War isn’t over for wounded vet

War isn’t over for wounded vet

Why is it a good thing that I came back alive? Not trying to be all gloomy, but if I came back dead, I wouldn’t know the difference.

For my family, it’s better that I came back alive. ... But I had to go through a tremendous battle, mentally, emotionally and even physically, to be able to get to the point where I am today, to be able to semi-function in society.

From elementary school, Tony Larson knew he wanted to be in the military. It was in his blood.

His dad was one of seven boys, and six of them served. Four fought in Vietnam.

It was an honor thing, a way to further his education, become a more well-rounded person. In high school, Tony spent hours researching the different military branches. He chose the National Guard because he liked the focus on state missions instead of national and international ones.

When he turned 17, he asked his parents to sign papers so he could join the Guard and go to basic training between his junior and senior years. But their mental image of the military was haunted by Vietnam. They refused.

Tony Larson, before his injuries.
(Submitted photo)

So Tony waited until he turned 18, then enlisted himself. Four months later, he left for basic training.

It was 2000, and the National Guard’s mission was much different than today: a minimal presence in the Gulf War, peacekeeping missions such as Kosovo and Bosnia. They were weekend warriors — one weekend a month, two-week drills in the summer. Deployments meant taking care of floods, fighting wildfires and cleaning up after tornadoes.

That all changed on Sept. 11, 2001.

Tony never wanted to go to war. He was happy in his own small world. But if the call came, he would go. It was his responsibility to fulfill his end of the contract.

Tony was a maintenance mechanic in Company B, 434th Main Support Battalion. He was attached to a transportation unit that was put on active duty June 1, 2004.

Three days later, they left for Fort Dix, New Jersey On Jan. 3, 2005, he was headed to Iraq.

After landing in the Gulf region, they drove up into Iraq on a 24-hour convoy. Tony marveled at his surroundings — herds of camels and goats, mud homes alongside the road, people of different cultures.

At Forward Operating Base Speicher, near Tikrit in northern Iraq, Tony was assigned as a night shift mechanic and became a Humvee specialist.

Early on, the work wasn’t bad. The mechanics had little contact with the fighting outside the base. Sometimes trucks would come back with shrapnel or flattened tires, but nothing too serious.

As time went on, a few more trucks came in with heavy damage. Some had been hit by improvised explosive devices and burned to the ground.

Those rattled him more.

But aside from a four-day rest and recuperation pass into northern Iraq and a two-week leave home, Tony rarely left the base. Occasionally, he was needed to ride along on a convoy to provide maintenance support and recovery.

Any time they drove outside the camp, there was a sense of impending danger. Around every rock could be an IED, or someone waiting to kill you with an AK-47 or a rocket-propelled grenade.

I don’t know if there’s a point that you get over it, or you become so in tune with it that it’s just a part of you. But I know for myself, the seven convoys I was on, it was there every time. It does make you a little bit more aware of what’s going on. You’re looking everywhere, trying to make sure your area is covered.

In October 2005, Tony’s unit was just a few weeks away from coming home.

They were assigned to handle a transport to the Abu Ghraib prison, then head to Camp Victory in Baghdad to spend the night.

Typically, whoever got to the truck first would drive the first leg, then they’d switch places for the return trip. Tony happened to reach the truck first.

The trip was uneventful. Tony drove to the prison and Camp Victory, where they spent the night. The next morning they headed back toward FOB Speicher, Tony in the passenger seat.

Outside of Camp Anaconda near Balad, the first gun truck in the convoy reported there was an IED on the right side of the road. As each truck passed by, the message was conveyed, “IED clear.”

As Tony’s truck rolled up, he held the radio receiver in his hand. He looked at the device, and knew.

He turned his head to the side.

He didn’t even get out the words across the radio that they’d been hit. The truck filled with smoke and dust. His ears were ringing. He tried calling out to his driver, but there was no answer.

Just a few months before, a member of Tony’s unit, Mike Mills, had been badly burned in a fiery crash. That image flashed into Tony’s mind. I’m not going to sit in this truck and burn.

He opened the door and jumped out, as the truck was still rumbling along at 30 miles per hour. He tumbled like a broken hubcap.

A gun truck pulled up behind the damaged vehicle, blocking the view of Tony to protect him. The other soldiers dragged him onto the road. Before the rest of the convoy could turn around to help, small-arms fire rained down from a nearby sand berm. They returned fire.

