Wounded Soldier's Family Feels Forgotten by Army Army Spc. Ron Hinkle barely survived an IED blast in Iraq that left him with brain damage. Bad advice from the Army has left him with mounting medical bills. Now he and his family may lose their Colorado ranch.

Wounded Soldier's Family Feels Forgotten by Army

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


And I'm Melissa Block.

More than 13,000 American servicemen and women have suffered serious injuries in the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Caring for them has stretched the military and its medical system to the brink. And many would say beyond.

Today, we have the story of one wounded soldier and his family.

NORRIS: Two years ago, Army Specialist Ronald Hinkle left a good trucking job and a working ranch in Byers, Colorado to serve his country in Iraq. He survived an IED blast, but the festering wounds nearly killed him.

Now, Hinkle and his family are struggling to rebuild lives completely transformed by that explosion in Iraq.

NPR's Howard Berkes has their story.

HOWARD BERKES: The nation formally honored wounded soldier Ronald Hinkle with a Purple Heart delivered by Vice President Dick Cheney at Fort Carson, Colorado in November.

Vice President DICK CHENEY: America's cause is right. America's cause is just. And with you in the fight, America's cause will prevail.

(Soundbite of applause)

BERKES: After the speech, the vice president pinned the Purple Heart to Hinkle's desert fatigues. The soldier stood erect and proud, still stocky and broad-shouldered, hair buzz-cut short, a firm jaw and a round face. The moment was narrated by a booming announcer.

Unidentified Announcer: Attention troop(ph) orders. The president of the United States of America has awarded the Purple Heart to Specialist Ronald Hinkle for wounds received in action in Iraq.

(Soundbite of applause)

Specialist RONALD HINKLE (U.S. Army): It just happened. It's part of the job. I was doing my job and then something happened.

BERKES: Back in his dining room in rural Byers, Colorado, in jeans and boots and an army green T-shirt, 34-year-old Ron Hinkle is matter of fact about everything he's been through and his desire to go back with his unit.

Spc. HINKLE: I'd be happy to go and do it again. I loved everything. I just wish I could be there. I wish I could be with them. They all think I'm crazy.

Come on, sweetheart. Get up. Big drop(ph).

BERKES: Out in the barnyard, Hinkle still moves with a soldier's swagger as he coaxes a massive hog bigger than any Army grunt from a rusted shelter and toward a trough filled with breakfast.

Spc. HINKLE: Oh, they figured it out. Breakfast time.

BERKES: This is Hinkle's job now and his therapy. Caring for the eight hogs, nine horses, seven cows and one bull on his 60-acre ranch about 40 miles east of Denver.

(Soundbite of buckets clanging)

BERKES: Hinkle can't use a pickup truck, a tractor or his all-terrain four-wheelers on the ranch. He's not even supposed to drive down the driveway to close the front gate when the cows and horses are grazing. And he can't drive tractor-trailers like he used to. All because of sudden seizures from a traumatic brain injury.

(Soundbite of hog grunting)

BERKES: Hinkle cannot be left alone. He doesn't think clearly at times. And he tires quickly. All since blood clots clogged his lungs and a medically resistant staph infection nearly killed him. He may never get much better.

Ms. REBECCA HINKLE (Ronald Hinkle's Daughter): I hope Daddy just go straight back to normal. I hope there's no brain injury or nothing. And that's not going to happen.

BERKES: This is 14-year-old Rebecca, the Hinkle's oldest daughter.

Ms. REBECCA HINKLE: He's going to have brain injury. He's going to have seizures. He's going to start forgetting us. And it's going happen. So we just kind of make the best of what we have now and just keep going and not sit there and do like other people who just drain(ph) on themselves and go, oh-oh, he's only going to be here eight more years. You just, kind of, got to pick it up and say, no, we're going to make the best out of this.

BERKES: Ron sits and listens quietly to almost everything his family says in this story. His expression rarely changes. It's mellow, sweet, and his eyes seem a bit lost. We asked him about what he's hearing and he simply shrugs his shoulders. His wife, Reece, does most of the talking now.

Ms. REECE HINKLE (Ronald Hinkle's Wife): Within the family, I became the matriarch. Within my marriage, I came from a wife and a lover and a best friend to a caregiver.

BERKES: Thirty-seven year old Reece Hinkle quit her job as a corporate accountant to take care of Ron. That's fulltime work. Last year alone, she drove more than 10,000 miles for more than 300 doctors' appointments, most 120 miles away. There were also meetings with caseworkers, payroll clerks, insurance companies, military officers and more.

Ms. REECE HINKLE: I'm no longer an individual. I have not had any individuality for 18 months, because Ron drastically needs me. My mother and the children need me.

BERKES: Eighteen months ago in a convoy in Iraq, Ron Hinkle stood in a turret of a Humvee, cradling a 50-caliber machine gun. He wasn't a kid when he enlisted. Just past 30, he already had a truck-driving career, a working ranch, a devoted wife with a good job and two doting daughters immersed in ranch life. He built twin adjacent rural homes, one for his parents. Reece's mom also lives there.

Then one day, out of the blue, Ron told Reece he joined the Army.

Ms. REECE HINKLE: If the right thing needed to be done, he wanted to be right in the middle of it. And so with that in mind, the fear that, like the oh-my-gosh reaction, you know, are-you-stupid reaction, all of those thoughts that anybody would have really quickly subsided and my heart was filled with pride. And I was determined to be the best military wife I could be and support him, even though it totally changed our entire life.

