On a cold March night in 2007, Jeff Brodeur got the phone call that changed his life. His son, Army Pvt. Vincent Mannion-Brodeur, 19, had been searching a structure near Tikrit, Iraq, when a mortar-shell booby trap exploded. His sergeant was killed instantly and Mannion-Brodeur suffered a devastating head injury as well as deep shrapnel wounds to his arm and torso. Jeff and his wife, Maura, sitting stunned in their Cape Cod, Mass., home, were told that their son might not live.
Vincent had stabilized enough to be taken to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., where they rushed to see him. That began an exhausting journey that saw the couple battle the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to get the best possible care for their son.
Vincent had suffered a very serious traumatic brain injury (TBI), the “signature injury” among tens of thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. The couple, both veterans themselves, took on the VA medical establishment and became one of the first families in the nation to get their son transferred to a private medical facility for his care, opening the door for many other wounded soldiers.
Eight years later, after lingering in a coma for almost 18 months, 43 operations and countless hours of rehabilitation, Vincent, now 27, lives with his parents on Cape Cod. The journey to recovery has taken an emotional and financial toll on Jeff, 51, and Maura, 55.
“We were round the clock with Vincent in hospital wards,” Jeff says. “It’s hard to sleep because of all we’ve seen.” While their son overcame the initial prognosis that he would never walk or talk again, the impact of the TBI remains. “He’s like a 12-year-old, very trusting of even strangers. He can’t be left alone and can barely read or write,” Jeff says.
The extraordinary recovery stems in part from the determination sparked when the Brodeurs first saw their son in a hospital bed in Bethesda. “They had removed his cranium and frontal lobe," Jeff recalls. "There were tubes hanging out of his brain and his arm hanging by a thread. I needed to do something.”
The VA wanted to transfer Vincent to its Tampa trauma facility. That would require the couple move and live in a motel for up to two years. More important, Jeff was concerned about the level of care at the Tampa center after talking to other parents and doctors. He became convinced that Spaulding Rehabilitation Center in Boston would offer the highest quality care. “We felt the best chance for him to function as a human being again was in Boston with the best medical facilities in the country and near family and friends,” he says.
Getting his son transferred required fighting the VA bureaucracy. Long active in the Korean War Veterans Association, Jeff had previously consulted with his Massachusetts senators. With their help — and his relentlessness — he was able to get his son transferred. For the next 18 months, while Vincent underwent treatment at Spaulding, Jeff and his wife took turns driving 90 minutes daily from Hyannis to Boston.
“Spaulding made all the difference,” says Jeff, now retired from the U.S. Postal Service. “Vincent had excellent care and they started using some new drugs to help him come out of the coma.”
Over the next several years, Vincent underwent multiple hospitalizations and surgeries. When it came time to bring him home, Jeff started another battle with the VA, this time to get a special adaptive housing grant to make a bathroom accessible. The plumbing alone cost $37,000. It took 11 months of paperwork in the two-year process. “I almost quit,” says Jeff. “I can’t imagine how people do this.”
Vincent, a Purple Heart and Bronze Star recipient, can now walk and dress and feed himself. He has recovered enough that he recently traveled with his family to Washington to present singer Stevie Nicks with a USO award.
Still “it’s a lonely life for him,” says Jeff who, with his wife, takes Vincent on daily outings. “Seeing your son sit in the back seat of your truck and knowing he can’t drive, will never have a job, it’s devastating.”
The Brodeurs take comfort that their son’s incredible recovery is due to their tenacity as they have been told again and again by medical staffers. “We just wanted to put him back together as best as we could and get him the best care,” Jeff says.
Looking toward Memorial Day, Jeff notes that he and his wife both served six years in the military, he in the Army and she in the Navy. “There’s a creed in the military that you never leave a fallen soldier behind," Jeff says. "That’s what has kept our family together.”
Mary W. Quigley’s blog, Mothering21 , tackles parenting of emerging adults and beyond.
Photo: Courtesy of Jeff Brodeur
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