Two years ago, Army Specialist Ronald Hinkle left a good trucking job, a working ranch, a wife and two daughters in Byers, Colo., to serve in Iraq.
Now Hinkle is one of more than 13,000 American service men and women who have suffered serious wounds in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hinkle survived an IED blast but festering wounds nearly killed him.
He and his family are struggling to rebuild lives completely transformed by that explosion in Iraq.
Hinkle was diagnosed with Traumatic Brain Injury, or TBI, as a result of the IED explosion. He suffers from sudden seizures. He tires quickly. He doesn't think clearly, and he cannot be left alone.
Hinkle was honored for his service in November when Vice President Dick Cheney pinned a Purple Heart to his desert fatigues, but his family feels otherwise deserted by the Army.
The U.S. Army failed to provide all the benefits and support for which the family is entitled. Now the Hinkles are tens of thousands of dollars in debt, and they may lose their ranch. Ron's wife, Reece, gave up her lucrative income as a corporate accountant to take care of him.
Reece now finds herself as more of a caretaker than wife, and she laments that Ron has lost the ability to be a father, a son and a husband because "he is living his life being injured."
"Just trying to just figure out how to deal with that is enough," Reece said. "What people don't realize is it's not the injury that destroys families. It's the aftermath. It's how you reconstruct your life, how you physically regroup, emotionally, financially. It will never be the same."
Enlisting out of the Blue
Reece's initial reaction to Ron's enlisting in the Army — which he did out of the blue — was fear, followed by what she called an "are you stupid?!" reaction. But those feelings eventually subsided.
"And my heart was filled with pride. And I was determined to be the best military wife I could be and support him even though it totally changed our entire life," she said
But Reece set three conditions. Keep the ranch. Don't move away from the ranch. And keep her doctors in Denver, where complications from diabetes now have her on waiting lists for kidney and pancreas transplants.
The Army assigned Ron to the closest post, Fort Carson, Colo., a two-hour drive away.
After he deployed to Iraq, the Hinkle's eldest daughter Rebecka, 14, was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. This was a military family with more challenges than most, even before the bomb blast in Iraq.
Ron remembers driving down the road in Iraq when it happened: "just headed out on patrol ... just an explosion happened ... just things flying everywhere ... seemed like a lot of chaos ... in our vehicle ... seemed like everything took forever to happen ... everything just happened in slow motion."
Ron lost his hearing. His eardrum was perforated. And he bled from what seemed like minor shrapnel wounds. He was treated and sent back to work. Nine days later, there was another crisis at home: Reece had suffered a heart attack. Ron rushed back to Colorado on emergency leave. Reece improved but Ron got sick. The day he was due to head back to Iraq, he was in intensive care in a civilian hospital outside Denver.
"Ron was on a ventilator, fully intubated and in a coma," said Reece. "So in a matter of less than 10 hours, he went from talking to me to being on life support." Within the first 18 hours, he was given last rites because doctors didn't expect him to live to sunrise.
The entire family gathered at the Aurora Medical Center. Daughters Rebecka and Cally, 13, joined their mom and grandparents at Ron's bedside.
"When I had to say goodbye to my dad, I really wasn't mad," Rebecka said. "I really wasn't anything. It basically was I was in shock and I couldn't feel anything. And all I could keep thinking was this is not true. My dad never was sick. He was the strongest person I knew."
Ron Hinkle is matter of fact about the explosion that led to his Purple Heart.
"It's part of the job. I was doing my job and that's something that happened," said Hinkle, who says he'd re-join his unit in a heartbeat.
"I'd be happy to go do it again. I loved everything," he said. But Hinkle can't go much of anywhere. And because of his brain injury, his days of military service are over.
Living with a Brain Injury
Working on his ranch is Hinkle's only job, and it is also his therapy. He cares for eight hogs, nine horses, seven cows and a bull on his 60-acre ranch about 40 miles east of Denver.
Hinkle can't do many of the things he used to before the accident — he can't drive a pickup truck, a tractor or his all-terrain four-wheelers on the ranch. He can't even drive down the driveway to close the front gate when the cows and horses are grazing. He may never get much better.
Rebecka said she wishes everything would go back to normal — no brain injury or other medical problems. But she knows that's unrealistic.
"He's going to have seizures. He's going to start forgetting us. And it's going happen," she said. "So we just got to make the best of what we have now and just keep going and not sit there like other people who just drain on themselves and go, oh well, he's only going to be here eight more years. You just kind of got to pick it up and say no, we're going to make the best out of this."
Ron sits and listens when his family talks about what's happened to him. His expression doesn't seem to be a barometer of what he feels — it rarely changes. It's mellow, sweet, and his eyes seem a bit lost — like a boat in calm waters. He simply shrugs his shoulders when asked about what he hears.
Reece does most of the talking now. Her life has changed dramatically since the blast. She says she's no longer a wife, a lover or a best friend; she's become a caregiver.
Last year alone, Reece drove more than 10,000 miles for more than 300 doctor's appointments, most 120 miles away. There were also meetings with caseworkers, payroll clerks, insurance companies and military officers.
"I'm no longer an individual," Reece said, "I have not had any individuality ... because Ron drastically needs me. My mother, the children, need me."
Ron's doctors say his raw strength helped him beat the odds, even after 16 days in a medically-induced coma.
There are times when Ron seems normal. But review his medical reports and listen to his family and it is clear there's no such thing as normal anymore. No hunting or hiking with the girls. No driving them into town for ice cream. Ron can't help with homework. He gets frustrated and angry easily. He needs a palm pilot, organized and managed by his wife, to remind him to do things.
Rebecka says he can't connect in ways he once could. "Before dad got hurt, we just kept thinking we're grateful it didn't happen to us. But then it did ... and I didn't talk to anyone, because my dad was the only person I did talk to," Rebecka said. "And he obviously couldn't talk to me. So just kind of kept it bottled inside."
Cally has another perspective on life with a wounded dad. She used to get angry and ask why this happened to her. But then she'd count her blessings, remembering all those other families with dads or moms who didn't come home.
Although Reece said the "honor" she carries in her heart is that her husband gave up everything, she remains frustrated at how the Army has responded.
"For him to be injured doing his job, that comes with the job. That's a risk. But the way he was taken care of afterwards, it's very disheartening," Reece said. "I feel like they almost make the guys feel like [they] never mattered. And I heard that Ron would never be forgotten. And I don't believe that anymore. I believe he's been forgotten."
This story was produced for broadcast by Marisa Penaloza and edited by Andrea de Leon. Part 2 of the story looks at the Army's role in the Hinkle family's plight.