Home/Front: An Iraq Veteran Finds Love After War : Rough Translation He's a veteran looking for love. She's a civilian who learns more about war than she ever imagined. Part 1 of the story of Matt and Alicia Lammers.

Home/Front: Battle Rattle

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GREGORY WARNER, HOST:

This is ROUGH TRANSLATION from NPR. In our new season Home/Front about the civilian-military divide, one way that people cross that divide - romance.

MATT LAMMERS: I just set my targets on her. And she was the mission.

ALICIA ARGELIA: I was the mission?

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: What was your mission essentials task list?

LAMMERS: Win her over somehow.

ARGELIA: (Imitating "Mission Impossible" theme) Dun, dun...

LAMMERS: Yeah.

ARGELIA: ...Dun, dun, dun dun.

(LAUGHTER)

WARNER: Matt Lammers had been out of active duty for two years when he rolled into a Bed Bath & Beyond in Tucson, Ariz.

ARGELIA: You show up in my store, at Bed Bath & Beyond, very late at night.

(LAUGHTER)

WARNER: Alicia Argelia was a store manager.

ARGELIA: And you know, when you want to close the store, you don't want customers around, so you go and help them. So like, yeah, what can I do for you?

LAMMERS: You never told me this.

ARGELIA: (Laughter) Oh, my God.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: Alicia sees Matt, this big Asian guy with lots of tattoos who uses a wheelchair. He's got a 10th Mountain Division patch with the two crossed swords, a huge smile and a long shopping list.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: He wants sheets, bath towels, maybe placemats. Alicia doesn't even remember everything that was on it, just that she helped him aisle by aisle.

ARGELIA: The ex-wife took half of the stuff. And so he was shopping for extra sheets and the things that he needed for his apartment. So we came very good friends first. And then he sent me flowers...

WARNER: He sends flowers to the store.

ARGELIA: ...To the store.

LAMMERS: And chocolates.

ARGELIA: And he called the same night, asked me if I received the flowers. And I said, yes, thank you. They're beautiful and all that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARGELIA: I wasn't too interested in having a relationship, but I wanted to be his friend.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LAMMERS: I tried to use some of my best lines on Alicia. I told her I'd die for her.

ARGELIA: He said, I will die for you. It's like, you're a soldier. You will die for anyone.

(LAUGHTER)

LAMMERS: I was like, dang, I got to come back stronger than that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: And the way he comes back stronger...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: ...Is to show her a photograph.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARGELIA: I think on the third visit to Bed Bath & Beyond, you showed me the operating table picture.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: The picture he shows her, it's a stark and stripped-down military operating room in Baghdad. Doctors are huddled around him sewing up where his left arm and both legs used to be. There's blood and gauze all over the floor.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: This photo, it marks Matt as part of a very small club, maybe five dozen veterans in the past 20 years of war who've lost three or four limbs on the battlefield and lived.

ARGELIA: Yeah. And you say usually people cry when they...

LAMMERS: Yeah, that was my go-to move.

ARGELIA: ...See that picture.

LAMMERS: That's like, you normally would come back...

ARGELIA: But I have a...

LAMMERS: ...To the house with me.

ARGELIA: ...Medical field background.

LAMMERS: (Laughter).

ARGELIA: It didn't impress me, or I didn't feel like crying or like, oh, my God, blood. I was just - oh, wow, you know? He went through a lot.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LAMMERS: She's good. She knew what she was doing. That was my go-to move with white girls. Then the next day, it'd be, let's go back to the house (laughter).

ARGELIA: Oh.

LAMMERS: But no, she made me work for it (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: This is ROUGH TRANSLATION. I'm Gregory Warner. It's our new season, Home/Front.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: A few years ago, our correspondent Quil Lawrence set off to do a story about how veterans come home. And we should say that most combat veterans, even those with PTSD, adjust pretty well to life back in the states, but others do struggle. And Quil wondered, what happens to them? How do they find fulfillment? What do they need from loved ones? And this led Quil to an extraordinary story about an extraordinary return, which led us to a different question - what it takes to be a loved one of a veteran trying to come home, someone who falls in love with a guy but then becomes his chief caregiver and battle buddy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: This story does contain graphic and vivid accounts of war and battlefield medicine. Matt and Alicia have been through a lot, and they talk about it candidly. So please make sure you're in the right head space to hear it. ROUGH TRANSLATION's Home/Front back after this break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: We're back with ROUGH TRANSLATION. I'm Gregory Warner.

