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Pushing and persevering

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Eddie Ryan snapped his fingers.

That simple movement, pressing thumb and finger together hard enough to create tension and noise, is a triumph.

Eddie, 25, lay in the hospital bed in the sunroom of the Ryan family's second home in Lake George on a recent Saturday morning. He scratched his jaw - the one that was pierced by a bullet four years ago - with his left hand. He smiled.

Eddie knows what he wants and where he's going - back to the Marine Corps. The question, his parents say, is whether the Veterans Administration will help their son return.

Before he can think about putting the uniform on again, he needs rehabilitation. He needs therapies that Eddie's parents say he deserves but isn't receiving.

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Eddie was the kind of Marine who itched so badly for service that he almost didn't finish high school. His parents had to beg him to stay and graduate. His father, Chris, himself a former Marine, used the Marine Corps' desire for high school graduates as leverage to keep his son in the classroom.

Eddie made meritorious sergeant after two and a half years of service and was deployed three times, twice to Iraq. During his second tour, when he was part of a sniper team, as his unit moved forward to stop insurgents in Husaybah, Eddie was shot twice in the head - once above his right eye and a second time in his jaw on the left side.

A fellow Marine resuscitated Eddie twice. A doctor saved his life a third time when he pulled the bullet from Eddie's brain.

Eddie was a strapping soldier before April 13, 2005, when he was shot. He was the type of young man who pushed himself past his breaking point, to prove he could. He was a "solid 200-pound machine … he was so in shape," his mother, Angie, said.

It could have been that physical toughness that saved him, she said.

When his parents flew to Germany to see Eddie, they were asked about organ donation. He was on life support, and Chris said he only recognized his son by his tattoos.

At first, Eddie couldn't speak. "I wasn't even able to blink my eyes," he said.

Eddie has four years of healing behind him now, but he does not have four years of the therapy necessary to reconnect mind and body after a traumatic brain injury.

Eddie is receiving less than half of the treatment he needs, Chris said. He should have physical, occupational and speech therapy five days a week, 52 weeks a year. He is now getting speech therapy four days a week. He was receiving occupational therapy two days a week until the VA-approved therapist went back to school, Chris said.

Eddie hasn't had physical therapy since August 2007.

"They slowed down his recovery," Chris said.

The Ryans spend about $1,200 each week to pay for the services they say Eddie needs. The money comes out of Chris's earnings in construction and from fundraisers.

They have hired a massage therapist to address his circulation issues and a personal trainer to get him into better physical shape. A music therapist comes to the house once a week to help with Eddie's speech, Angie said.

"Eddie went over and he did his part, and all we want as families is for them to do their part," she said.

Peter Potter, the public affairs officer for Stratton VA Medical Center, said he could not release specific information regarding Eddie without signed waivers because of health privacy laws. Speaking generally, he said each patient's care is reviewed by his or her doctor and care team, who then make a recommendation.

"If a vet or family is in disagreement with that, we offer, certainly, second opinions," Potter said.

Chris said the family has received second opinions.

"We have a doctor now that says Eddie needs these therapies," Chris said.

So, Eddie's father said the family will continue to seek the proper and necessary treatments.

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Thoughts and ideas meander through Eddie's damaged brain to the parts that can accept the information and send commands out to his body.

"Other parts of the brain are taking over for the damaged parts," Chris said.

Four years on, Eddie is talking clearly and thinking clearly. He has a better memory than his parents, Chris and Angie joke. His parents believe he can do more, and so does Eddie. Because he isn't paralyzed, they have hope he will someday be able to walk, run … return to the Marine Corps.

"After everything that he's been through, he still wants to get back," Angie said. "He loves the Marine Corps, he loves his country. He'll always tell you he'd do it again."

Angie and Chris press on for Eddie. They fight for services.

"There's people who have lost limbs who are in theater, so nothing is really impossible," Angie said. "Even though he sustained a devastating injury to the head, he understands everything. He can work the computer, so it's not like he can't do a job.

"So as parents, we want to see him at least have that chance."

But the Department of the Navy is standing in Eddie's way, his parents say. The family received notice that, as of May 1, Eddie was considered retired from the Marines.

His reaction to the retirement notice was short and strong.

"B.S.," Eddie said.

His parents are fighting for Eddie to remain on temporary disability because, they say, that is what keeps him going, fighting through agonizing therapeutic work - the hope that he could return to the Marines in some capacity. On a recent Saturday morning, Eddie did 100 sit-ups with his father and said he wanted to do 100 more.

"In his recovery, that's his motivation and drive," Chris said.

"To get back in the Corps," Eddie said. "To fulfill my honor and duty."

Angie and Chris are advocating on Eddie's behalf, calling senators and congressmen and congresswomen. They're calling on Marine contacts and friends to help, too.

U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's office would not say specifically what Gillibrand has done for Eddie, but a spokeswoman recognized his name.

"We really can't give out any information because of privacy matters," said Bethany Lesser, the spokeswoman. "We have written letters on his behalf, and that's really all we can say."

Efforts to speak directly with Gillibrand, who champions many veterans' causes, were unsuccessful.

Lt. Brian Block, a spokesman with the United States Marine Corps, said that when a Marine is on a temporary disability retired list, that person comes up for medical review every 18 months. A medical review board decides if the soldier has gotten better or worse or stayed the same.

"The decision on Sgt. Ryan would have been made based on his specific circumstances," Block said.

Eddie never went before the medical review board, Chris said.

"I guess they took the word of the doctors in an examination," Chris said.

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Eddie lay in his hospital bed in the front addition of his family's Lake George home. Sun poured in through a skylight. He watched country music videos as his parents spoke about the day they had planned.

Eddie would likely want to eat lunch first. Meal times are important. Then, Eddie said, he wanted to go to one of the arcades on Canada Street. He likes an Elvis arcade game best, where coins fall and tickets are dispensed. A giant stuffed cat sat on the family's couch in the sunroom, a prize Eddie won playing the game.

Many of his warm weekend afternoons are filled with fishing from the shore.

"The docks are all accessible. That's one thing about Lake George, it's accessible," Chris said.

The family plans to spend many summer weekends in the village, experiencing local events and letting their son have the social interaction he doesn't get back in Ellenville, in Ulster County.

Eddie is comfortable in Lake George. While he works on his physical healing throughout the week, his parents say the area offers Eddie a chance to work on mental healing.

"I know I'm going to make it," Eddie said.

"He was always like that. Fearless. His attitude inspires us," Chris said.


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