By Philip Grey
CLARKSVILLE, TENN. — Staff Sgt. Chaz Allen’s survival, after an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan took both of his legs, was a miracle of modern battlefield medicine.
Developments over the last decade, including better protective gear, have dramatically increased the ratio of combat survivors of wounds versus death by wounds from just over 2:1 in Vietnam to 16:1 today.
Following his traumatic wounding in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, Chaz, a soldier with the 101st Airborne Division’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team, was medically evacuated by helicopter in just eight minutes and wheeled into surgery at Kandahar Air Base in less than half an hour from the time of the explosion.
His initial treatment was so successful, including saving an arm that would almost certainly have been amputated just a few years before, that he was able to be transported from Landstuhl, Germany to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., in less than four days.
However, for soldiers like Allen and their families, survival is only the first step on a long road back to anything resembling the life they had previously.
At their home in Clarksville, during a break from treatment at Walter Reed, Chaz and Jessica talked about the events of the previous 20 months, and of the ups and downs of a family’s recovery.
For Jessica, standing at her husband’s bedside after his arrival at Walter Reed on Jan. 25, 2011, the awareness of the long road ahead led her to tough decisions that did not sit well with some people. One such decision was not bringing her children to see their father in the early going.
“He had so many tubes,” she remembered. “It was so bad; all I could think of was I wanted to save whatever memory they had of him.”
“She didn’t want to overwhelm them with freaked-out-edness,” Chaz said.
Jessica explained that as a little girl, she had seen her grandfather in an intensive care unit at near the point of death.
“I remember looking at him and it was horrible,” she said. “He didn’t die, thank goodness, but I never looked at him the same way again, ever.”
“I didn’t want the girls to see me at my lowest point,” said Chaz, “so I told her, let me wait until I’m a little stronger.”
“I got criticized by people for not taking my kids to see him,” Jessica said, “and I said, ‘I’m 32 years old and I’m scared to death, so I can’t imagine what would be going through their little brains.’ So I went alone. Smartest decision I ever made.”
Utilizing the support of her family and friends, as well as an impromptu support group made up of Northeast Elementary School military parents, Jessica made weekly trips between Washington, D.C. and Clarksville while her daughters continued to attend school, dance classes and Girl Scout meetings.
Finally, during Spring Break, she brought the girls to see their father, who had made amazing progress in just two months.
“Jess had already told them I was missing legs,” said Chaz, “but they really didn’t have any idea.
“Once I saw the girls, it was all right. They saw me in a wheelchair, but I was acting like dad. My biggest thing was to keep them in the mindset that nothing was wrong, that it didn’t change the person I was.”
If any one picture symbolizes Chaz as he is today, it is a picture taken in the driveway of the couple’s Clarksville home, with Chaz’s muscular upper body sticking out of his youngest daughter’s hot-pink Barbie electric Hummer car.
His sense of humor has been one of the most potent weapons in his personal arsenal and a big reason why he comes across as being as whole as a person can be, in every way that counts.
Some amputees who have come back to living an active life say that they made the decision to do so almost instantly. Chaz says it took him a few days to come grips with his new reality.
“At first, we were really scared,” he admitted. “It was a couple days later when I thought, this is it, might as well figure out how to shoot and move because this is how it’s going to be.
“What really helped was the guys like me who had been injured six months or a year before. They would stop by the room and ask, ‘Hey man, how are you doing? I know it’s sucking right now but in six months it’ll be better, and a year from now, it’ll be twice as good.’”
“They were double amputees like Chaz,” Jessica said, “but they had pants on and you couldn’t see the prosthetics.”
“They were on a cane,” Chaz explained, “and at first I was like, ‘Dude, you’re not like me,’ and then I look down and he pulls his pants leg up and I knew there was life after injury.”
The day after Chaz’s daughters came to visit and just under two months after he was wounded, Chaz took his first steps on prosthetic legs on March 21, 2011. It was frustrating at first, but his commitment was total.
Astoundingly, less than nine months after losing both legs, Chaz handbiked the Army Ten-Miler in Washington D.C. in just over 41 minutes.
Through events like the Army Ten-Miler, the Allens together raised over $10,000 last year for one of their favorite causes, the Fisher House Foundation.
“There’s no way we could ever put a value on what they’ve done for us,” Jessica said, “not just for Chaz and the girls, but for those Hero Miles for our families to come visit when we needed them and getting a place to stay.”
Another aspect of the Army that Jessica has nothing but good words for is the 101st Airborne Division, and especially the division’s Line Notification Officer at Walter Reed, Master Sgt. Robert Barnes, who Jessica said works tirelessly on behalf of the division’s wounded soldiers and families.
“The 101st is outstanding,” she said. “We’ve got it. The 101st always feels like we are theirs forever. Master Sgt. Barnes keeps tabs on us. Maj. Gen. McConville keeps tabs on us. Even Lt. Gen. Campbell still keeps tabs on us.”
She also has high praise for the medical treatment her husband has received, although she is openly disdainful of the bureaucracy that she says can be bullying to low-ranking soldier’s families. In fact, she said, her initial decision to become involved in wounded warrior causes was a result of a desire to stand up for families that couldn’t or wouldn’t stand up for themselves.
On her blog, “The War of a Wounded Warrior Wife,” as well as on her Facebook page, there are heartrending notes from mothers and wives praising her for taking up their cause.
Talking about it, Jessica flashes genuine anger.
“I watched them being bullied by people who had never deployed. You can imagine how that p----d me off.
“When you add the Army to an injury, it’s insane. You get lost very quickly. It’s bureaucracy at its finest.”
Jessica is a prime example of a dichotomy that baffles outsiders looking into the Army’s often strange world.
She is a college graduate with degrees in political science and history, who hates war but who married an infantryman. Ever since she married Chaz, 10 days after his return from Kosovo in 2001, she has had a love/hate relationship with the Army, though the scales still tilt toward the side of love, even after a tragedy that often turns both soldiers and spouses bitter.
At her wedding reception, Jessica received a book, the ‘Enlisted Soldiers Guide,’ which she read while trying to absorb the thing she had married into, with its soaring pinnacles of honor and its depths of stupidity that she has tried to square for 11 years of marriage.
As for the war and the havoc it has wrought upon her family and the lives of those she has committed her own life to helping, she has made an uneasy peace with it that allows her to function and go on past the anger.
She expresses her philosophy with a weary realism borne of hard experience: “The rule in this house is, if you can’t put your hands on it to touch it, it’s not your problem, it’s God’s problem. If you can’t fix it, let it go.”
In obedience to the rule, she tries to fix as much as her hands can touch.
"Holidays, birthdays & anniversaries have been celebrated with tears and smiles with people who truly understand what the other person is experiencing."
- Kamryn Jaroszewski