NPR has a veterans beat. In fact, we're the only national news network with a vets beat, which I hadn't actually thought about till I was talking with Quil Lawrence, our veterans correspondent. It can be a lot of pressure to choose which vets to profile.

LAWRENCE: I'll just say that there are some times when I've been talking with the VA and they pretty much come out and say, are you sure you want to do a story about this veteran? And what's implied there is kind of like, do you want to make this your poster boy for an NPR story - basically - 'cause you're going to look pretty bad when he's the hero of your story and, I mean, the facts about what he's done come out. Are you really sure that this is the guy you want to feature?

WARNER: But Quil wanted to tell a story about someone who was having a hard time coming home, who was, as he would be the first to admit, hard to love, and who was testing the system in so many ways, which led Quil to Matt Lammers.

LAMMERS: Having been given so many curveballs, I just learned how to roll with the punches and...

LAWRENCE: List your curveballs for me.

LAMMERS: Being orphaned, found on a police station doorstep in Seoul, South Korea, being adopted at 10 months old, growing up in the Midwest, experiencing a lot of racism and prejudice and other things. I guess I could say I gave myself a bunch of curveballs as well, making bad choices in high school with drugs and trying to self-medicate.

LAWRENCE: Matt was arrested in high school for drug possession. But then after 9/11, he enlisted in the Army. They gave him a drug waiver. Usually you can't join with a criminal charge. And in the Army, he flourished.

LAMMERS: It was good. I'm glad they accepted me. That was a little bit of a hurdle, but it was good to clear that.

LAWRENCE: The first time he deployed to Iraq, he got a Purple Heart. In September of 2004, his truck rolled straight into a roadside bomb.

LAMMERS: We all lived through that one - some minor hearing loss and five days off the line and finished up my deployment.

LAWRENCE: He went home for a while, then redeployed in 2007 as a sergeant. And one day in June, he was on a road in Baghdad.

LAMMERS: We had just come off of Route Irish.

LAWRENCE: Yep, Irish (unintelligible).

LAMMERS: And then we turned southbound.

LAWRENCE: Anyone who's been to Iraq has been stuck on this road.

LAMMERS: I had just checked the time on my - I'm right-handed - before all this happened, I was right-handed. My dad had given me just a nice watch for me being enlisted. And I had just took the time. I had one last Newport in my cigarettes in the ACU pouch near the boots.

LAWRENCE: And he said that he was going to reach into his leg pocket and grab the cigarette. But he thinks, you know what? Maybe I'll save that cigarette for when I get back to the base.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LAMMERS: And I thank God that I decided not to have that cigarette 'cause that's when I remember all the traffic, civilian traffic, next to us screeched halt. Everyone in front of us sped up.

LAWRENCE: Yeah.

LAMMERS: And I just thought, oh, shit. And then, just boom. As soon as it happened, the wind got knocked down of me. And our - my brain recognized the smell right away. And I was just thinking...

LAWRENCE: You good talking about all this?

LAMMERS: Yes. Yes.

LAWRENCE: Cool.

LAMMERS: It's done (laughter).

LAWRENCE: Yeah.

LAMMERS: It was one of those days. And I knew it was going to get worse before it got better.

LAWRENCE: Matt says stuff like this all the time. He might say, not to sound too dramatic, even when things couldn't humanly be more dramatic, or it was going to get worse before it got better, which means it's going to get really bad.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LAMMERS: I remember I picked up my hand.

LAWRENCE: His left hand is pretty much detached at this point.

LAMMERS: Initially, it didn't occur to me it was my hand. And so I set the hand down thinking, OK, it's one of my soldiers', and hopefully we can save it. And I try to stand up about three times. And it occurred to me I couldn't stand. And I looked down. And that's when I saw. Everything was just ripped open, and my femoral arteries were just spurt, spurt, spurt, spurt, spurt, spurt. And I remember thinking, OK, crap, like, it's go time. And...

LAWRENCE: Yeah.

