LIANE HANSEN, host:
This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.
HANSEN: You're going to show us around?
Technical Sergeant JAMIE MANGAN (U.S. Air Force, Retired): I'll show you around, but can't avoid the mud. So...
HANSEN: No problem. Got the boots for the mud.
It's a raw December day in northwestern Pennsylvania. Jamie Mangan is taking us on a quick tour of her farm near the town of Smethport. She guides us immediately to her pride and joy, an exceptionally affectionate Arabian horse.
Technical Sergeant MANGAN: This is Vegas, or so I call him. He likes to talk to me.
HANSEN: Vegas, did you say?
Technical Sergeant MANGAN: Yeah. He's from Las Vegas. He was a Wayne Newton horse and...
HANSEN: He was a Wayne Newton horse?
Technical Sergeant MANGAN: Yup.
HANSEN: What do you mean?
Technical Sergeant MANGAN: Wayne Newton came to the hospital to visit the wounded soldiers when I was there, and he was one of Wayne Newton's horses. He breeds Arabians. So he's my buddy. He likes to nibble.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Technical Sergeant MANGAN: Yeah. Come on, goofy.
HANSEN: Jamie used to be an avid rider but these days, she mostly keeps her boots on the ground. Riding can be painful and exhausting for the former Air Force technical sergeant and K-9 handler because of the catastrophic injuries she sustained in Iraq. Today, Jamie Mangan is the subject of the second report in our series "Impact of War."
Late afternoon is feeding time here at Wounded Acres, the name Jamie Mangan gave to her 80-acre spread. Vegas is chowing down with a couple of the other dozen horses that live here. Scattered around the corrals and barns are nine cats, three dogs and one goat. Assorted tropical fish reside inside. These creatures help to bring solace and order to a life thrown into chaos on June 25, 2005, the day Jamie's Humvee hit an explosive device near Kirkuk, Iraq.
Jamie's 100-year-old farmhouse is filled with things equine. The kitchen walls are lined with dozens of plates bearing headshots of different breeds. Jamie plops down on the living room couch with the two most significant members of her menagerie: Rex and Mike. Rex is Jamie's 8-year-old German shepherd. The trained bomb-sniffing dog was in the Humvee with Jamie when it exploded. Rex suffered a singed nose, but Jamie thought he was dead. Mike Mangan is Jamie's husband. He's also the Army medic who helped to save her life that day.
Technical Sergeant MANGAN: We were in the convoy. The device had been buried in the middle of the road and actually paved over at some point. And later on, what they decided was that whoever it was, was actually aiming to get the dog team, and they waited until my vehicle went over the device and command detonated it. From what I was told, it flipped my vehicle a couple of times and rolled it several more times. And I don't know what happened from there.
HANSEN: Mike, can you fill in what happened?
Mr. MIKE MANGAN (U.S. Army Medic, Retired): I was on the first helicopter in. We had to take a rapid assessment of who we could help and who we couldn't. And retrospectively, certainly, if we had been five minutes later on the scene, and she had been decaying at the rate she was decaying, when we got there, we probably would have looked at her and said she's unsaveable and may have left her there.
HANSEN: But Jamie was rushed by helicopter to a small field hospital. She was bleeding out.
Technical Sergeant MANGAN: They opened me up at Kirkuk, which is where I got my big scar. It basically runs from my neck all the way down to my pelvic area, because they weren't sure if I had blood in my chest. My diaphragm had been ruptured, so my internal organs were up in my chest cavity, some of them. Both my lungs were collapsed. My spleen was ruptured, which was where I was bleeding out from. They got me stable there for the most part, and that's when I went to Germany.
HANSEN: From Germany, Jamie was transported to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.
Technical Sergeant MANGAN: I had an open abdomen for about six weeks because it was so distended, they couldn't close it. And in the end, when they did close it about six weeks later, they actually used a titanium mesh that holds my muscles and my abdominal wall together. So they weren't actually able to repair my pelvis and my spine until the end of August. And when they did that, they put six screws in my pelvis, and they put two pins in my spine.
HANSEN: Jamie spent four months at Walter Reed. That's where she met Wayne Newton. She was also awarded the Purple Heart and discovered that her beloved dog Rex was alive.