Tony was wide awake. A piece of shrapnel had gone through his right foot and grazed his thigh. It felt like his foot was burning from the inside out.

Triage efforts began. Tony had been trained as a first responder and a combat lifesaver. He tried treating himself for shock, asking himself questions. Where are you? What day is it? He tapped his toes to count them.

Nobody would tell him anything about his condition. His driver had survived with just some shrapnel in his cheek. He knelt by Tony and told him if it hurts, squeeze my hand. Tony squeezed so hard the driver’s outer knuckles were touching. Two other soldiers had to take turns.

When the medevac helicopter arrived, Tony tried to fight. If he went on a helicopter, that meant he was going home. He needed to get back to his unit and do his job.

Tony Larson doing physical therapy and rehabilitation at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
(Submitted photo)

Tony was flown to Camp Anaconda, where he underwent eight hours of surgery, then was moved to Germany. After four days, he arrived at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

It would be his home for the next 18 months.

The shrapnel had pierced the middle of his foot and broken eight bones — shattered them until they were unrecognizable fragments, really. He was missing tendons, ligaments, muscles, nerves. The only thing holding his toes up was skin.

For the next nine months, Tony fought to save his foot. He made progress, moving to a walking cast then to a soft cast that could bear his full weight.

Still, his surgeon warned him that eventually his foot might need to come off. The medications they gave him helped manage the pain, but never really got rid of it. The prognosis was grim — multiple surgeries, bones fused together. He would only be able to walk short distances or stand for a short time.

Then, in mid-May 2006, came bad news. He had osteomyelitis, a bone infection.

Still, there was no medical urgency to remove his foot. No one would tell him what he should do — not his doctors, not his family. It was an agonizing decision, and he had to make it alone.

On July 26, 2006, Tony underwent yet another surgery. This time, doctors cut off the foot he’d fought so long and hard to save. His leg was amputated about halfway between the knee and ankle.

I could still feel the foot burning. I could feel itches and tickles and all those fun little phantom sensations. ... Then the phantom pains started to settle in. I could feel the wound track from the shrapnel really beginning to burn and I could feel the arch of my foot collapsing and the joint hurting all the time.

And they weren’t there.

Life became an endless schedule of daily physical and occupational therapy. He got his first prosthetic foot in August 2006. Then came the slow process of learning to walk again.

Taking the first step, Tony felt strange and uncertain, unsure how much to trust the hardware strapped to his leg. It took almost six months to feel somewhat comfortable in his gait and balance.

The Army gave Tony a choice: Stay in and take a different job, or take a medical discharge. He considered the idea of sitting behind an Army desk for 13 years, watching unit after unit deploy while he stayed home. He decided he couldn’t handle that.

So on April 27, 2007, Tony was discharged from Walter Reed — and from military life.

A part of him was relieved that he’d fulfilled his end of the contract. But he would miss the camaraderie, hanging out with the guys during weekend drills, shooting the breeze while they fixed a truck.

The following day, he stepped off a plane at St. Cloud Regional Airport. Waiting for him were hundreds of people — local dignitaries, members of his unit, police officers, firefighters, media crews and 217 motorcycles with their Patriot Guard Riders.

The support was overwhelming. The day passed in a blur.

Tony was home, but not whole. The healing was just beginning.

While at Walter Reed, Tony was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and a traumatic brain injury suffered during the blast.

Later there were other problems: Depression, anxiety, sleep apnea, forgetfulness, difficulty concentrating.

Then came the migraine headaches, sometimes daily. They are debilitating, leaving him dead to the world, shut in a dark, cool room, unable to even move.

The PTSD brings flashbacks, often while he is driving or riding in a car. He is hypervigilant, constantly looking over his shoulder, watching the vehicles ahead, behind and on every side, looking in ditches, avoiding manhole covers or garbage alongside the road. It’s as if the war never ended.

Then in December 2006, when Tony was attending a ski event for wounded veterans in Breckenridge, Colorado, the chief training officer for America’s VetDogs asked if he’d ever considered getting a service dog.

Tony Larson with service dog Tomme.
(Submitted photo)

Tony responded no, he wasn’t blind. But the training officer explained that service dogs could help with a variety of daily tasks for people with a range of disabilities.

In April 2007, a burly black Lab named Tomme entered his life, trained specifically for Tony’s needs. Tomme provides steady support when Tony is getting to his feet and helps him balance as he walks. He can pick up a dropped wallet or cellphone.