LAMMERS: ...It just - everything kind of slowed down.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LAMMERS: I just remember seeing my arm. Everything was just trembling from shock.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LAMMERS: It was probably 125 degrees, June 10 in Baghdad. And I was freezing cold. And I knew what that meant.

LAWRENCE: He's in shock, but also in extreme pain from the parts of his body he can feel.

LAMMERS: I was just screaming for help not for myself, but for my guys. I thought they were all gone. And they - nobody would tell me, give me a situation on my guys, which made me think the worst. You know, like, oh, don't worry about them, don't worry about them. I'm like, it's my job to worry about them.

I remember there was a private sitting on my chest (laughter). He was like, I know you're a sergeant, and I'm just a private, but if you fall asleep, I'm going to punch you. And I'm like, that's cool. You know, like, bring it on. I just kept making eye contact with him and thanking him. And I remember there was another - he must have been a new boot on ground - he looked like he was about to puke. And I kept apologizing to him 'cause I kept getting blood all over his new boots. I'm like, I'm sorry I'm messing up your boots, brother. They couldn't believe I was still conscious.

LAWRENCE: He at some point realizes this is a lot more painful than it should be. And he's actually - that medic has gotten one of his testicles stuck in the tourniquet on his right leg.

LAMMERS: And I kept screaming, it hurts, it hurts. He's like, it's supposed to hurt. I like, no, like it - this is different kind of pain (laughter).

LAWRENCE: When did they figure that out?

LAMMERS: When I got to the hospital later on, I found out that he committed suicide.

LAWRENCE: The medic did.

LAMMERS: He was a good man.

LAWRENCE: Matt is often asking himself why he survived and others didn't.

LAMMERS: I found out that one of the flight medics that helped me, he ended up killing himself too. I was like, are you serious? Why - why are all these people - I just wish I could give him a hug and thank him. Like, I'm still here. Life goes on. It's...

LAWRENCE: I think those medics see so much, you know, with...

LAMMERS: They have to see the carnage and...

LAWRENCE: Yeah.

LAMMERS: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LAWRENCE: They managed to get Matt to a hospital in Baghdad.

LAMMERS: I got to the hospital finally. And my eyes were closed.

LAWRENCE: He overhears someone saying...

LAMMERS: The major who was in charge of the medical team at the time said, OK, team, we have to be on our A-game today. Sergeant Lammers doesn't have much longer to live.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LAMMERS: I open my eyes real quick. Excuse me, sir, are you're talking to me? He's like, holy crap, you're still - and (laughter) I was like, yes, sir. And I'd like to hopefully stay alive, if that would be OK. And they're like, Sergeant Lammers, can you wiggle your toes? (Laughter) I chuckled, and I said, with all due respect, sir, if I could wiggle my toes, we wouldn't be in this predicament.

LAWRENCE: He's in the trauma bay. He's in and out of consciousness. And this next part might be especially rough to hear.

LAMMERS: I looked over. And I was on the preop table at the time. They were...

LAWRENCE: Yeah.

LAMMERS: ...Flushing IVs. And I think I had to get, like, 10 or 15 units of blood immediately. They had people lined up.

LAWRENCE: Wow.

LAMMERS: They didn't even have time to test the blood. They ran out. And there's people just lined up at the door just donating blood to save me.

LAWRENCE: They realized that he doesn't have enough volume of blood left in his body to take a hit of morphine. And they just say, you know what, son? We're going to have to do this to you while you're awake.

LAMMERS: Said, unfortunately, you've lost so much blood. We can't give you any pain meds. And I said I knew it's going to be a day that's going to get worse before it gets better, so just do what you got to do, sir.

LAWRENCE: What Matt says they did next may sound extreme. I checked with three combat doctors who all said that Matt's account is plausible. He was in extremis, near death. They had to act fast to save him.

LAMMERS: There was a specialist, a female medic, and she offered to let me hold her hand. And I respectfully declined 'cause I was - ma'am, I don't - I'm not sure about this was going to hurt. I've never been amputated while I was awake, (laughter) so I don't want to break your hand or anything if it gets that bad. And so they just shoved a blue hospital rag in my mouth, basically, and told me to bite down. I can still remember the bone saw, the high-pitched kind of squealing noise. They started with my left leg. And that one hurt. And then they just cut through the right one.