Technical Sergeant MANGAN: They told me he was coming to visit. And they told me he was coming down the hall. Rex knows me by whistle. So I whistled. And he came in and jumped up on my bed with his front feet, and then he jumped up the whole way. And I had IV lines everywhere and, you know, all kinds of tubes and stuff connected to me, and he was getting all tangled up in them. And people were spazzing out, but I didn't care. He was there. I was happy.
HANSEN: During her recovery, Jamie began the difficult process of trying to adopt Rex. He was a healthy, trained dog, and the military regulations stated that he couldn't be spared from duty. But Jamie's plight generated lots of publicity. An act of Congress was passed to allow for exceptions to the adoption rules. President Bush signed the bill into law on December 30, 2005, and the White House sent Jamie and Rex an invitation to the 2006 State of the Union address.
Technical Sergeant MANGAN: Rex was the first dog ever to actually get an invitation to the State of the Union.
HANSEN: After her recovery, Jamie returned to Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado. Her first marriage, to another serviceman, fell apart. But around this time, Mike Mangan, who was home from Iraq, realized that the K-9 handler he had heard stories about was the same woman he helped to save near Kirkuk. A friend persuaded him to get in touch.
Mr. MANGAN: So on the way home, I picked up my phone, and I called her and basically apologized for opening any new wounds that she may have had. And we spoke for about 45 minutes on the phone until I was standing in my driveway, realizing it's getting even later.
Technical Sergeant MANGAN: Talking to Mike helped me get some closure because I think, in a sense, it was also helping him out. You know, to see, of course, all the negative stuff he saw over there and the terrible things and the terrible memories and to have a positive story to put to it. I think it - it was kind of healing for both of us. So that was initially what got us started.
HANSEN: Mike visited Jamie. The relationship developed. And they've been married for two years. Today, both are retired from the service and live on land adjacent to the farm where Jamie grew up. Jamie turns 30 at the end of this month. She's blonde, rarely smiles, and walks a bit stiffly sometimes, but there is little evidence of her injuries. Mike, 48, is short, wiry and intense. Both volunteer for the local fire and rescue company.
Their marriage may read like a storybook, but real life is tough. Although she still suffers from the effects of the explosion, Jamie works as an abuse investigator for the county's child protection services and is studying for her master's degree in social work.
Technical Sergeant MANGAN: I'm probably not going to get any better than what I am, from what I'm told. My head injury - I'm obviously functional. I have memory problems. I have problems with mood swings. I have problems being in social situations. I don't like, really, to talk to people. I have problems with school. I can write papers because that's hands-on, I'm right there. But when it comes to actually memorizing things and taking a test, I have a very, very hard time with it.
HANSEN: But with the help of her colleagues and lots of Post-it notes, Jamie does her job well. Mike works as an emergency room nurse, and Jamie says he's always there to support her.
Technical Sergeant MANGAN: Mike wants to help. Mike wants to fix it. And there's a lot of things with me that you can't fix. You need to leave me alone. And he doesn't like to do that. He wants to be there. He wants to fix it. And it just makes it worse. So I think that's why it works so well that he works the shift he does, because I can come home and be alone while he's at work.
(Soundbite of laughter)
HANSEN: Mike considers it a kind of miracle that today, he's sitting next to the badly injured woman he rescued and transported to the field hospital in Iraq. That scene is still fresh in his mind.
Mr. MANGAN: There was the smell of overheated blood that was in the room that you couldn't get away from. It was on our uniforms, all over our boots. And then about a year later, she's sitting right there. And we're driving into the mountains of Colorado. And she's talking, she's got thoughts, she's a person. She's not just like a slab of combat-wounded meat we had to tie together.
HANSEN: Jamie can't recall many of the details of the bomb blast, but says her amnesia can be a blessing.
Technical Sergeant MANGAN: It's kind of warped sometimes, but I don't get stressed out about it usually because I just - I don't remember. The way I look at it, I'm in one piece, you know, I recovered. I have absolutely no room to complain when so many of them didn't.
HANSEN: Besides her husband, Mike, and dog, Rex, there is another constant in Jamie's life.
Mr. RANDY HIMES: All right. My name's Randy Himes, Jamie's father.
