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Juneau mom, wounded warrior to be profiled in book

'Unbreakable Bonds' to be published in November 2014

Posted: February 24, 2014 - 12:01am
This undated photos shows Tim Ryan and Carolee Ryan, the parents of U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Thomas McRae.  Photo courtesy of Dava Guerin
Photo courtesy of Dava Guerin
This undated photos shows Tim Ryan and Carolee Ryan, the parents of U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Thomas McRae.

Most people are aware of the sacrifices wounded warriors make. But what some people may not realize is the sacrifices their mothers make.

A new book being written by a writer and an editor on the East Coast is calling attention to such “mighty moms,” including one Juneau mother, who drop everything to care for their children as they recover from traumatic injuries at a military hospital in Bethesda, Md.

“Every one of these moms without question has sacrificed greatly,” co-author Dava Guerin, a Washington,D.C.-based communications consultant and writer, said during a phone interview. “They are dedicated, loving, fierce, really fierce women who will do anything for their kid.”

One chapter of the book, titled “Unbreakable Bonds: The Mighty Moms and Wounded Warriors of Walter Reed,” will profile Carolee Ryan. Ryan is the mother of U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Thomas McRae, a triple amputee who was injured in Afghanistan by a roadside bomb in January 2012.

“Carolee is a great example of somebody who there isn’t anything she wouldn’t do for her son and her family,” Guerin said. “She’s a force of nature.”

The book, to be published by Skyhorse Publishing this November, profiles 10 sets of moms and wounded veterans at Walter Reed. Nine sets are mothers and sons, and one set is a mother and daughter.

Co-author Kevin Ferris, Philadelphia Inquirer Editorial Page assistant editor, told the Empire that the women profiled in the book come from all walks of life. But once they received the phone call informing them that their child had been gravely injured, they all found themselves in the same hospital in similar situations.

They each experienced the same awful waiting time as their child was being flown back to the United States; they all experienced the moment when they saw their injured child for the first time in a hospital bed; they’ve all spent nights sleeping on cots in a hospital room.

Then, after confronting the initial shock and the trauma care, the mothers must figure out how to navigate the military and medical worlds in order to advocate for their children. All the while, they’ve left their past lives behind them, often times at the expense of their careers and relationships, given that the recovery and rehabilitative process takes years. Most of the wounded warriors in the book spend an average of two-and-a-half to three years at Walter Reed.

“I think what struck me, part of what’s so striking about this book, is the commitments the moms make to theirs sons or daughter,” Ferris said. “They just give up more or less their whole lives to move into Walter Reed and to focus solely on the recovery of theirs sons and daughter.”

Ferris produced the chapter on Ryan and McRae and interviewed them for the book a couple months ago. He said the title “Mighty Moms” might be a bit limited for their case because the chapter also focuses in on Carolee’s husband and McRae’s father, Tim Ryan.

Of the five chapters Ferris wrote (Guerin wrote the other five chapters), theirs was the only one where the whole family was interviewed together in the same room. He said he couldn’t help but notice how the two parents tackled everything as a team.

“What you hear in a couple of cases is how difficult it is to maintain family and friend relationships at home, moms losing jobs as a result of moving to Walter Reed, so there’s some very common themes that run throughout the book,” he said. “But what was so striking about Tim and Carolee is that they were a team. Other people, for various reasons, weren’t both present so much, and it sounds like Tim and Carolee were really there for each other.”

In the book, Carolee Ryan grows to be a fierce advocate for her son, Ferris said. He cites one instance where the military planned on reducing hours and invalidating meal tickets at the sole dining hall at “Building 62,” where McRae and about 160 other multiple amputees and their families are housed during recovery. The change would have meant that the wounded warriors, many who are just learning how to use prosthetics, would have to wheel a half mile across the facility to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner.

“But the next thing you know, Carolee’s on Fox News (speaking out about the café’s closure),” Ferris said. “They (the military) changed their minds, and the café’s still open.”

He added, “Some of them (the mothers) had never really spoken up before, but now they speak up to doctors and military officers of all ranks. If they see something wrong, they’re going to speak up. They’re going to kick some ass. And Carolee’s a good example of that.”

 

Transitions

In a recent interview with the Empire, Carolee said she might be “the only mom here” at Walter Reed who has had a relatively positive experience with the transition of moving from her home in Juneau to the military base where she now resides with her son. When she needs to go back home to Juneau, she and her husband trade places, and he takes time off work and comes down to Bethesda.

Carolee said she used to work as an administrative assistant at Southeast Regional Resource Center’s GED office, and that the educational resource center has been tremendously supportive of her.

The Family and Medical Leave Act allowed Ryan to take six months off without losing her job, but she said they informed her that they couldn’t protect her job any longer after that. She decided to put in her notice after that so she could continue to reside in Bethesda with her son.

“A lot of our folks, the moms here, their (employers) haven’t been as supportive as SERRC has been toward me in regards to keeping me on for those six months, and for wanting to check in with me to see where we were at, to see where Tom’s progress with physical therapy and occupational therapy is at. So SERRC has been very, very kind and generous,” she said.

She added, “It was the hardest day to give my notice to them because I want to say that SERRC is part of my family. They thought that just after six months, I would come back, and I said, ‘No, I’m not coming back.’ I knew this was my next job I needed to do... to help my son and his daughter.”

In regards to McRae’s rehabilitation, Ryan said her son has made great progress towards independence. He recently walked two miles of a 5K in New York in September for the Tunnel to Towers Foundation, which commemorates firefighters lost in the 9/11 attacks. McRae is currently learning how to cook his own meals, and soon he will be re-learning how to drive, she said. He swims twice a week at a therapeutic pool at Walter Reed and recently got into therapeutic horseback riding, she added.

“I think that he’s doing amazing,” she said, “and I think that he’s, like, come over this hump where he’s like, ‘OK, I’m going to be done here soon,” and he’s just motivated to do things more and more in general now. He’s still a Marine, a tough Marine, but... I’ve seen tremendous growth in him since we first saw him.”

 

Takeaways

Guerin, who was inspired to write the book after volunteering with the wounded members of the military at Walter Reed and who met Carolee through one of the mothers she had grown close to, said she hopes readers will take away at least three lessons from the book once it’s published.

One is that every American should look up a wounded warrior in their community and get involved with them somehow, whether it’s by sending a note or volunteering at a hospital, she said. Another is to always treat people with physical disabilities with respect and compassion. And the last thing, she said, should be to celebrate mothers.

“All mothers sacrifice, and fathers do, too,” Guerin said, “But these moms in particular, the moms of wounded warriors are a special breed. Not just in being a caregiver, but real just remarkable women.”

“They’ve been through a lot,” she added, “so do something for them as well.”

Guerin said a percentage of any proceeds from sales of the book will go to the mothers for the rest of their lives.

• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at emily.miller@juneauempire.com.

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