LAWRENCE: He starts feeling this terrible pressure in his chest. And he can't breathe. And they hadn't realized this 'cause they're working on his severed limbs at the moment, but his lungs had started to collapse. And he taps them to get their attention. And then they noticed. Then they jab a needle in through his upper-right chest in order to reinflate his lungs. And then he can breathe again.

LAMMERS: My body was just trying to protect everything vital, I guess.

LAWRENCE: He goes through all of this whole surgery. And at the end of it - you know, he was a pretty big guy, and he now has lost three of his four limbs. And he's asking his soldiers in the room there, can I go to sleep now?

LAMMERS: Like, I must have asked them probably 20 or 30 times, are you sure it's safe for me to fall asleep? Are you sure it's safe? I was so scared of falling asleep at that time.

LAWRENCE: He was taught to keep other wounded people awake. You don't want to go to sleep. You want to stay awake and motivated. And you don't want to let go. So he's asking one of his soldiers, can I go to sleep now? And they're saying, yeah, you can go, yeah.

LAMMERS: Yes, you can sleep now. It's fine. I remember those assholes were basically telling me to let go (laughter).

LAWRENCE: They were saying, like, rest easy, soldier, you know, move on to the next life.

LAMMERS: Yeah. And so I thought, OK, it's finally - I can get some rest now. It's been kind of a stressful day and...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LAWRENCE: To say the least.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LAWRENCE: So Matt has survived the injury. But injuries like this, they're never really over.

So can you - you're sort of taking it one day at a time now?

LAMMERS: Yes, yes. Amen to that - one day at a time 'cause my pain right now, sometimes it's minutes at a time just to get through, not to sound too dramatic or anything.

LAWRENCE: So there's a couple of different kinds of pain he's dealing with. When you amputate a limb, sometimes the bones, they - well, they keep trying to grow back. And they don't always grow in the best direction. And you have to go back and get surgery after surgery, get them shaved down. He's also got all of this phantom pain from these three limbs. And sometimes, he tells me, his feet feel like they're being burned with hot irons or stabbed with knives.

LAMMERS: And I can usually kind of shift. Like, if this pain is real bad, then I can focus on the pain in my legs. And I'm hoping that overpowers this one. And I try and mentally override.

LAWRENCE: Yeah.

LAMMERS: Choose the least amount of pain, even though it's still pain.

LAWRENCE: When he came home from Iraq, Matt was sent to Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas.

LAMMERS: And they said, we didn't know what to do for you.

LAWRENCE: He felt like they were improvising how to help a triple amputee get back to a normal life.

LAMMERS: Clipping my nails - that sounds silly, but I tried to learn when I was at the hospital. They set up a - they glued a nail clipper to, like, a piece of wood, basically, and told me to use my residual limb. And I just kept slicing off my cuticles and all the way down, and so I'd go out and just get a...

LAWRENCE: Manicure?

LAMMERS: Yes.

LAWRENCE: Really?

LAMMERS: A manicure. They still charged me, like, full price for both hands. And I was like, what the heck? Like, you're doing half the work. I'm not asking for a protective coat or anything like that. I just wanted my nails clipped.

LAWRENCE: He asked his doctors and physical therapists, what should I do if I fall out of my wheelchair? How should I get back in? He says they told him to wait until someone comes who can pick you up.

LAMMERS: No. That's unacceptable. So I spent - it was painful. I'd get back from physical therapy, and I'd stay up at night falling and kept trying to crawl in my chair, lose my grip. I'd fall again - just trial and error.

LAWRENCE: He fell so many times he ripped open the stitches on the stump of his left arm.

LAMMERS: I was too embarrassed to go to the hospital, so I just put her into my chest, and I slept on it to stop the bleeding, and that - it was interesting.

LAWRENCE: Wow, man. You're a piece of work (laughter). You just let your arm open up and...

LAMMERS: Yeah. It was - the stream was slow, and so I'm good. It's not life-threatening. It - we're good.

LAWRENCE: It took a lot of trial and error and some more blood, but after a month, he figured out a system to get in and out of his chair.

LAMMERS: Positioned the chair at different places to see what could be best, and I found that since my left residual limb is longer than my right leg, I always tried to lead with my left one. It's only about an inch and a half longer, but as long as I get an inch to contact on my bone and I have a handle or some way to pull, I could pretty much transfer to anything within reason.

