Air Compassion for Veterans

Winning the War of Recovery

By suzanne rhodes on October 10, 2013

By Christina Correa, Intern, Old Dominion University

 
hugo gonzales and family editedWhen Hugo G., a soldier in the U.S. Army through the Puerto Rican National Guard, was stationed in Iraq in 2004, war for the U.S. was near its end. For Hugo, however, the war was just beginning. 

“I wanted to serve in whatever way my country needed me,” he said. 

He began training for his mission immediately after arriving in Baquba, Iraq. His unit, called “Big Red One,” has remained well-known since its participation in WWI and WWII. The group was in charge of a wide range of duties, including patrolling, VIP escorting, and guard duty. 

On June 21, 2004, Hugo’s unit was ambushed. They had been sent to investigate a suspicion of IED’s, or improvised explosive devises, within an area of the Sunni Triangle. After witnessing the strange behavior of the residents, which included a sudden dismissal of women and children, the troops knew they were soon to be under attack. 

Hugo’s unit was attacked by small arms fire to prevent them from getting away. Hugo was hit in the arm and back by bullets, but the adrenaline was enough to keep him from feeling the pain of the wounds. He was still conscious when the bomb detonated. 

The soldier was found and rushed to a camp in Baghdad with nearly fatal injuries, including a penetrating traumatic brain injury. He was blinded in his right eye when the explosion punctured his retina, and almost half of his skull had been crushed, causing his brain to swell rapidly. The doctors had moments to operate to save his life. They quickly removed pieces of the skull to ease the pressure and relieve the swelling areas. “That split-second decision saved my life,” Hugo said.

 He was later transferred to Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where he began his long, two-year journey to recovery. Although he knew he would never be sent back to Iraq because of the injuries he had sustained, he was still fighting a battle. 

“The real war started for me in the hospital.” 

He began suffering from post-traumatic epilepsy because of the TBI (traumatic brain injury); he also suffered from post-traumatic migraines. That was when everything got complicated. The epilepsy was the worst of all of it. Worse, he says, than blindness. It was traumatic for both the one experiencing the attacks and the one observing. His fiancé, Any (pronounced “Annie”), remained by his side throughout his journey. She gave him unswerving support, as they continued to face the obstacles together. 

“When a soldier goes to war, the family goes to war. When a soldier is wounded, the family is wounded. I am who I am today because of the support she gave me.”

The couple continued to persevere as Hugo faced a cranioplasty, a procedure to preserve the bone in his head and surgically repair the damaged area, as well as countless hours of therapy. In February of 2005, he and Any were married. 

Since his release from the hospital, Hugo says he has grown a lot and learned to handle his injuries. He now appreciates life in a way he never could have before. In the summer of 2013, his family faced yet another challenge. His mother and grandmother, who live in Puerto Rico, both grew progressively ill. He needed to see his family, but due to his seizures, could not fly unaccompanied, and he lacked the funds to fly his family with him. 

With help from Air Compassion for Veterans, Hugo was able to acquire airline tickets for him, his wife, and his three daughters to Puerto Rico to visit with and care for his mother and grandmother. 

“They allowed me to have a family reunion,” Hugo said. “I am thankful that I can now be at peace knowing that I have been able to spend time with them.”

Hugo currently lives in Florida with his wife and daughters where he continues receiving treatment for his injuries. He is continuously grateful that he survived the attack in 2004. 

“The Lord not only gave me back my life, but he allowed me to give life as well.”

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