when he almost died from a head wound in Iraq. Like many injured soldiers, he was helped by a dedicated family member. His mother, Hong Wyberg, left her job to stay with him at Walter Reed.

It can take years and years to recover from the injuries of war. And that long process sometimes takes a toll on families. Now, Tim Ngo and his mother have become estranged.

NPR's Joseph Shapiro has their story.

(Soundbite of people shooting pool)

JOSEPH SHAPIRO: Just to look at him, you wouldn't know that the guy in this bar shooting pool almost died in Iraq.

Sergeant TIM NGO (Retired, U.S. Army): That's a scratch.

Unidentified Man #1: Sorry.

Sgt. NGO: That's how I played it when I was in D.C.

SHAPIRO: The only clue is that Tim Ngo keeps his hair cut short so you can see the long, zigzag scar where surgeons cut out a chunk of his skull.

(Soundbite of door closing)

SHAPIRO: Ngo steps outside for a smoke. Against the freezing Minnesota night, he wears a flimsy San Antonio Spurs basketball jersey over a white T-shirt. Another smoker says thanks for your service and asks about Iraq.

Unidentified Man #2: So, you're glad to be back?

Sgt. NGO: Oh, hell, yeah. I had to learn how to do everything all over again when I got to Walter Reed.

SHAPIRO: Ngo tells about the three grenades and about the shrapnel that ripped through his brain and left him unable to walk or even to put simple words together.

Sgt. NGO: And then I sent to all, a mass e-mail to the bunch of my friends to tell them that I'm in the hospital and everything. And I'm thinking, I'm telling the whole story. It's only two sentences. Three bang, head, grenade. Ouch, hospital.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sgt. NGO: And I think my mom read that to me and I'm, like, that's not what I (bleep) wrote.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SHAPIRO: It's been four years since Sergeant Tim Ngo's injury in Iraq. Therapists helped him learn to walk again and talk again, then how to cope with the short-term memory loss from his head injury, and to control the anger that came with this post-traumatic stress disorder.

Now, at the age of 24, he's out of the Army and making his way back into the world.

(Soundbite of packing tape pulled off the roll)

It's the next day. Tim Ngo is packing up the two-bedroom apartment by the highway he shares with his girlfriend, Ani Cerghizan.

Ms. ANI CERGHIZAN (Tim Ngo's Girlfriend): Well, we wanted to wrap it. though.

SHAPIRO: They packed up the flat screen TV. They've got carriers for the kittens and the two white doves that Tim bought as presents for Ani.

(Soundbite of dove cooing)

SHAPIRO: Just hours from now, Tim and Ani will drive far away from Minnesota. They are moving to Texas, to the town where Tim was stationed in the Army. They'll leave behind all the doctors, therapists, friends and family they've counted on.

Sgt. NGO: It's a real big step in my life - moving - and a really big step in a relationship because we're both going down there just by ourselves and it's just going to be us.

SHAPIRO: Friends and family are here to help them pack up, but there's one person missing: Tim's mother. She's been at his side throughout his injury. She hurried to the Army hospital in Germany and saw him with his head swollen grotesquely. She didn't know if her only child would live or die. Then at Walter Reed, she'd sit by his hospital bed and hold his hand until he fell asleep at night and sneak back into his room early the next morning and be holding his hand when he woke up.

Tim and his mother don't talk to each other anymore.

Sgt. NGO: She's got to apologize to me and Ani before any contact will happen.

SHAPIRO: Apologize for what? Tim's answer rambles. It's hard to sort out what's real complaint, where the head injury plays a part, and what's simply a young man's need to assert his independence. Part of it, which is true, is that his mother doesn't see Ani, with her lip piercings and the peace sign on her car, as a good match for Tim.

But his reasons seem to go deeper than just a clash between mother and girlfriend.

Sgt. NGO: I think my mom judges her on how she dresses. And also she, like my mom since I got injured, all of a sudden I'm a baby again, she's got to take care of me, change my dressings and all of that. But until she apologizes to me and Ani, no contact is going to be made.

SHAPIRO: Hong Wyberg hasn't spoken into her son since a phone call just before Thanksgiving, when he announced he was leaving.

Ms. HONG WYBERG (Tim Ngo's Mother): I don't know how to fix it. I don't know how to change it except to let him go or let him go to Texas. Let him live on his own. He thinks that I'm too controlling living in the same state with him.

SHAPIRO: But to Wyberg, after his injury, Tim needed that help. He was dependent upon his mother for things from medical care to balancing his checkbook. His body healed, but she says the head injury still affected the way he thought and acted.

Ms. WYBERG: I have a hard time convincing Tim or getting Tim to understand he has changed. I mean, he physically looks the same, but after the accident, after the brain injury, he's different. He's short-tempered. He's quick to jump to conclusion, and he's almost impulsive.

SHAPIRO: Families often provide heroic support to injured soldiers. That's the public story that's often told. But year after year of caregiving can pull apart even the most dedicated and loving of families.

Hong Wyberg says she and her son were close until recently. For a long time, it was just the two of them. She, too, set out to be independent at a young age. She was 8 when Saigon fell and her Vietnamese family fled to America. Hong was just 17 when Tim was born, and she left her small hometown in Texas to raise him as a single mother.