LAWRENCE: Matt took a medical retirement from the Army. After his first marriage ended, he moved in with his parents, who he had a rocky relationship with.

LAMMERS: My mom was pretty snarky at the time of my retirement party.

LAWRENCE: His mom made a joke that Matt didn't appreciate

LAMMERS: She goes, oh, it must be nice to be 25 and retired. I felt like a failure moving back in with mommy and daddy and relying on them. Two months was about all I could take.

LAWRENCE: For those two months, Matt teaches himself everything he'll need to live on his own.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LAWRENCE: Like how to crack an egg with one hand. He taught himself how to get into bed and get into a car. He learned to drive again. The VA outfitted his truck so he could steer it with a prosthetic arm. And finally, he was able to move out of his parents' house and rent his own apartment in Tucson, which is how he ended up late one night at a Bed Bath & Beyond with a giant shopping list.

ARGELIA: You got to go above and beyond. It's Bed Bath & Beyond. This is the beyond part, and part of the policy is you can't say no to a customer (laughter).

LAWRENCE: Alicia never expected to be working in retail. In Mexico, she'd been trained as an aviation mechanic. She loved fixing stuff and diagnosing problems. When she immigrated to the U.S., she worked for a while as a certified nursing assistant. Then when she met Matt, she thought maybe the military life was for her. She even submitted an application to join the Air Force.

ARGELIA: I was so impressed with his determination. He was very positive. When we talked, we had deep conversations, you know, not just superficial things, about what you truly want. What would you like to do?

LAWRENCE: They would talk for hours on the phone.

ARGELIA: Like, he told me, I would love to start walking, but they told me it was going to be hard and things like that. So we got very deep conversations, right? So that was different, and I liked that.

LAWRENCE: Alicia was fresh from her own divorce. She and her ex shared custody of their three kids, though the kids mostly lived with her ex, and Matt could relate. He'd missed a lot of his children growing up.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, vocalizing).

LAWRENCE: When he was deployed to Iraq.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Well, what brings you here to Sesame Street?

LAWRENCE: This is an episode of Sesame Street about injured vets coming home.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) He doesn't have no legs and one arm.

LAWRENCE: And they invited Matt and his daughters.

LAMMERS: I didn't think she wanted to hug me because she was scared of me, maybe. That hug made me feel so happy and complete inside that it made me feel like I didn't really lose anything at all.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LAWRENCE: Matt had a way of connecting with people and translating his experience. Veterans groups would fly him out to give speeches. Matt was funny and kind and always doing things for Alicia.

ARGELIA: You cooked for me.

LAMMERS: Yeah.

ARGELIA: He invited me for breakfast, and when I got to his apartment, he made so much food, like, I don't know how many pieces of bacon and dozen eggs. It was so much food. It was like, oh, that was crazy.

JESS JIANG, BYLINE: There was bacon, eggs. Do you remember what else?

LAWRENCE: I'm here with ROUGH TRANSLATION producer Jess Jiang.

ARGELIA: Yeah - French toast. You got orange juice, coffee, tea. We had, like, a buffet. So that makes you feel like you're a very special person, you know? It's just serious. It's not a game, and I like that, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARGELIA: You know, my mom realized I was in love with him before I even did.

LAWRENCE: At some point, Alicia's talking to her mom.

ARGELIA: I used to call my mom three times a week just to see how she's doing. And divorce is rough, so I'd complain a little bit about my ex-husband. And I start talking to my mom about Matt. Oh, I met this person, and his name is Matt and this and that. And then every single time I talked to my mom, it was about Matt. And one day, my mom was, like, Titi (ph) - because that's my nickname (laughter) - Titi, you're in love. I say, you really love your friend. And it clicked. It was like...

LAMMERS: What did she say? She said (speaking Spanish). What'd she say?

ARGELIA: Yeah. (Speaking Spanish). You're lost.

LAWRENCE: You've fallen for this guy.

JIANG: You're lost.

ARGELIA: Yeah. You're lost for this man.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JIANG: Tell me about that decision to enter into a relationship.

ARGELIA: I thought it won't be easy physically. You see Matt, and the only thing I thought is the physical part, right? So I thought it will be - it's not going to be easy, but I can do it. I can do it.

