May 26, 2008
ELIDA - The Marine smokes a cigar in the middle of the desert. There's a twinkle in his eye and you know the photograph has caught a moment in the middle of war with a story behind it.
But Justin Reynolds can't tell that story. He can see the picture; he can hear his mother saying she can't remember what he said he was doing. He wants to tell it - his eyes light up and he manages a slight smile - but he can't.
Reynolds, 25, honorably discharged as a lance corporal after two tours in the Iraq war, was wounded when his Humvee hit a roadside bomb in 2006, leaving his legs full of shrapnel.
A virus doctors believe he contracted when he was wounded or shortly after has attacked his brain, leaving Reynolds aware but incapacitated.
The 2002 Elida High School graduate was so determined to be a Marine he took a year to thin out his 6-foot-2-inch frame, dropping to a required weight to enlist. He served with honor and enthusiasm, seeing he made a difference: He was there when Iraqi citizens voted and a woman old enough to be his grandmother showed him her ink-stained finger and kissed him.
He battled back against his initial injuries and even beat an early round with the virus that left him paralyzed on his left side.
Today, he's surrounded by get well cards and photos of his family and dogs in his nursing home room. A sign on the wall tells visitors what television channels he likes. He's changed and bathed. He's fed through a tube to his stomach.
"I look at the poster," Reynolds' dad, Bob Reynolds, said of the recruiting poster of Marines in their dress blues. "And then I look at him in that bed. I just don't know."
While serving, Reynolds earned the nickname "The Box," shortened from "The Lunch Box," because of the vending machine-like array of snacks mailed from his mother, Anne Reynolds. If his buddies had a particular salty or sweet craving, chances were that Reynolds could hook them up.
Things haven't changed: a cupboard in his room is filled with chips and pretzels and a sign tells visitors to help themselves.
Anne Reynolds visits the Shawnee Township nursing home every day after work and Bob Reynolds nearly as much. She works at the University of Northwestern Ohio cafeteria from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., goes to the nursing home, goes home to bed and then does it again.
That's been the routine since Feb. 1, when the Reynolds decided to bring Justin Reynolds home from a Veterans Affairs hospital in Virginia where he was undergoing physical rehabilitation. His condition had worsened; he had "coded" twice and doctors said they couldn't do anything more.
Since then he's no worse, no better.
"It's a parent's worst nightmare, the way it is. It's tough," Bob Reynolds said. "We've had to fight for everything we've done for him. There's never a simple solution. It's our life now. Things change."
Reynolds recovered from the shrapnel wounds, but a few weeks later felt his left side tingling. One day while trying to stand, he fell down. Doctors at Pitt County Memorial Hospital in North Carolina determined a virus was attacking nerve endings in his brain.
Antibiotic and steroid treatment seemed to kick it, and though Reynolds was left paralyzed on his left side, he learned how to drive and speak again. Anne Reynolds went to see her son in October and didn't think he seemed right. She went home on a Monday and Tuesday he called, saying his vision was blurred. By Wednesday, he was having trouble forming words. By Friday, he couldn't walk.
"The virus was back," Anne Reynolds said. "He was in a coma. They didn't think he was going to live. I was there from October to December. I never left his side."
Remarkably, Reynolds woke up. Doctors treated him with an aggressive round of chemotherapy and decided he needed rehabilitation, which took the family to Richmond, Va. Anne Reynolds worked Mondays through Thursdays, flew to Richmond on Thursday nights and flew home Sunday nights from December to February, until they brought him home.
The family has received generous support from national veterans organizations, including the Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund, which paid for flights and hotel rooms and is now funding an aide who sits with Reynolds nights. The family's feelings about the war and the military haven't changed, but their frustrations with federal red tape and the VA have grown.
The Reynolds don't ask for much, only to make sure their son and his service is not forgotten. And they hope publicity about his condition leads to finding someone else with similar health problems or a doctor who could offer some kind of hope.
Semper Fi, a national nonprofit founded in 2004, has provided 8,000 grants totaling $21 million to families across the country. Lisa Holden, a representative of the group, met Reynolds when he was injured the first time.
"Their human spirit amazes me every day," Holden said. "Justin has been so driven. He just wanted to get back to his guys, to the Marines. People are drawn to him."
Reynolds' parents wish for support from local veterans organizations, especially visitors for their son, whom they describe as a "people person."
"I don't want anyone to feel sorry for Justin. Justin knew what he was doing when he got into this. This is what happens sometimes. I'm proud of all the boys, all the kids" who serve, Anne Reynolds said. "I have my days where I think, ‘I just don't know if I can get out of bed and do this again.' I have to kick myself and say, ‘Stop feeling sorry for yourself and get on with it.' He's got it worse than any of us."
Reynolds blinks once for yes and leaves his eyes open wide for no, on days when he's doing better. Anne Reynolds has come to recognize certain kinds of moans, especially one signaling he wants to be left alone.
Not being able to communicate is "one of the hardest things," Bob Reynolds said. "I'd go crazy. I don't know how he can do it. If something is wrong, you have to search head to toe. He can't say his stomach hurts, or he's hot or cold."
He and his parents have a wicked and brutal sense of humor that hasn't left them. Early after the diagnosis, Reynolds and his mom were driving.
"You know, Mom," Reynolds said, "I have brain damage and you're senile. We probably shouldn't be out alone."
She returned the favor the other day when wheeling him through the halls, asking for some of his oxygen.
"Can I have some of that?" she asked. "You know, I'm doing all the work here."
The other day, Bob Reynolds and his brother took Justin Reynolds outside for some sunshine and a beer. Bob Reynolds dabbed a taste on his son's lips and they hatched a plan that involved leaving cracked peanut shells all over his son while his caretakers hid. As his mother arrived, Reynolds, in on the joke, gave a good moan, signaling his false distress.
The Reynolds had a "big teddy bear" of a son, a guy who visited classrooms of kids who had written him while deployed, who learned patience as a Marine and earned a reputation among fellow Marines for his dependability.
In this seemingly endless limbo of twilight, they have moments, glimpses and glimmers.
"He's probably one of the kindest persons I've ever met," Anne Reynolds said. "I know that sounds bad from his mother, but he truly is. We would laugh. We always had a good time. He loved life."