Saving Sergeant Ryan
Just the fact that the Iraqi War veteran is moving at all is more than amazing, given that a pair of friendly-fire bullets sheared off nearly two-thirds of his brain. He has nearly all of his mental faculties, just there’s been a quite literal separation between the synapses that once told his arms and legs how and when to move.
But now he’s moving. He’s extending his arms; he’s twitching his legs, and when a reporter from the Post Star asked the marine what the goal of his recovery is, Ryan is anything but bashful about his aspirations.
“I want to run,” he told the paper’s videographer. “Next year.”
Ryan is the heart-wrenching legacy of more than four years of brutal skirmishing among the hinterlands of Iraq. On about any other battlefield throughout American history, he would have come home a corpse. But with today’s military medicine, Ryan stands a fighting chance of regaining normalcy in his life, albeit a slim chance. When he returned home from battle, just about everyone greeted him as a hero. Everyone, that is, with two key exceptions: the military he fought in and the government that sent him to battle.
First, the military declined to disclose the nature of Ryan’s injuries, when it was quite clear from the get-go that the bullets that hammered into his head were from an American gun. Then, when he returned state-side, the sergeant was thrown into a veteran’s hospital that frequently skipped his meals and left him stationary long enough to get bedsores. His parents successfully petitioned the Veteran’s Administration to pay for their son’s care closer to his home town in Ulster County, and then had to battle again to get funds for his occupational and speech therapy sessions when he was released.
It’s ironic the military and government would fight so vociferously against a 23-year-old invalid who said “I want to go back to my unit” the minute he regained consciousness and still swears he wants to serve again in the Marines. Perhaps it’s that the government never planned on marines like Ryan coming back in anything other than a body bag, like they tended to do in Vietnam.
But they’re coming back now. Soon enough, they’ll be coming back in droves, and nobody in government quite knows how to provide for the tens of thousands of walking wounded that are being created from the war. Worse yet, they haven’t figured into the equation the ones that aren’t horrifically mangled by warfare; the ones that are quietly festering with a wide variety of disorders stemming from combat or the perceived betrayal of the very institution that swore to protect them for their service.
This sort of thing can grow under the surface for decades in a seemingly innocuous way. Take for example the case of Bob O’Neill, a decorated U.S. Marine who fought in Vietnam. He was wounded in combat and returned home to his native Schenectady not knowing exactly how to restart his interupted life. So he did what he knew best: he fought. This time, it was on the hard-scrabble streets of a city in decline where drugs were just starting to take hold.
O’Neill fit in well. His predilection for battling crime earned him top honors in the department, where he was considered a rising star. Then one day, post-traumatic stress disorder got the best of O’Neill. He blacked out at times and had bouts of uncontrollable rage; his behavior became so aberrant that the department put him on permanent sick leave for nearly a decade.
O’Neill disappeared from Schenectady. He moved his family to a veritable fortress in the rural sticks of Hamilton County, where he collected his paycheck each month stayed in relative anonymity. His name surfaced once when a news agency got wind of civil suit regarding his sick leave benefits, which spurring a few headlines about the department’s wasteful practices.
Inside the O’Neill compound, the increasingly troubled veteran would brood in anger; stockpiling weapons and occasionally threatening to kill the only people he came in contact with: his VA doctors and his family. On one such occasion, his violent temperament prompted his wife to leave him. As she pulled away from the compound, he warned her not to call the police or else he’d come out shooting. When she returned later that day, a rifle and box of ammunition was set before each window on the second floor of their garage, with another cache of weaponry stored on the ground floor; he was waiting for them to come for him. And it was going to be a blood bath.
Then on a fateful morning in May 2005, O’Neill snapped. He went into a rage when he couldn’t find a bottle of cough syrup and threatened to kill his adult son, who lived in the compound with him. He was heading to his bedroom when his wife fired a single shot through his back, piercing his heart and killing the troubled man in minutes. When authorities came to investigate, they found his body laying before an open draw in the bedroom containing a pair of loaded pistols.
Bob O’Neill was a ticking time bomb that started when he returned home from Vietnam and detonated more than three decades later. It went off years after his service in the military were forgotten, years after his tenure with the police was whittled down to a budgetary afterthought and years after he could no longer provide for his family or the country he had fought for all his life. And without a proper safety net in place to save soldiers like Sgt. Eddie Ryan, America can expect many more Bob O’Neills settling anonymously in commnities around the state.