LAWRENCE: Pretty soon after Alicia met him, Matt moved to Houston, Texas. A nonprofit had offered him a house there, but even though he was now a thousand miles away, he kept seeing Alicia. He'd drive the 15 hours back to Tucson just to see her. And then Matt got hit by another one of those curveballs. He's driving down the road, and he gets sideswiped by a teenage driver. And his truck is totaled, and his wheelchair is totaled.

LAMMERS: Luckily, I had just gone to the grocery store, so I did have a pantry full of food, just like ramen and stuff. And so from what I could reach or reach with a grabber, anything on the shelf, I'd knock down to eat - chips.

LAWRENCE: And how are you cooking even the ramen and stuff?

LAMMERS: I eat it dry, or I just eat chips. I just - I basically just snacked. I had MREs, luckily. I had a lot of MREs saved up.

LAWRENCE: MREs are meals ready to eat. It's a whole dinner in a box. It's for troops to eat in the field. Matt had bought a bunch of them at an Army surplus store.

LAMMERS: So I do remember eating those, cooking them in the living room.

LAWRENCE: Cooking them in the little chemical packet?

LAMMERS: Yeah (laughter). Yeah.

LAWRENCE: The house that charity built for him, it wasn't fully handicapped accessible, and now his primary means of mobility, his wheelchair, was broken.

LAMMERS: Just to get around, I had to scooch around on my behind, and that was the only thing I had at that time.

ARGELIA: So he calls me and said, I'm sorry. I can't go and visit you. My car got totaled, the pickup truck, and I don't even have a wheelchair right now - broke in half. So I'm peeing in puppy...

LAMMERS: Training pads.

ARGELIA: In training pads because he couldn't even go up on the toilet.

LAMMERS: I knew I needed help when I called her after the truck accident, and I was by myself crawling around the floor. So I needed help physically, but also, like, there a lot of other stuff I knew I was going through.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LAWRENCE: Alicia comes to visit him in Houston, and she's kind of shocked about what she finds.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LAWRENCE: Here's this guy who was cooking her breakfast, and now he's dragging himself around his house and eating dry noodles. And for a guy who seemed so independent, he's not taking action, not calling the Department of Veterans Affairs to get in a wheelchair or to get his truck adapted for his prostheses.

LAMMERS: No. At the time, I wasn't making my appointments. I had probably two drawers full of just mail. It overwhelmed me, so I just didn't look at it. It was, well, out of sight, out of mind.

LAWRENCE: Ever since Matt got his first Purple Heart when he was in that first explosion, he'd struggled with keeping appointments, staying organized or remembering phone numbers. So doing all that VA paperwork just seemed impossible.

LAMMERS: They said I needed to apply for all this stuff, that I needed to do all these papers and forms. So they won. I told them that on the phone. I'm like, OK, you win, and, you know, that's going to overwhelm me. OK. I'll go without help.

LAWRENCE: And Matt's not alone. One disabled vet told me he got diagnosed with PTSD, and the stated cause was VA paperwork. So Alicia spends the weekend in Houston helping Matt sort through all the piled-up letters, the unanswered emails. She talks to the different offices at the VA, and then she goes back to Tucson.

ARGELIA: So when I went there, I went there for, like, a weekend. So I didn't stay there for too long because I couldn't.

LAWRENCE: She had to get back to her job. A couple months before this, Matt had proposed, but she wasn't ready to drop everything and move in with him. Now he asked her again.

ARGELIA: So I was like, OK, what am I going to do? So I put my two weeks' notice. I gave away half of my belongings and packed my little car. And I moved to Texas to help him out.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LAWRENCE: It also meant that plan she had to join the Air Force, she put that aside.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: Alicia withdrew her application to join the military, but she was about to get a military education.

ARGELIA: And then he started to train me.

WARNER: Home/Front from ROUGH TRANSLATION, back after this break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LAWRENCE: This is Home/Front from ROUGH TRANSLATION. I'm Quil Lawrence.

Once in Houston, Alicia gets a full-time job at the Bed Bath & Beyond there. And when she's not at work, she's doing a lot to help Matt out.

So what does Alicia help you do?

LAMMERS: She helps me shower. Clipping my nails, that's a huge one. I - we don't like saying the word can't in our family.

ARGELIA: (Laughter).

