Karen Matayka: I think, honestly, we're soul mates.
Ed Matayka: I think she's got a good opinion. (laughs)
Ed and Karen Matayka were single and in their early 20s, when they met 12 years ago in San Antonio, Texas-- home to the Alamo, the birthplace of Texas liberty, the Riverwalk in downtown San Antonio and one of the premiere military hospitals in the country, Brooke Army Medical Center or BAM-C. The Mataykas both studied medicine there, eventually fell in love and became medics in the Vermont National Guard.
Now, they find themselves back at BAM-C, where Ed is learning to walk again.
"I won't be walking on my legs, but I will be walking on legs," he said.
In July of last year, Ed's military vehicle hit a massive roadside bomb during a convoy in Afghanistan.
"I'm starting to get back to the new normal," he said. "And the new normal isn't just for wounded soldiers; it's for every soldier that deploys. When you come home, things are always different."
Some 185 Vermont National Guard soldiers were wounded in Afghanistan. Those injuries range from minor to the most severe. And that number is expected to grow as more of our soldiers come forward with post-traumatic stress disorder. Right now, 105 of our soldiers are still getting treatment, either at home, or at hospitals like BAM-C.
For privacy reasons, the Guard won't specifically say how many of those 185 were seriously wounded like Ed.
"The complications in his case are more extreme," physical therapist Marie Black said.
Ed gets specialized treatment and rehabilitation at the Center for the Intrepid (CFI) on the San Antonio campus.
"We take the soldier from the standard rehab and we take them to do things that people think they couldn't do," Dr. Raul Marin said.
It's a high-tech center designed to serve the high numbers of amputees and burn victims returning from war. Wounded veterans are treated here at no cost. And they continue to get rehabilitation as long as they're making progress.
"Everyone wants to be here," Ed said. "I want to be here. So, why wouldn't I give it my all?"
"The CFI is a really busy place," Black said.
And for most here, rehabilitation is the new basic training.
"We take things for granted like sitting on the edge of the bed and getting into bed and getting back out of the bed. When your body isn't listening to you like it used to listen to you, it's a lot bigger struggle," Black said.
Ed and Karen say being with other wounded vets helps in the healing process.
"They help each other get over the wounds you don't see," Karen said.
Ed not only gets medical treatment here, but he and Karen live on the BAM-C campus, too. They share a home with about 20 other wounded warriors and their families. It's called the Fisher House and it's located next to the rehab facility. They stay here free, thanks to generous donations.
"When you are surrounded by people going through the same things as you are, it's easier to talk about problems you may or may not be having," Ed said. "In general, yes, we tremendously feed off each other."
"It's only normal to be depressed, angry, etc., when you have all of these losses," Dr. Marin said. "I tell my guys and gals it's half the battle."
Doctors say younger vets in their teens and early 20s who are wounded typically have a more difficult time in recovery. Ed is 34.
"When you have Mount Everest to climb and you are young it is hard. The advantage that Ed has is maturity. That sets Ed apart," Marin noted.
Post-deployment problems affect families, too. Studies show that divorce rates are twice as high for veterans returning from war. Doctors say some spouses can't handle the extra burden of caring for a wounded vet. But more often the veteran pushes their spouse away.
"I think he gives me too much credit," Karen said.
Not Ed and Karen; Ed says her love and support got him through the worst of it.
"Granted, a lot of the physical work is mine, but a lot of the mental challenges I have had to overcome has been by what she's told me, the way she's encouraged me, and made me strive to continue on," Ed said.
Karen says love kept her strong and Ed's sense of humor kept them pushing forward together.
"I'm very proud of him," Karen said.
And the Mataykas are planning for their future.
"We are looking forward to children," Karen said. "Initially, Ed wanted six children when he woke up from his coma. He's dialed back to a more reasonable three. I think I can handle that."
"We were going to have kids before I got injured," Ed said. "Why we would change our plans now that I am injured?"
The couple is starting fertility treatments and hopes for kids in about a year, when Ed is closer to leaving the military hospital in San Antonio.
"We want to share love. We want to have children," Karen said.
But as they move on the Mataykas never forget. Ed still wears a bracelet honoring Specialist Ryan Grady, a Vermont soldier killed in the same blast that left Ed critically wounded.
"I remember him and every night before I go to bed I look at it and I remember," Ed said.
And they hope to help other wounded veterans and their families, possibly starting a charity to help with the expenses not covered by the government or foundations, like wheelchair vans.
"There are a lot of people we have to thank and that we'd like to pay it forward," Ed explained.
"The love and support that people show helps a lot. It helps more than I think they know," Karen said. "That helps us emotionally and we achieve more physically."
"I may have been down for a bit, but I'm not out," Ed promised.
Doctors admit Ed's prognosis is unclear. They cannot guarantee he'll be a full-time walker. They say it's more likely he'll walk part time and use his wheelchair part time. But they expect him to be much more independent, relying on Karen less when he's done with rehab.
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