Vet's Recovery Takes Family's Dedication Army Staff Sgt. Robert Henline suffered severe burns over 38 percent of his body when his truck hit a roadside bomb. His recovery has been difficult, but he and his family keep looking forward to the "next positive thing."
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Vet's Recovery Takes Family's Dedication

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Vet's Recovery Takes Family's Dedication

Vet's Recovery Takes Family's Dedication

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ALISON STEWART, host.

Another person who was treated at the Brooke Army Medical Center is Army Staff Sergeant Robert Henline. You may have heard his story on NPR back in August. During his third deployment in Iraq, Sergeant Henline was burned over 38 percent of his body when his truck hit a roadside bomb in March of 2007. His recovery has been difficult.

Staff Sergeant ROBERT HENLINE (U.S. Army): Now, I can't play catch with my son or, you know, I can't go shopping with the girls, you know, very easily. Because they've gotten more used to it now, but still, you know, they wish the old dad was here, which I understand, you know. I wish he was here, too.

STEWART: We'd like to check back with Sergeant Henline and his wife, Connie. They join us now from Texas Public Radio in San Antonio. Welcome to you both.

Staff Sergeant HENLINE: Thank you.

Ms. CONNIE HENLINE: Hi, thank you.

STEWART: Sergeant Henline, how would you describe how your recovery has been going?

Staff Sergeant HENLINE: Slow, but good. Things, you know, are at the point now where we're definitely seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. Things are looking more positive every day.

STEWART: Can you describe a typical day for us?

Staff Sergeant HENLINE: Get up in the morning, I go in about 8 o'clock, sometimes 9 o'clock in the morning, go into the gym and do stretching and physical therapy and do weight lifting or running laps, trying to build up my stamina again. And get some of the scars - the scar bands(ph), you got to really stretch out to get more mobility in my left arm. And then...

STEWART: Yeah, for those of us who didn't hear the original report, your left arm was severely damaged in the bombing. And at the time, the rehab wasn't working all that great. And I know there was the prospect that there might be an amputation of your arm, it might be the next course of treatment. Have you or your doctors made a decision about the amputation?

Staff Sergeant HENLINE: Yes, we got a couple opinions. One believes that the amputation would be the best for the most function. Another one thinks he might be able to save it, you know, after a few surgeries, maybe a year and a half more therapy on it. But I think I'm happy with the amputation. I want to function more, less surgeries. I've been through 32, 34 surgeries already. And so I'm kind of trying to get as less as possible and just get function and back into society as fast as I can.

STEWART: Did you ever think you would get to this point? You said that therapy and everything was going fairly well at this point. Think about a year ago. Did you think you'd be where you are today?

Staff Sergeant HENLINE: No. We had a real hard time with getting the skin to grow on my head. It was actually burnt down to the skull on my head. And that was the hardest part to get to regenerate. I had five surgeries that were unsuccessful with that. The grafts just wouldn't take for some reason. Then we tried the tummy tuck, which worked great, a full-thickness graft. So it took about 14, 16 months to finally get skin to grow on the head. But it's looking really good now.

STEWART: Mrs. Henline, have you been able to work since he came home?

Ms. HENLINE: No.

STEWART: No?

Ms. HENLINE: No, I had to quit my job when he was in ICU because my work only could hold up for a certain amount of time. But I wouldn't have been able to go back, because his care here, we've been here, I think, 20 months now, and he still has six to eight more surgeries, it looks like. So there's no way that I'd be able to go back until the major surgeries are done. And then I'll go back to work.

STEWART: I hope this isn't too prying a question, but how are you managing financially?

Ms. HENLINE: Fortunately he still is receiving his military paycheck, and he gets a disability supplement. So we've had a change in our income, but not drastic enough to where we can't afford to live.

STEWART: It sounds like you've had just such a difficult road, such a tough, tough time. When you focus on the positive, when you try to find a positive moment, a positive thought, what do you focus on?

Staff Sergeant HENLINE: Usually my sense of humor comes out. I think that helped me a lot through this. Joking around with the kids or just knowing the future of what I've got. This has opened a lot of other doors for me, you know. And the longer I realize certain things I can't do, especially being in the military, well, there's other things I can do, like motivational speaking, helping others, you know, going through something like this or through their life. And it's the kind of stuff I enjoy. So there's a lot of positive things that's really come out of this.

STEWART: You mentioned kids. You have three kids. Is that right, Sergeant?

Staff Sergeant HENLINE: Yes. That's - another positive thing is, you know, I got to watch my oldest one - she's a senior this year - so I get to see her graduate, go to her proms, and stuff like that. So, you know, things that I would have missed. You know, when those days hit and it makes a big step in her life, and I'm there to see that. And thinking back, you know, I almost missed that. You know, that's really a big thing. You just look for the next one, the next positive thing.

STEWART: Is there something you'd like for our listeners to understand as they hear and think about your journey and your family's journey over the past 20 months?

Staff Sergeant HENLINE: Yeah. To look at the families. I mean, it's obvious what we go through as a patient. But also, the family has to get dragged through it too. Like - and I was saying earlier, and you played it, the kids got a new dad they got to get used to. Connie has to take on a new role. The spouse has to be the caregiver. And you kind of lose the romantic side of the husband and wife, and she's almost got another kid she has to take care of. I mean, now I do a lot of stuff on my own. But if I go into another surgery, it usually takes me another 30 days to get back on my feet and get back where I was again. And just as you're feeling good, you go in for another surgery. But like I said, we're, you know, we got the light at the end of the tunnel now, and things are looking really good.

STEWART: Mrs. Henline, what are your plans for the holidays?

Ms. HENLINE: Luckily, he's had no surgeries for a month and a half. So he's doing really good. And we're just going to have the kids and enjoy the time that we can all do Christmas things that we used to do years ago. So I think all the kids are really excited. I'm very excited that he's going to be able to enjoy Christmas with us this year.

Staff Sergeant HENLINE: Last year, I was kind of propped up in the recliner and watched the kids open presents. But this year, I've been out shopping and having fun buying the kids gifts and stuff like that, just actually being part of it.

STEWART: Sergeant Robert Henline and Connie Henline of San Antonio, Texas, thank you for being with us. Thank you for being so candid with us. And we wish you the best in 2009.

Staff Sergeant HENLINE: Thank you.

Ms. HENLINE: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

STEWART: To see a video of Staff Sergeant Henline and Connie Henline and to find out more about our "Impact of War" stories, go to npr.org/impactofwar. Next week, our series concludes with a story about the children of soldiers deployed to the wars and how they've coped with the absence of a parent. We welcome your reactions to "Impact of War" on our blog at npr.org/soapbox.

That's where Patrick Smith(ph) reached us. He writes, my own experience is that I am a Vietnam veteran who was in counseling at a vet center when the global war on terrorism exacerbated my own anger responses. Through counseling, I determined that my best response was to get my master's in social work, become a licensed clinical social worker, and work in a vet center, helping those servicemen and women adjust or rather readjust to living back here. The best cure for people who suffer from the effects of war is not to have wars in the first place. Until that time, there are vet centers and VA hospitals to help these service members adjust to the impact this has on their lives, even if there are no physical scars.

And Hugh Samson(ph) reflects the opinion of a number of you when he writes, the stories of young soldiers' lasting suffering are deeply moving. I would be further moved if NPR could consider any of the millions of Iraqis affected - the million dead, and the millions wounded or displaced. What effect would a story of a victim of an American bombing have? Is NPR too timid or too dishonest to offer such stories? Mr. Samson, our plan is to do just that in January.

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