LAMMERS: However, that's something that I really can't do with one arm. She helps me transfer to my wheelchair. And she helps me open water bottles. I had used to do with my teeth. And some of my teeth have fallen out from ripping open bottles and cans that now it's kind of hard for me to do that without taking a shower (laughter). And she's prepping water bottles, just things that people don't even really think about.

ARGELIA: Opening a banana like I just did.

LAMMERS: She just opened my banana for me. I mean, it's - thank you, by the way.

(LAUGHTER)

ARGELIA: And I did patient care for so many years. And to me, it's something very natural. Like, if we go to a place and eat, I never ask him if you need help. I just reach over and start cutting up his steak, you know, because it's just what I do. It's me.

LAMMERS: I'd honestly say, not to be smart, the question's more, what doesn't she do? 'Cause she does so much. And it's not just the physical. She's there mentally, helping me stay on track, reminding me of why we're still in the fight, why we still go on, why we never give up.

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LAWRENCE: Alicia had to remind him a lot. One night, she wakes up to find him doing cocaine in the bathroom.

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LAWRENCE: She tells him he has to quit. And he does. He quits cold turkey.

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LAWRENCE: But then he tells her he's been to all these parts of town where he bought drugs. He wants to help Houston clean up its crime.

ARGELIA: He's buying a lot of firearms.

LAWRENCE: And he's driving around with a truck full of firearms.

ARGELIA: We had, like, 20-some rifles in the truck, in the bed of the truck and, like, five, six, seven, I don't know...

LAMMERS: Yeah.

ARGELIA: ...Handguns...

LAMMERS: I was buying...

ARGELIA: ...And thousands of rounds, thousands.

LAWRENCE: Matt already has dozens of guns, I mean, more guns than any one person could carry. But Matt is spending his disability check buying more guns.

ARGELIA: Everything - pension, disability, everything. So it was the eighth of the month, and we didn't have a penny. And then he started to train me.

LAWRENCE: The way he was trained in the Army.

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ARGELIA: So he started to wake me up in the middle of the night, showed me how to shoot, reload magazines at 2:00, 3:00 in the morning, thousands of magazines.

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LAWRENCE: I've heard a few other wives of veterans tell me stories like this.

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LAWRENCE: Their husbands started acting like drill sergeants...

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LAWRENCE: ...Forcing them to learn the sort of skills you mainly need in a combat zone.

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ARGELIA: At the beginning, this was fun because I'm learning something new. But then it was like, OK, it was something I had to do, like when I learned how to clear a house.

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LAWRENCE: Matt had Alicia searched room by room to make sure nobody had snuck in while they were out.

ARGELIA: We came to the house, and something was moved kind of weird. It was, oh, maybe someone is in there. You got to clear the house.

LAWRENCE: Then Matt started taking Alicia around the city on patrols in body armor.

ARGELIA: Now I have to drive around with a military vest with ceramic plates on, and I had to use a military helmet. It's heavy and hot. And it was super humid in Houston.

JIANG: Were people looking at...

ARGELIA: Oh, yeah, all the time. We got a lot of looks (laughter) - a lot of looks.

LAMMERS: I had her wearing body armor 'cause I would - in my head - and I had some friends who were on the sheriff's department - so in my head, I was volunteering with them. So that's why I had her in body armor 'cause we were - I was picturing in my head I was patrolling.

LAWRENCE: Alicia would tell herself in these moments, OK, this is strange and uncomfortable and scary. But I'm doing this for Matt. He needs me to support him. Then one day, they're out on one of these patrols. They've been driving around for hours. And Alicia asks him...

ARGELIA: Can I please use the bathroom? He didn't want to stop. He told me pee on a diaper like we were in a Humvee. They're all males. They get a bottle. They pee in a bottle. They don't stop. So he's asking me to pee in a diaper. And I was like, no, I need to go to a bathroom. There is a Walmart right there. I can just go up there and pee. He said, all right then.

LAWRENCE: He lets her out, and when she comes back...

ARGELIA: He's gone. My phone is inside the car. My purse is inside the car. It's just me just sitting in a bench crying, waiting. Oh, my God, he left me here. What am I going to do now? And then 10 minutes later, he shows up. I hope you learned your lesson.

