Battles continue for Iraq war veteran Rory Dunn, mother Cynthia Lefever

November 8, 2011

By Warren Kagarise

The challenges resonate almost a decade after crude bombs detonated along a roadside in Iraq.

Cynthia Lefever (left) and her son, Purple Heart recipient Rory Dunn, take Gunner, Duke and Mister on their daily dog walk in 2008 at Ron Regis Park in Renton. File

The struggle for survival started in the frantic moments after a bomb explosion near Fallujah left Army Spc. Rory Dunn, a Liberty High School graduate, sightless and near death. Then came a much longer campaign to navigate a medical system unequipped to handle veterans from the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The day Dunn turned 22 in March 2004, roadside bombs tore through a Humvee. Shrapnel pierced the unarmored vehicle and left Dunn’s best friend and another soldier dead. The explosion shattered Dunn’s forehead and left the 6-foot, 3-inch former basketball player blind and deaf for a time.

The “battle after the battle” — as Dunn’s mother, Cynthia Lefever, came to call the long healing process — opened days after the explosion at a military medical center in Landstuhl, Germany.

Lefever, leaned close to the bed and shouted, “Rory Dunn, this is your mother! You will not die! Don’t you dare die!”

Dunn did not die. Instead, after surgeries and rehabilitation, the soldier beat the “imminent death” predictions from doctors.

“I’ve never had anything in my life that if I wanted to achieve it — if it was realistic — that I haven’t been able to make happen,” he said. “I’m not worried.”

Lefever is a tireless advocate in the push to ensure Dunn receives proper medical care and benefits, even if such care means confronting a plodding and unresponsive bureaucracy head-on. Her campaign attracted a national spotlight to post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and the catastrophic wounds left as legacies from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“When you’re dealing with someone with a traumatic brain injury, especially as so many of the service members that are coming back with PTSD, all of this complexity and red tape, it’s really frustrating for them,” she said. “Some of them are like, forget it and they just walk away from it.”

In the decades before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks plunged the United States into Afghanistan, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs treated graying veterans from World War II and the wars in Korea and Vietnam.

Medical advances meant service members injured in 21st-century conflicts could survive catastrophic wounds, but prospects for long-term care lagged.

“The veterans from this war, this generation, are different from any other generation,” Lefever said. “These are young men and women, although catastrophically wounded, they still want to have a normal — whatever normal is — normal jobs, normal activities. We have amputees that want to climb mountains. We have blind people who want to hunt and fish.”

‘You just kind of go numb’

In Iraq, Dunn carried a laminated card along on each patrol against a shadowy enemy. The card, folded into a pocket in his fatigues, contained instructions to complete a medevac call.

“There’s no identified enemy,” he said. “There’s no force that we go meet on a battlefield.”

Dunn, 29, said the card made the difference between life and death amid the March 2004 attack. Medics managed to transport the injured soldiers to a field hospital in Baghdad.

Halfway across the globe, Lefever prepared to email a birthday message to Dunn as the phone rang.

“I always thought that I would fall to the floor and not be able to get up and be hysterical,” she said. “You just kind of go numb and you watch yourself make the phone calls and get the information. You just go into this emergency mode, where you can’t panic and can’t fall apart.”

The bond between mother and son, almost severed on a roadside in Iraq, strengthened in the months after the attack.

“What I heard after he got hurt, from his buddies and his commanding officers was, ‘Rory was the stand-up guy who volunteered for everything. Rory was the guy who knew every job. Rory was the one that we knew would watch our backs,’” Lefever said.

The rush to discharge Dunn from the Army started not long after the attack, but the still-fragile soldier needed care from the gifted surgeons at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Lefever stood guard at Dunn’s bedsides, initially in Landstuhl and later at Walter Reed in Washington, D.C.

“I literally one day took the pen out of his hand when the colonel was there saying, ‘You can’t return to duty so we’re going to discharge you. You get to go home,’” Lefever said. “I’m like, ‘No! He’s not signing anything today.’”

Dunn earned a Purple Heart for injuries sustained in the attack, and officials kept offering the medal in hasty ceremony at the bedside.

“They kept trying to give Rory his Purple Heart in the hospital. I was like, ‘No, we’re not going to do it here.’ It was just not appropriate,” Lefever said. “He was blind. He was deaf. He couldn’t walk. Rory basically said, ‘I will not accept my Purple Heart until I can stand on my own two feet, my ass isn’t hanging out the backdoor of my nightgown and I have a forehead.’”

‘I have some questions’

Instead, Dunn received the Purple Heart in a 2005 ceremony at Liberty High School led by U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, a champion for veterans’ issues.

Months earlier, Murray called Lefever’s hotel room not long after Dunn reached Walter Reed, and “she talked to me for a good hour, mom-to-mom, and as my senator. She spent that time and got all the details,” Lefever said. “The next day, staff members were at Rory’s bedside.”

Though disappointed in many political leaders for a failure to support veterans programs, Dunn respects Murray, a Washington Democrat.

“Whenever I’ve asked for help or my mom has asked for help, she’s been there,” he said.

Despite the assist from Murray, Lefever persisted and continued to ask questions to keep Dunn on active duty for as long as possible.

“I never ever jumped up and down, cried, threatened,” she said. “I just said, ‘I have some questions.’”

Sometimes, the crusade led to clashes between mother and son. Dunn, after months spent in military hospitals, longed to return home to Renton. Still, Lefever continued the crusade for the Army to keep Dunn at Walter Reed.

“There were days when he was like, ‘Get out of here. Go home. I’m going to buy you a ticket to go home. You’re bugging me,’” she said. “In the end, we ended up pretty good friends.”

In Washington, trips to the local VA hospital tested Dunn’s patience further. The system seemed ill-prepared to handle Afghanistan and Iraq veterans.

“When we would go in for, say, a 10 o’clock appointment and it would usually be an hour wait and there was confusion and things got canceled,” Lefever said. “Then, we would eventually have our appointment, and when we would come out, the same veterans that were waiting when we went in were still waiting. It was heartbreaking.”

The lag between changes in veterans’ benefits and the information reaching former service members also frustrates Dunn.

“I’m a veteran. I served in the Iraq-Afghanistan era,” he said. “Why in the hell is there not a mailing list to say, hey, this is what’s going on here?”

The next challenge for Dunn is the culinary arts program at Renton Technical College.

“Hopefully, one of these politicians can get this country back in check, and I’ll get a small business loan and start a restaurant somewhere,” he said.

The latest milestone is vindication for Lefever — and for the years spent fighting the “battle after the battle” on many fronts.

“Rory has come a long way,” she said. “It’s been seven years since he was hurt, but it’s been steady progress.”

Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or wkagarise@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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