He perceives Tony’s moods with an eerie sixth sense. While riding in the car, Tomme senses when Tony is having a flashback. He climbs over the console and lays his big head in Tony’s lap, his hot breath and warm snout bringing Tony back to reality.

It’s OK. You’re home.

Tony and Desiree Larson's son, Jonathan, plays with hanging baskets of potatoes in their St. Cloud home. Desiree, a rape survivor who also has PTSD, found understanding in her relationship with Tony.
(Photo: Kimm Anderson, kanderson@stcloudtimes.com)

The PTSD, the effects of traumatic brain injury, all the miscellaneous physical effects — it’s a roller coaster. There’s days and weeks and months and years when things are good. Then he can go days and weeks and months and years when things are not good at all.

Tara Woolery, known to friends by her childhood nickname Desiree, had known Tony since their high school days in Sartell. They had mutual friends and talked a lot, but never dated.

Tony had a different girlfriend during his deployment, a relationship that soured after he returned.

Desiree was in the Patriot Guard at the airport the day Tony came home. She’d heard who it was and wanted to be sure she was there.

One night, Tony’s former college roommate, a good friend of Desiree’s, suggested they invite her over. They began seeing each other more often.

Desiree has her own struggles. She is a rape survivor with post-traumatic stress disorder. In Tony, she saw the same symptoms. She also found understanding.

He was the first guy that I had ever been around in a long time since I had been raped that just understood it when I said there was something that was triggering me or I was having an off day. He got it. I never had to explain, and he was always very patient about that. And for me, it was the same way. He never had to explain himself to me. I just understood why.

With a traumatic brain injury, remembering to do simple tasks becomes more difficult for Tony Larson. He uses this board to keep track.
(Photo: Kimm Anderson, kanderson@stcloudtimes.com)

Eventually, she moved into his small house in north St. Cloud and was shocked at the conditions he’d been living in. The house was unkempt, cluttered with unwashed dishes and unpaid bills.

Sometimes Tony would forget to shower for several days, then take three showers in a one day because he forgot he’d taken one. He would skip his medications, unable to recall if he’d already taken them and afraid to take a double dose. He would become engrossed in a project and forget to eat.

I was absolutely appalled that somebody who had done so much in his life was living like this, and that there was so few people who seemed to see what was actually going on. I think I now understand how much he shut people out of that part. But I vowed that never again would he live like that as long as we were together.

She cleaned, cooked, paid the bills. She began going along to Tony’s many appointments because he often forgets what the doctor said by the time he gets home.

A magnetic calendar hangs on the refrigerator, color-coded for each person’s appointments. A whiteboard hangs in the bathroom with reminders for Tony: Brush teeth. Shave. Comb hair.

His medications are in a locked dispenser that sounds an alarm when it’s time to take a dose and doesn’t stop until it’s shaken.

Officially, Tony’s physical recovery is over. He has a collection of prosthetic feet, each a little different. One is made especially for cowboy boots. One hooks into a downhill ski. One he calls his dancing foot.

Still, his body pays the toll. He’s had more surgeries. His other leg bears the brunt of his weight, and that knee is showing signs of wear and will likely need to be replaced.

Tony became an advocate for America’s VetDogs, traveling with Tomme and speaking publicly about how having the dog has helped him. He’s been interviewed many times and appeared on national TV shows.

In the difficult times, laughter helps them cope. Desiree kids Tony about having more feet than she has shoes. At Halloween parties, Tony wears a wooden peg leg as part of a pirate costume. He has a T-shirt that reads, “Soldier, 25 percent off.”

The macabre sense of humor is a way to break the ice and relieve tension. They know it makes some people uncomfortable, but they don’t care. Laughter makes the unbearable a little easier.

Iraq veteran Tony Larson maintains his sense of humor, demonstrating how he sometimes uses his leg stump to create the impression of a moose. His wife, Desiree laughs as she holds their son, Jonathan, in November. Larson's amputation came after suffering complications from injuries in an IED explosion that hit his Humvee in Iraq.
(Photo: Kimm Anderson, kanderson@stcloudtimes.com)

When Tony is wearing his prosthesis, his physical injury is nearly impossible to detect. So too are the invisible wounds he suffered, the mental struggles that some days make it difficult to even get out of bed in the morning.