JIANG: For those 10 minutes, were you also thinking, OK, yes, but what am I going to do now, but also what...

ARGELIA: What if he...

JIANG: ...Am I doing?

ARGELIA: Yeah. You know, like, I didn't marry this man to go - to just be like that. I wanted stability. I like staying home, cooking breakfast, lunch and dinner. I'm a mom. You know, I like caring for others. I like that. I'm not a party person. I'm not an explorer. You (laughter) know, I'm not that kind of person. So it was very hard for me to go to nowhere. And I asked Matt, what are we doing? Like, why?

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ARGELIA: And, Matt, tell me. I need to know you have my back. And I cried that day because, wow, he just needs to feel like I'm one of his brothers.

LAWRENCE: One of his battle buddies.

ARGELIA: Like I'm a good shot, like I know how to use all this equipment. I can put pieces together just in case something happened. He feels protected by me the same way I will feel protected by him.

JIANG: When he said that to you, why did you cry?

ARGELIA: I cried because I realized something else was going on, and I didn't know what it was, but I knew that it was normal to him. That was his normal. And I knew it wasn't normal to anyone else in a non-military society.

LAWRENCE: She told someone at the VA about these patrols. She'd tell them about the body armor, the spending, the truck full of guns. She says the VA told her this is just PTSD. One time, Matt got angry in a traffic jam. He pointed a gun at another driver. That driver called the cops, and a SWAT team came and pulled Matt and Alicia over.

ARGELIA: The guy in charge of this SWAT team, his son was in 10th Mountain Division. He saw the patch. And so he pulls me out and said, what's going on here? What's up with all the firearms? And I said, I don't know what's going on. He just shook his head.

LAWRENCE: Alicia thought Matt would be arrested. Instead, she says the cop gave him a warning.

ARGELIA: Don't do that again, Matt. You're good to go. And then he talked about his son being in the 10th Mountain Division, coming back, not being the same. And that's when I realized he's not the only one. There are others veterans doing the same things. There's a lot of Matts driving around Houston, OK? So...

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LAWRENCE: There are all of these Matts out there, and Alicia is wondering, how many of those Matts have an Alicia?

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WARNER: When the police let Matt off with a warning, or the VA told her this buying a firearms was just PTSD, Alicia was getting the message that this kind of behavior was to be expected from a veteran. But Alicia was not going to accept that. She wasn't built that way. She wasn't going to write him off. She remembered the Matt that she'd fallen in love with, the one who'd inspired her to want to join the Air Force, who made her feel cared for at a low moment in her own life. And she didn't want to let him down. And so she thought about this problem and proposed what seemed like a very simple solution.

She convinced him to move back to Tucson, where there was less traffic, less stress. And when they did that, the training stopped. The armed patrols, the paranoia was gone. The old Matt was back, but the old Alicia was not. It was only much later that Alicia would look back at this chapter and notice how much she was changing, being conditioned in ways that she wouldn't see until it was too late. That's next time on Home/Front.

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WARNER: Today's episode was produced by Jess Jiang. Our editor is Lu Olkowski. The ROUGH TRANSLATION team includes Matt Ozug, Justine Yan and Luis Trelles. Many people, civilians and veterans, listened to early drafts of this piece. Thank you so much to Marianne McCune, Robert Krulwich, Bruce Auster, Bob Little, Andrew Sussman, Liana Simstrom, Jenny Lawton, Sana Krasikov, Laura Smitherman, DJ Skelton, Victor Yvellez, Nora Cronin, Kristen Kramer, Dr. Andy Anson, Dr. Ian Black, Dr. David Callaway, Dr. Drew Helmar and Lawrence Carter-Long. Thanks also to Woody Woodall, Steve Danyluk and Danny Prince for talking to us about Matt and Alicia.

The ROUGH TRANSLATION executive high council includes Neal Carruth, Didi Schanche and Anya Grundmann. A special thanks to Chris Turpin and Vickie Walton-James. Nicole Beemsterboer is our senior supervising producer. Brin Winterbottom did a bomb job fact-checking this episode. Mastering by Isaac Rodrigues. Retired Army Captain Kimo Williams composed Home/Front's theme song. Additional music from John Ellis. Jess Jiang scored the episode. I'm Gregory Warner, back next week with more Home/Front from ROUGH TRANSLATION.

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