Burned Soldier Continues Long Road To Recovery Army Staff Sgt. Robert Henline is trying to reclaim his life. Burned badly in Iraq, he's back home in Texas. He's finding that his injuries are difficult to treat, his recovery is long and unpredictable, and his family life is completely changed.
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Burned Soldier Continues Long Road To Recovery

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Burned Soldier Continues Long Road To Recovery

Burned Soldier Continues Long Road To Recovery

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Since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began, thousands of wounded American soldiers have recovered at the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. Burn victims are especially difficult to treat. Their recovery can take a long time. It's often unpredictable. From Texas Public Radio's Terry Gildea, here is the story of Staff Sergeant Robert Henline.

TERRY GILDEA: In March 2007, 36-year-old Army Sergeant Robert Henline began his third deployment in Iraq, where he was a transportation specialist, coordinating convoys of supplies and troops for the 82nd airborne. Just a month later, Henline's truck hit a roadside bomb.

Staff Sergeant ROBERT HENLINE (Wounded Soldier): The vehicle was flipped upside down about 15 meters from the hole itself, which was about five feet wide, two feet deep.

GILDEA: Henline was burned over almost 38 percent of his body. He was transported to the military's combat burn unit housed inside Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. Surgeon Evan Renz, director of the burn center, supervises Henline's care.

Mr. EVAN RENZ (Director, Burn Center, Brooke Army Medical Center): In his case, the wounds were extensive. It was a combination of challenges, the depth of injury, the extent of surface area involved, and then finding a donor tissue to cover.

Mr. GILDEA: Henline has what are called full thickness burns, meaning a majority of the skin was destroyed. Most of the burns are concentrated on his face, head, and left arm. Doctors have had trouble getting skin grafts to take.

Sf. Sgt. HENLINE: As far as my head goes, it's burned down to the skull. We've had five unsuccessful surgeries. They're trying to put skin on it. Last surgery a month ago, they took a full thickness from my stomach. At least I got a tummy tuck, which was kind of nice.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sf. Sgt. HENLINE: But they took that full thickness and put it on my head. About 80 percent took.

GILDEA: Henline's left arm was so badly burned that most of the muscle mass was destroyed. He spends a few hours every day working with an occupational therapist at the burn unit trying to rebuild muscle.

Unidentified Therapist: OK, arms at your side, can you come - what do you got? (Unintelligible)

Sf. Sgt. HENLINE: A problem here.

Unidentified Therapist: OK, I'm going to go this way.

(Soundbite of machine buzzing)

GILDEA: The cast on Henline's left wrist must be removed twice a week, so therapists can work on his range of motion.

Unidentified Therapist: Are you working out? (Unintelligible)

Sf. Sgt. HENLINE: Yeah.

(Soundbite of tool)

GILDEA: Henline says the recovery has been grueling. He now depends on his family in ways he never would have imagined.

Sf. Sgt. HENLINE: : My wife and I - relationship, you know, it's not a lot of husband and wife these days.

Ms. CONNIE HENLINE (Wife of Burned Iraq Veteran): He can't really fix himself meals. He can't take a shower any more by himself.

GILDEA: That's Connie, Henline's wife of 16 years.

Ms. CONNIE HENLINE: So you've kind of lost that partner.

GILDEA: The Henline's have three children. In addition to caring for their needs, Connie spends much of her day cleaning and medicating her husband's wounds. She says it's difficult to be a mother, nurse, and a wife, so she tries to carve out some personal time for her marriage and her own mental health.

Ms. CONNIE HENLINE: My oldest daughter is old enough so she'll baby sit for us so that we can go or go to dinner together or do something together that's not focused around his care.

GILDEA: It's also been hard for Henline to adjust to his physical limitations.

Sf. Sgt. HENLINE: : You know, I can't play catch with my son, or, you know, I can't go shopping with the girls, you know, very easily. The kids have gotten more used to it now. But still, you know, they wish the old dad was here. And you have to understand, (Unintelligible) I wish he was there too.

GILDEA: His 10-year-old son, Skyler, says it was difficult at first to understand how badly his dad was injured.

Mr. SKYLER HENLINE (Staff Sergeant Henline's Son): He looked like it didn't look really good. Mostly, everyone cried.

GILDEA: Brittany, aged 16, is the eldest child in the family, and she's upfront with her friends about her dad's condition.

Ms. BRITTANY HENLINE (Staff Sergeant's Henline's Daughter): I'm not ashamed, but I mean, he's my dad, and like, things happen, and we're all military - or a lot of my friends are military, so they're understanding.

GILDEA: Henline is still drawing a paycheck from the Army, but Connie had to quit her job to take care of her husband. He collected some benefits from injuries related to burns on his face and his head, but Connie complains he doesn't qualify for some benefits related to his arm injuries.

Ms. CONNIE HENLINE: They're not eligible for the same benefits as amputees are because they haven't lost a limb. But in my husband's case, he lost the use of his left arm. So whether it's there or not there, he can't use it.

GILDEA: Henline says that some days are more difficult than others, but he's glad to be alive.

Sf. Sgt. HENLINE: I watched my daughter go to prom last week. That was, you know, she looked beautiful. There are really nice moments, you know, I could have missed.

GILDEA: After all he's been through, Staff Sergeant Henline recently learned that his medical traumas are not over. Doctors have decided that physical therapy on his arm is not working. They have decided to amputate. His wife Connie took the news badly, but Henline says he is at peace with the decision. Amputation, he says, will allow him to move on with his life. For NPR News, I'm Terry Gildea.

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