BERKES: Reece sets three conditions. Keep the ranch, keep the kids at home, and keep her doctors in Denver, where complications from diabetes now have her on waiting list for kidney and pancreas transplants.

The Army assigned Ron to the closest post, Fort Carson, Colorado, a two-hour drive away.

After he deployed to Iraq, 14-year-old Rebecca was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. This was a military family with more challenges than most, even before the bomb blast in Iraq.

Spc. HINKLE: We were driving down the road. Just headed out on patrol. Just an explosion happened. Just things flying everywhere. Seemed like a lot of chaos in our vehicle. Seemed like everything just took forever. Everything just happened in slow motion.

BERKES: Ron couldn't hear; he had a perforated eardrum. And he bled from what seemed like minor shrapnel wounds. He was treated and sent back to work. Nine days later, there was another crisis at home. Reece had suffered a heart attack. Ron rushed back to Colorado on emergency leave. Reece improved, but Ron got sick and sicker himself. The day he was due to head back to Iraq, he was in a civilian hospital outside Denver in intensive care.

Ms. REECE HINKLE: Ron was on a ventilator, fully intubated and in a coma. So in a matter of less than 10 hours, he went from talking to me to being on life support.

BERKES: And what did they tell you about his chances of survival?

Ms. REECE HINKLE: Well, within the first 18 hours, they called in my family and gave him his last rites, because they didn't expect him to live through sunrise.

BERKES: Daughter Rebecca joined her mom and sister and grandparents at Ron's bedside.

Ms. REBECCA HINKLE: When I had to say goodbye to my dad, I really wasn't mad. I really wasn't anything. It basically was I was in shock and I couldn't feel anything. And all I could keep thinking was this is not true. My dad never was sick. He was the strongest person I knew. So I looked at the man lying on that hospital bed, I honestly, for the longest time, could not believe that was my dad.

BERKES: Ron's doctors say his raw strength helped him beat the odds, even after 16 days in a medically induced coma. Months of treatment and therapy have him well enough now to do one of his favorite things.

(Soundbite of sizzling)

BERKES: Grilling steaks. They sizzle as he sprays them. This is beef the family's raised. And he checks out each cut with a thermometer then jokes with a supper guest.

Spc. HINKLE: They need to go just a little bit more to get them to where we like them.

Unidentified Man: They need a lot more to get more you like them.

BERKES: It's times like these when Ron seems normal. But review his medical records and listen to his family and it's clear there's no such thing as normal anymore. No hunting or hiking with the girls. No riding horses with them. No driving them into town for ice cream. Ron can't help with homework. He gets frustrated and angry easily. He needs a Palm Pilot to remind him to do things. And daughter Rebecca says he can't connect in ways he once could.

Ms. REBECCA HINKLE: Before dad got hurt, we just kept thinking we're grateful it didn't happen to us. But then, it did. And I didn't talk to anyone because my dad was the only person I did talk to. And he obviously cannot talk to me. So I just kind of kept it bottled inside.

Ms. REECE HINKLE: Ron has lost his ability to be a father, a son, a husband because he has lived his life being injured and trying to figure out to just deal with that. Because it's not the injury, I think, Howard, what people don't realize it's not the injury that destroys families; it's the aftermath. How you reconstruct your life, how you physically regroup emotionally, financially. It will never be the same.

BERKES: There are moments to cherish.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BERKES: Like this one, the whole family at a big steak dinner, including Ron and 13-year-old Callie the youngest daughter.

Ms. CALLIE HINKLE (Ron Hinkle's Daughter): My (unintelligible) is such a funny show that remind me of you and dad.

BERKES: Callie has another perspective on life with a wounded dad. She used to get angry, she says, and asked why did this happen to her. But then she'd count her blessings, remembering all those other families with dads or moms who didn't come home.

Ms. C. HINKLE: Give me your plates please.

BERKES: The Hinkles are still struggling with some of their biggest challenges yet. They're tens of thousands of dollars in debt and they may lose the ranch because Reece gave up a lucrative income to take care of Ron, and because the U.S. Army failed to provide all the benefits and support it's supposed to, that has Reece feeling victimized twice.

Ms. REECE HINKLE: The honor that I carry in my heart is that he gave up everything. So for him to be injured doing his job, that comes with the job. That's a risk. But the way he was taken care of afterwards, it's very disheartening. I feel like they almost make the guys feel like you never mattered. And I heard that Ron would never be forgotten. And I don't believe that anymore. I believe he's been forgotten.

BERKES: The Army has a mixed record when it comes to Ronald Hinkle and his family. More on that tomorrow.

Howard Berkes, NPR News.

NORRIS: And when Howard story continues tomorrow, we'll also hear how veterans and family support organizations have helped the Hinkles including a group called USA Cares.

Mr. ROGER STRADLEY (Founder, USA Cares): When we first heard the story, it was not to be believed. It just was incomprehensible that so many things could happen to a family in such a short period of time. I mean, again, we couldn't believe it.

NORRIS: That's Roger Stradley with the military family group, USA Cares. We'll hear from him tomorrow when Howard Berkes' report continues.

You can also hear more from the Hinkle family talking about how they've adjusted to life since their father's injury at npr.org.

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