Ms. WYBERG: He asked me, have I ever stayed until the bar is closed? No. He goes, haven't you just gone out and just got drunk? And I'm like, no, never. I was busy working, raising a kid. I didn't go to clubs, bars. I haven't a clue how to dance. And I missed out on a lot. And, you know, Tim says what kind of life did you lead? I was a young mother. I was a young, single mom, raising him.

SHAPIRO: Now, Hong wonders about the way Tim wants to lead his life. If there's any crack in a relationship, the arrival of a serious disability can find that weakness and rip it wide open. And Tim's wasn't the only serious brain injury in the family. While Hong Wyberg tended to her son at Walter Reed in Washington, back home in Minnesota, her husband was caring for his own son.

Just months before, that teenage boy, Tim's stepbrother, was severely injured in a car accident. Hong Wyberg's marriage ended. Tim blamed her for leaving his stepfather, the only father he'd ever known. Now, Hong says she's had to cash in her savings and take a second job, working seven days a week to at first support her son and now, herself.

As Tim packs to leave, Hong is across town in the orthodontist's office where she works as a technician.

He's taking off in a few hours for Texas. You can't be there or you won't be there to be able to say goodbye. So if you had a chance to say goodbye to him, what would you say?

Ms. WYBERG: Just be happy. Call me if you need anything. I'm always here. I'll always be here for him. It's - that's not a question or an issue, it's just how much does he want me to be involved in his life?

SHAPIRO: Even though Tim has cut off contact with his mother, he hardly sounds like an ungrateful son. Back at his apartment, he easily expresses his appreciation for all she's done for him. Like the time they went into a restaurant and a table of women stared and laughed at Tim. In those days, he wore a kind of football helmet to protect the open spot where his skull had been removed.

Sgt. NGO: She's like, hold my purse. And I'm like, okay. And she walks over to this table of these elderly women that were laughing. And she's like, you know what, why are you guys laughing at my son? Do you know why he has to wear that helmet? He went over to Iraq, and he got four grenades to the head. So now he's got to wear that because all that's there is skin and then brain. And you don't want to piss my mom off. You really don't want to piss her off.

SHAPIRO: A year ago, Tim took Ani to a fancy restaurant for dinner. Another diner dropped a fork, and when it clanked on the floor, Tim ducked, the way he would in Iraq when he heard a gunshot.

A year ago, Tim lost his job stacking shelves at Target because he'd get anxious, even hostile, when customers ask questions. Ani explains.

Ms. CERGHIZAN: He's changed significantly from just a year ago. I mean, he was a lot angrier and more aggressive over things and - because he had untreated PTSD; the VA didn't even know. And then we've been going through — for a year, he went to Dr. Kennedy(ph), his therapist, which — amazing woman at the VA and ever since then he's changed a lot, like complete 360.

SHAPIRO: There are still problems. Tim says his short-term memory is bad. He leaves notes around the house to remind him what he needs to do. But he gets full disability benefits from the VA. And just before Christmas, his disability check arrived from Social Security with $18,000 in retroactive benefits, enough to make the move to Texas.

To Ani, Tim is the sweet and romantic boyfriend who lavishes her with presents. She's 22 and just graduated from training to be a veterinarian's assistant. Ask Tim about his own dreams for the future, and he talks of buying a ranch for Ani in Texas.

Sgt. NGO: Well, it's kind of her dream, basically, to have a farm with all her animals that she wants and basically to have her happy. Because she's someone I want to spend the rest of my life with, and she's not even looking at me to see me look at her. But I want to make her happy. I want to give her the things that she has never been able to have.

SHAPIRO: As Tim says this, he tenderly takes Ani's hand. She's curled up on a couch, softly crying. It's Ani who's having the hard time today.

Ms. CERGHIZAN: This move has been such a really big step. I'm leaving behind everyone, my sister and my mother, and it is hard. And, you know, every time I see my sister, I'm like, when am I going to see her again? She's been my best friend my whole life and, I mean, I'm excited to move on with Tim, absolutely. I mean, I love him to death, and I want to spend the rest of my life with him, but it's just such an extreme step and I'm excited for it, but at the same time I'm kind of hurting to miss everybody.

SHAPIRO: The next morning, Tim and Ani get up before 5.

(Soundbite of program "Fox 9 News")

Unidentified Man: And a bitterly, cold morning with dangerous wind chills out there. Eric Mailyn(ph) is up next with the forecast right here on the "Fox 9 News."

(Soundbite of car door opening and closing)

SHAPIRO: Ani gets behind the wheel of the U-Haul.

(Soundbite of car engine revving)

SHAPIRO: Tim drives his new Chevy Impala to the gas station but then gets a bit lost. Ani gives directions over the walkie-talkie.

Sgt. NGO: Ani.

Ms. CERGHIZAN: Yes?

Sgt. NGO: I turned on Willow, right?

Ms. CERGHIZAN: Yeah, the one light right after the gas station.

Sgt. NGO: All right. Well, I'm on my way over right now.

Ms. CERGHIZAN: Hurry up before I lose a toe or a finger.

SHAPIRO: They meet up nearby and check their maps for the road to Texas. For Sergeant Tim Ngo, it's a road away from war, away from injury, and the path to recovery, growth and independence.

Sgt. NGO: The future looks great for me, I think.

SHAPIRO: Tim Ngo reports from Texas that the other week, he asked Ani to marry him. They've set a date for September. He hasn't told his mother.

Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.

SIEGEL: And you can hear our first story about Tim Ngo at our Web site, npr.org.

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