The reaction of others runs the gamut from gratitude to judgment. Curious children will follow him around a store, asking honest questions until they are shushed by embarrassed parents. Some people approach him, shake his hand, thank him for his service. Often Tony and Desiree finish eating in a restaurant and learn that their bill was paid by a stranger.

Some comments aren’t meant to offend, but still wound. At least you came back alive. You’ve adjusted so well. Good thing it’s just your leg that’s missing.

In many ways, life has gotten better, but not always easier.

Tony and Desiree got married in August 2010. At times, their marriage has been happy. At times, it’s been strained nearly to the point of breaking.

Tony’s depression and anxiety comes and goes. With mental health treatment, he’s learned to recognize the certain times of year that set him off: his “alive date” when the explosion occurred, the anniversary of his amputation, the date when a member of his unit was killed.

During those times, Tony pulls himself inside his shell, overwhelmed with feelings of self-doubt.

I have a tendency to focus on failures versus successes. And everybody sees the flip side of that. They see what I’ve accomplished, not what I’ve failed. And a lot of people don’t understand why I might complain about something, and yet, ‘Well, we’ve seen you cutting a tree off the house.’ Well, yeah, but you don’t see that I ended up off my leg for a week and a half afterward because I pushed myself way too hard to get it done, instead of just sitting back and going, ‘OK, I need help.’

He knows the danger of self-loathing, the pitfalls of depression. He can recite the statistics: An estimated 22 veterans die of suicide every day in the United States.

And yet there are days when the thought creeps into his mind and refuses to let go.

One (suicide) is too many. But yet at the same time, I’m very understanding of where these soldiers are coming from in dealing with the demons in your head. ... I have a few of my comrades that I deployed with who have committed suicide since they came back.

It’s not easy, and I fight every day to not be another one.

Tony Larson and his wife, Desiree, and son Jonathan leave the St. Cloud VA Health Care System after appointments in January. Larson was injured in an IED explosion that eventually claimed his right leg below the knee.
(Photo: Kimm Anderson, kanderson@stcloudtimes.com)

He’s learned ways of coping with those bad days — a long walk, or watching TV for half a day. Tomme’s calming presence helps.

He and Desiree have had serious talks about suicide. There are no guns in the house. She conceals the keys for the medication dispenser in various hiding places around the house.

It’s really hard when somebody that you love so much tells you that they would be better off, that you would be better off if they just were gone. It’s hard to get through that wall and convince them that, no, your life is worth living.

One of those reasons is Jonathan, a spikey-haired toddler with wide blue eyes born in March 2013.

He’s the center of the household, crawling around the floor, sitting in his dad’s lap or hanging out contentedly in a sling strapped across Desiree’s body as she cooks dinner.

Desiree knew many of the parenting duties would fall on her, and she accepted it. It seemed to her that everything they’d been through shouldn’t preclude them from being a family and being happy.

Tony helps change diapers and plays with Jonathan. But there are days when he can’t carry his son because he’s off his prosthesis due to an ingrown hair or a scratch that causes soreness and the risk of infection.

Once a social extrovert, the 32-year-old Tony now finds crowds make him tense. He prefers to stay home while Desiree takes Jonathan to the park or a music festival.

Sometimes I feel in just this small little corner of my heart I kind of mourn the loss of Tony being able to participate in some of that stuff, when he’s not feeling the greatest and feeling that he can.

But here at home, Jonathan is Daddy’s boy.

In July, Desiree gave birth to another baby boy named Elijah.

Talk About It

Share stories and strategies for coping in a new online place for Central Minnesota veterans and their families at www.facebook.com/scarsofservice

Follow the #ScarsofService hashtag on Twitter.

And join the discussion as Terry Ferdinandt and Hector Matascastillo take questions from readers on sctimes.com.

About the reporters

Kirsti Marohn has been a reporter at the St. Cloud Times since 1998. She has covered local and state government, social issues and the environment. Her father was a U.S. Marine and her husband served in the Minnesota National Guard prior to 9/11.

Marohn became interested in writing about veterans after hearing about the struggles many have faced since returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, and how community resources were not always adequate to help them.

You can follow Marohn on Facebook and on Twitter @kirstimarohn.

David Unze has been a reporter at the St. Cloud Times since 1997. He has covered primarily courts, public safety and higher education.

The problems that Iraq and Afghanistan veterans face came to his attention through the interactions that police and the courts have with veterans in crisis. He also learned about the challenges that vets face when they return home and try to resume their education.

You can follow Unze on Facebook and on Twitter @sctimesunze.