A Mother's Courage

BY: Linda Kramer Jenning

A story from Courage Does Not Always Roar.  (Excerpted from Readers Digest.com June 2009)

"Fall seven times, stand up eight."

- Japanese proverb

Every morning, Becky Ziegel gets anxious. Just before ten, sitting at her kitchen counter with a cup of coffee, she tries to concentrate on the day ahead. But her eyes keep drifting to the cell phone at her elbow. Where is the text message from Ty? "If I don't hear from him," she says, "it's panic time. I'll call him, and if he doesn't answer, I'm in my car. I'll drive over to his house with my heart pounding so hard, I can feel it in my neck."

Now a chiming sound signals a new message, and Becky's shoulders relax as she reads it: "Brain and bodily functions seem to be working as 'normally' as possible." She can head upstairs to her sewing room knowing that her son made it through another night.

"I'd be dead if my parents weren't within driving distance," says Tyler Ziegel, who is 26 and lives in his own place about ten miles from his family's home in Metamora, Illinois. Ty, a former Marine, is officially retired from the military, with disability compensation for the massive injuries he sustained in a suicide bombing in western Iraq. He lost part of his left arm and right hand, most of his face, and a piece of his brain. Today, he has recovered enough to function without constant care, but seizures and other health problems have sent him to the ER four times in recent months.

In 2006, two years after he was wounded, Ty wed his hometown sweetheart, Renee Kline, to whom he had proposed between his two deployments to Iraq. But the marriage unraveled, and the couple divorced after a year. Since then, Becky, like thousands of mothers of disabled vets, has been her son's main caregiver. While Ty credits his whole family and his friends for rallying around him, he singles her out. "My mom has been awesome," he says. "She's been there for me through everything."

"I unloaded him, and now he's back," Becky says, laughing. She drives him to appointments at the Veterans Affairs clinic in nearby Peoria and the VA hospital more than two hours away in Danville. She makes sure he eats well and takes his medications. She helps him with the housecleaning and bill paying. And, of course, she checks every morning that her son is still breathing.

"I'm the mom," she says. "This is what I do."

Becky is 49 and the mother of two Marines, both of whom joined up after high school. Ty shipped out to Iraq for his second tour in the summer of 2004, shortly after his little brother, Zach, left for boot camp. With both boys gone, Becky admits, she "did the happy dance." She and her husband, Jeff, 56, a heavy-equipment operator, finally had an empty nest. "I was thinking, they're grown; they don't need me anymore. Who do I want to be?" She considered taking some college classes; she planned to visit friends she hadn't seen in years.

One day in December, Ty was on patrol in Anbar province when an Iraqi insurgent detonated a carload of explosives beside the convoy's troop truck. Of the seven men on board, Ty took the hardest hit. A buddy pulled him out and smothered the flames. Ty was evacuated to a military hospital at Balad Air Base, where surgeons worked to save his life.

Becky was getting ready to wrap Christmas presents when a Marine officer called with the news. When Jeff handed her the phone, she didn't cry but pumped the officer for information. He could offer little more than a sketchy description of the attack and Ty's injuries.

From Balad, Ty was flown 17 hours to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas.The Fisher House Foundation-a national nonprofit that aids and temporarily houses the families of wounded soldiers-arranged for plane tickets for Becky and Jeff, along with Ty's fianc้e, Renee, and Zach, who was just home on leave. They got to Brooke on Christmas Eve.

A neurologist filled them in on Ty's condition. Surgeons at Balad had removed the shrapnel-pierced part of his left frontal lobe. It was too soon to know if his mental capability or his personality would be altered, if he would be paralyzed, if he'd even wake up at all. Everything above his waist was severely burned. "They really didn't expect him to make it," says Becky.

When the family entered Ty's room, they found him wrapped in bandages with a tube protruding from his head. "We couldn't see his face," Becky recalls. "But his legs poked out, and I could see the crossed-rifles tattoo. That's how I knew it was Ty."

After Ty survived the first critical weeks, his father and brother flew back to Metamora. Becky and Renee stayed behind, moving into a suite at the local Fisher House. The women rotated shifts at Ty's bedside. They fed him and helped him shower. They stretched his remaining two fingers-both badly burned-to increase their range of motion. "I remember days I'd think, I can't walk in that room and put on a happy face," Becky says. "I don't know how I did it. I just did. My kid."

That May, Jeff came to visit and brought Becky a ring with three diamonds-past, present, and future -to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary. They strolled on San Antonio's River Walk and took in the sights. Becky had been living at Fisher House for five months. One more anniversary would come and go before she got back home.She'd never spent much time away from the patch of country outside Peoria where she was raised. She married Jeff at 20, and they bought her grandparents' old house, which is still her home."I never could have imagined living somewhere else and not having family and friends around," she says. But her 19 months in San Antonio opened up "the little box" of her world. "Now I can go anywhere and make friends and find family."

Becky was delighted to see Ty moving toward independence. Aside from headaches, he showed no signs of lasting brain damage. With Ty making progress, Becky took some time for herself. She walked for miles on a track near the hospital. On the "your-son-getting-blown-up-diet," she shed 60 pounds. She let her short blonde perm grow shoulder-length and dyed it auburn.

"I was finding me," Becky recalls. "I felt better about myself." She even began doing public speaking to raise support for Fisher House. Then finally, in July 2006, Ty and Becky headed home.After Ty got married, his mother enrolled in the college courses she'd looked forward to for so long. Even after Ty and Renee separated, Becky held on to her new freedom. Ty stayed in the white clapboard bungalow he'd lived in with his wife. He'd been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, but medication helped lessen his anxiety.

Zach sent an e-mail to Becky from Iraq, where he'd been deployed the previous fall: "What was God thinking? Why does all this stuff have to be happening to us?"

Becky typed back, "Because we can handle it."

Sometimes-not often-she feels almost overwhelmed by the hand life has dealt her, and she worries. "What if something happens? What if I don't get there in time? It scares the hell out of me." She finds comfort, though, in her circle of loved ones and her "second family" of wounded vets and their parents. She tries not to dwell on what she can't change.

"Ty asked me once if I was angry about what happened to him," Becky says. "But who would I be angry at? The bomber? He's dead. Ty? I'm proud of him. I couldn't pick anybody to be angry at, so I wasn't angry."

Her studies on hold, job offers let go, Becky fully expects to pick up where she left off sometime in the future. She imagines the day when Ty will need her less, even marry again. "The woman who ends up with him is going to be lucky," she says. "I can't wait till he has his own kids.

"I don't expect to be at Ty's beck and call for the rest of my life," she adds, curling up on the sofa where her son often sleeps. "But you're never done being the mom."

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