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Mothers, wives sacrifice to help wounded GIs

Rose Lage swears it is true: Suddenly, in the midst of a fitful night of sleep last June, she knew that her son had been injured in Iraq.
Image: Michael Lage is assisted by his mother Rose Lage
Rose Lage helps her son, Staff Sgt. Michael Lage, at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, on Dec. 7. Lage was injured in Iraq, the only survivor of a blast that killed four others. Rose Lage is among the many women struggling to care for loved ones wounded in Iraq.Eric Gay / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Rose Lage swears it is true: Suddenly, in the midst of a fitful night of sleep last June, she knew that her son had been injured in Iraq.

"I heard my son's voice," she recalls. "It might sound weird, but I heard him holler 'Mama!' "

In fact, Staff Sgt. Michael Lage was the only survivor of a blast that killed four others. Lage suffered third-degree burns to nearly half his body; part of his nose and ears were missing, and his face, scalp, arms and torso were seared. His left hand had to be amputated.

Rose Lage, 54, understood her son's life would change. But she didn't understand how much her own quiet life — a life spent playing with grandkids, fishing and preparing for her husband's retirement — would change, as well.

She would exchange her two-story house in Atlanta for a hotel room on an Army post, watch her nest egg shrink and spend her days helping a 30-year-old son change bandages and wriggle into garments meant to reduce scarring.

The sacrifices of injured soldiers, airmen and Marines are recognized with medals and commendations. But the mothers and wives who arrive here wide-eyed and afraid make their own sacrifices — abandoning jobs and homes and delaying retirement to help their wounded children reclaim their lives.

"The women here are the heroes, every bit the heroes as their soldiers," said Judith Markelz, who runs a 4-year-old program to aid the families of injured soldiers sent here for treatment. "These kids could not survive without their women."

The worst of the wounded
The patients who arrive at Fort Sam Houston are among the worst wounded in war, suffering the kind of injuries that killed their predecessors in earlier conflicts.

So far, about 600 burn victims and 250 amputees have been sent here to recover at the Army's only burn center and at an amputee rehabilitation program set up since the start of the Iraq war.

Their injuries will require multiple surgeries and months or years of recovery and rehabilitation.

When the injured arrive, fathers and siblings are often here for the immediate aftermath or early surgeries. But the wives and mothers most often stay, Markelz said. They quit jobs, give up health insurance and abandon homes.

"None of us realized people were going to be here two years. That's not your normal hospital stay," Markelz said. "They didn't want to make San Antonio their home. Now, they can vote here."

Please sign in
Markelz, the wife of a retired Fort Sam Houston deputy commander, was hired four years ago to start the Warrior and Family Support Center, a program that has morphed from a few computers in converted conference rooms to a catchall program for families of the wounded.

The Army provides housing for families in a post hotel or at one of the Fisher Houses, family-style dorms with a living room, large kitchen and dining room.

But most arrive here with few or no friends and with little understanding of what they or their wounded family member will now face.

"They come in with their purses like this," said Markelz, hugging her chest. "They look like a deer in headlights."

Markelz and her staff make sure no one gets past the door without getting noticed.

"Did you sign in?" she genially shouts at family members and wounded soldiers between phone calls and assigning tasks to volunteers.

In the past four years, family members and wounded have signed in 200,000 times and counting.

The assistance center, which will move to a new 12,000-square-foot building next year, provides meals, a place for baffled family members to seek advice, rides to Wal-Mart, just about anything Markelz and her staff find they can do to help.

Among the family members who stay for the long haul, about half are wives and half are mothers.

Markelz said it's especially hard on the wives of guardsmen and reservists and on the middle-aged mothers of soldiers — women who had well-established civilian lives away from the typically nomadic life of active military families.

"They didn't sign up for that," she said.

Staff Sgt. Michael Lage had always been an independent kid. The youngest of three and the only boy, he was the first to leave home. He joined the Army at 18.

He served two full tours in Iraq, first in 2003 and again two years later.

Through both tours, his mother prayed and lit a yellow candle every day at a shrine fashioned from his photo, angel figurines and military mementos in front of her fireplace in Atlanta. She continued the ritual when he was deployed a third time in May.

But less than a month later, his Bradley Fighting Vehicle was hit by a bomb in Baghdad. Lage was the only one who managed to crawl out or get blown free of the wreckage. He was on fire, still carrying his gun, witnesses later told his family.

Recognizing him by his eyelashes
Rose Lage and her husband, Larry, arrived in San Antonio to find Michael in intensive care in a medically induced coma. He was covered in bandages with tubes coming in and out of his body.

His mother recognized her son by his long dark eyelashes.

But she wasn't allowed to touch him, couldn't embrace him the way she longed to.

"It took everything I had to be strong," she said, her voice breaking.

Now, six months have passed since she arrived in San Antonio with one large suitcase.

Her husband stayed as long as he could, but he had to return to work after the couple tapped their retirement savings for months.

Her two daughters, too, have come to help, but they have their own homes and young children to care for.

Rose hasn't gone anywhere
Pieces of her wardrobe have arrived with family members as the seasons have changed and as she's lost weight from crisscrossing the post on foot. A few photos of grandkids have gone up around the hotel room, along with Indian dream catchers — charms traditionally meant to protect against nightmares.

Rose has cobbled together an unexpected life here, learning her way around town and building new routines and friendships she never imagined.

Days of housekeeping and care for grandkids have been replaced with new routines: the careful wrapping of gauze around reddened skin, vigilant adherence to medication regiments, the zipping and buttoning of Michael's clothes.

"We've given up a lot for him," Rose concedes, sitting in a hotel room where a giant flag signed by her son's unit hangs. "We'd give up a lot more for him."

Relationship tried, strengthened
Michael is grateful for his mother's help, but parents and adult children living together can get on each other's nerves. The close quarters and the stress chafe.

"I appreciate her being here, but living in a small hotel room with your mom tends to wear on you a bit," Michael says.

A career soldier and divorced father of 8-year-old twins, he never dreamed he'd be living with or reliant on his mother at age 30. (His son and daughter live in Tennessee with their mother.)

Even as a child, he was never good at asking for help, Rose says.

"That's what annoys her most: I never ask for help," he says.

Rose struggles, too, because she knows he doesn't tell her everything. He holds back some of the emotional and mental struggles that come with such serious injuries and with the memories of friends lost at war.

"It's been very hard because I know he is frustrated because I'm a mom and I haven't been there. I guess he thinks I don't know what's going on," she says.

"They forget that you're a person. You have a life, that you have feelings."

'I will never leave him'
The Lages both finally left San Antonio on Dec. 15 for a Christmas trip to see Michael's kids and other family and friends.

But Michael will have to return in January to face a series of surgeries to reconstruct his elbow, and eventually his amputated arm and his nose and ears. It will probably take another year of treatment and rehabilitation.

That means Rose will be back, too.

"I will always be here for him no matter what. He can always depend on me. I will never leave him," she says, looking at Michael. "I'll be here for my other kids, too. That's what a mom's for. I would give up my life for him, and if I could give him my other hand, I would."

At that, Michael quickly brushes away a tear, and his mother adds one last thing: "He's my baby."