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The long road back home

The long road back home

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Sgt. Eddie Ryan screams, shaking his head from side to side.

The spasms run through his spine. He feels electricity pulsating across his back. He stretches his jaw and howls.

Eddie's father, Chris - a former Marine - asks his son to focus.

"Lock it on, Marine," he says.

Eddie is a Marine sniper recovering from two shots to the head he suffered from machine-gun fire April 13, 2005, in Iraq. Doctors thought with two-thirds of his brain damaged or destroyed he would die.

Eddie lived, but doctors thought he would never remember his mother and father, recall childhood memories of vacations in Lake George, nor walk, again.

But he is healing.

He learned sign language early on, but he is now speaking and more mobile.

His parents say the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is standing in the way of getting the Marine the therapies he needs. The Veterans Affairs administration says it provides all clinically appropriate treatments for all of America's veterans.

On a Saturday afternoon in August, Eddie and his family have escaped to their small getaway in Lake George, but Eddie cannot run from the pain. The spasms won't subside.

He focuses his eyes to gain control and lifts his left hand to form the letters V-I-C-T-O-R-Y.

There was a time he would run down the road to the lake about three miles away for a swim. Now, he grimaces as his fingers continue to flicker VICTORY, VICTORY, VICTORY like a buzzing neon sign.

The spasms disappear somewhere in his 6-foot-1-inch, 200-pound frame as his brain tries to reconnect with his limbs.

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The Ryans drive from their home south of the Catskills in Ellenville to Lake George nearly every other weekend. They bought a two-story cottage off Route 9N toward Lake Luzerne about a year before Eddie's injuries.

"Part of his healing is Lake George," Angela Ryan said.

In Lake George, the Ryans can take Eddie to the village and fish off a pier, or stroll past stores and take in the beauty of the Adirondacks. The scenery of the lower Catskills is beautiful, too, but it's not as easy there for Eddie to go out and socialize.

"We don't have anything

like that here," Angela said during a telephone conversation from Ellenville. "In Lake George, he gets out more. If we're upstate and we're out when he starts to have problems it takes five minutes to bring him home."

The Ryans added a sun room to the cottage over the summer to make Eddie's stay more comfortable.

"It's beautiful," Eddie said. "I'm going to live here."

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Eddie Ryan almost died twice after he was shot twice in the head during a second combat tour in 2005. He could have died on the way to the hospital, or when surgeons pulled a bullet from his brain and put plates in his head.

God has kept Eddie alive, Chris said.

Chris cannot speak in detail about Eddie's injuries with Angela present.

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Eddie Ryan told his sergeant, "Let's do it" as he took position on a rooftop in Husaybah, Iraq. The eight-man sniper team was charged with taking out armed insurgents - up to 200 were reported in the area - terrorizing the city along the border between Iraq and Syria.

But as Eddie took his position, the team came under heavy machine gun fire. One bullet pierced Eddie's skull above his right eye and tore into his brain. The other entered through his jaw.

Eddie's fellow Marines used their own bodies to shield him as the machine-gunman sprayed bullets on their location. One Marine tried to draw attention away from Eddie.

When the military notified the Ryans that Eddie was critically wounded, they were led to believe he was shot by hostile fire.

But several months later the Marines acknowledged that his sniper team had come

under friendly fire from a soldier shooting a .50-caliber machine gun from an American tank.

The Ryans are angry about the way they were misinformed.

The Marines on the rooftop had figured out at the time it was friendly fire, Chris said, and lit flares signaling their position. They wrapped Eddie's head to keep him alive and called for an ambulance.

One had Eddie's brain matter on his face while giving him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, Chris said.

"They exemplify what it means to 'leave no Marine behind,'" he said.

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Eddie lost the ability to move and talk, and needs to relearn how to live everyday life.

The Ryans feel the VA has not worked hard enough to help. In 2005, they said, he withered to 166 pounds at Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center in Richmond, Va., as hospital workers missed feeding him at times.

The VA earlier this year cut his physical therapy from five days a week to three within the last year, but the Ryans fought the reduction and had the therapies reinstated.

The Ryans said they need a home health care aide to watch Eddie because he still has seizures. There are often gaps during the week where Angela is the only one with him for several hours.

Eddie's care was addressed on "The NewsHour" on PBS and the VA said his care runs $282,000 a year.

Peter Potter, public affairs for Samuel S. Stratton VA Medical Center in Albany, said the VA shares the same goals for Eddie's recovery as his family. Providing care for him at his home, located in a rural area, presents challenges, Potter said, but the VA is not worried about the bottom line when it comes to Eddie's treatment.

On Feb. 9, Albany VA Medical Center Director Mary-Ellen Piche responded in a letter to the Ryans on behalf of President Bush, who, according to the letter, received an anonymous request for intervention.

"Home care in a rural setting provides a unique set of challenges that we are working with you to overcome," she wrote. "The courage and flexibility of your family combined with the dedication of the medical center staff are finding creative solutions."

Traumatic brain injury patients have different needs that arise as they move through treatments, Potter said. Initially, Eddie needed just physical therapy treatments, but now he needs treatment for learning and behavioral issues.

If behavioral issues aren't addressed, the physical therapies will not be as effective, he said. The VA had recommended bringing down the frequency of physical therapies in order to work on other issues with Eddie, Potter said.

Angela said their family recognizes the importance of other therapies like occupational therapy, but they won't agree to programs that in the end will mean a reduction in treatments her son receives.

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Eddie will say he wants more treatments.

On a Saturday afternoon in September, Chris worked with Eddie to do sit-ups. Eddie did 50 with his father holding his legs and gripping his hands.

Chris told him good job and walked away.

"I want to do 10 more," Eddie demanded. He polished off 15.

Eddie will scream "No!" during treatments and will sometimes catch those working on him with a soft left hook.

John Veracka, one of Eddie's physical therapists, said the therapy sessions are painful for him. But Veracka said six months ago Eddie could not do half of the stretches or movements he does now to strengthen his mid-section.

"He can handle a lot more," Veracka said.

When Eddie was asked what he wanted to do next after an hour-long physical therapy session, he said, "I want to run."

His son doesn't move for several hours at a time, Chris said, and stands only a few hours a week. The Ryans feel if Eddie continues to be challenged he will continue to improve.

"Let's give him as much as he can handle," Chris said.

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Eddie also gets therapy by relaxing away from home, getting out to interact with the community.

Eddie is well-known at restaurants and people will walk up to him and thank him for his service.

"I'd do it again," he will say.

Scott Walton, who runs rental properties including Lake George Gardens across the road from Ryan's cottage, will visit the Ryans whenever they are in town.

Walton, 57, is a retired Westchester County police detective. After 25 years of investigating horrific crimes, he moved to Lake George in 1996. He can only imagine what Eddie has seen, Walton said.

Like Eddie's parents, Walton wants to make Eddie's life as comfortable as possible. He has helped coordinate the building of the addition to the cottage.

One Saturday afternoon Eddie and Walton had this exchange:

"Hey, Scotty," Eddie said. "You're my best friend."

"You're my best friend, too, Ed," Walton replied.

"I love you Scotty," Eddie said.

"I love you, too, Ed."

About a month later Walton gave Eddie a Winchester Model 70 Featherweight rifle he had had for years. Chris and Eddie gushed over the gun.

Eddie would need to

teach Walton how to shoot it, Walton joked as he wiped away tears.

Eddie told Walton thank you as he lay in bed cradling the rifle in his arms, which bear the tattooed reminder: "Home of the free because of the brave."

"You don't ever have to thank me because of what you did," Walton said.


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