HANSEN: Randy Himes lives on the farm next door. He dropped by and joined everyone on the couch. Randy said his very first airplane flight was to Germany to see his injured daughter. He still hasn't shaken the initial image of Jamie in the hospital.
Mr. HIMES: Well, when I came through the door into her room, she was laying there with all the tubes and the wires, and her face was black and blue, and her head was swollen up. And the first thing that come to my mind was, she's just a little girl, you know. And what those people over there did, you know, I just - she's just a little girl, you know.
HANSEN: Looking over at his daughter curled up with Mike and Rex, Randy Himes worries about Jamie's future.
Mr. HIMES: She's handling it pretty good now, but I'm sure that life is probably going to be pretty tough. I would have to say that all of those injuries are going to come to the surface. And there for a long time, she was pretty intent on having a baby. And that just scares the hell out of me. Her pelvis is held together with screws.
What are you laughing about? I suppose you're pregnant.
Technical Sergeant MANGAN: Not. He's the one that wants a kid, not me. There's no plans for kids. All my kids have four legs.
(Soundbite of Jamie Magan talking to her dog)
Technical Sergeant MANGAN: Stay. I know, I know.
HANSEN: Jamie decides that Rex needs a pedicure and moves to the kitchen to carefully clip his toenails. Jamie says the slender shepherd has a personality way too mellow to have ever been a military dog. One Christmas, though, he was able to sniff out a gift-wrapped box of rifle shells for hunting under the tree. Jamie's inability to concentrate and remember things prevents her from pursuing a career as a veterinarian. Her face has taken on a hard look, but here at Wounded Acres, that hardness melts away when she's doting on her pets.
Technical Sergeant MANGAN: Being with the animals, it's peaceful. They don't expect anything from you. You don't have to talk to them. You don't have to explain anything. They just want you to love them and take care of them. And being able to go out and do that kind of lets your mind almost be blank, so you don't have to think about anything, you don't have to talk about anything, you don't have to worry about it. It gives you a chance to just - I don't want to say heal - but it just gives you a time to go blank and just do what you're doing. And then they love you just the same. If you're brushing them, they're just standing there. And, you know, they'll nuzzle you or kiss you or whatever the case may be. But they just let you relax and be you.
HANSEN: Our story was produced by Peter Breslow and Ailsa Chang. You'll find more on our series at npr.org. Next week, "Impact of War" continues when we travel to the burn unit at the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. Some of the most horrific injuries from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are treated there. And the emotional toll on the medical staff who tends to the victims can be devastating. Lieutenant Colonel Maria Serio-Melvin is a critical care nurse at Brooke.
Lieutenant Colonel MARIA SERIO-MELVIN (Critical Care Nurse, Brooke Army Medical Center, San Antonio, Texas) You notice how graphic it is. I look at this stuff very scientifically and from a medical perspective, at the same time still trying to be nurturing and compassionate and realizing that this is a human being in the bed who is awake or half-awake, who can still hear.
HANSEN: Next week on our program, looking out for those who treat the victims. If you're a member of the medical community caring for the war injured, we'd like to hear from you. Please go to our blog, npr.org/soapbox. A number of you have already visited this site to express how America's ongoing wars have touched you. Dean Haggerman(ph) writes, I was in Iraq when the unit we were relieving lost soldiers in the mess hall bombing in Mosul. And Technical Sergeant Jamie Mangan, then Sergeant Dana, and Rex supported my team during her tour.
I've been back for three years. And while I was never shot at or had an IED detonated on me, I still struggled with returning to normal life. For two years, I had periodic trouble sleeping, a short fuse for ignorant behavior like tailgaters, little respect for most people in authority, and a general desire to opt out of many of the things I used to enjoy doing. I suppose I just need to accept the new normal.
Ben Moorad works with the Portland-based nonprofit Returning Veterans Project that provides counseling and other health services to soldiers. He writes that while no one believes that small nonprofits and groups of dedicated volunteers alone can heal the wounds of a nation, I have been heartened to see community members step forward to take care of their soldiers and their military families. After all, no matter how we might feel about these wars, they're being executed in our names as Americans, and it's our responsibility to address the pain they leave behind.