Four years after Rory Dunn was blown up by a bomb in Iraq, the publicity that surrounded his miraculous survival has faded. Meanwhile, Dunn rebuilds his life and his mother copes with what it means to be the parent of a wounded veteran.
There he stands, Renton’s Hometown Hero, tall, broad, handsome.
It’s taken four years for Rory Dunn to put on this uniform, a reminder of the ugly days in Iraq. He’s different now — 26 years old, with four pieces of shrapnel in his head. A missing eye. A rebuilt forehead. Deaf in one ear.
He could have skipped the parade, but older veterans wanted him here — and what else does he have planned? It’s a break from his routine, watching sitcoms, walking to the grocery store, waiting for a friend to pick him up.
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So Rory lets another veteran pin the Purple Heart on his Army uniform. He poses for a picture with a toddler beside the military trucks, and when the music starts, and the parade moves down the street, it feels kind of good. He struts.
Behind retired Spc. Rory Dunn, just a few steps behind, is his mother. The woman who watched over him at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., for nearly a year. The one who saw his chin tremble at night, the tears stream down his face. She taught him to walk in the world again.
Cynthia Lefever, 57, hears the clapping, and yes, it sounds nice. But attention like this is fleeting. More than four years after a bomb blew Rory up in Iraq, the media flits in and out of their lives, covering the miraculous recovery of the man who was not supposed to live. Friends have fallen away.
And mother and son are still trying to find their footing. Some days are better than others.
So Cynthia is not looking for admiration from this crowd. She is looking for appreciation. Does anyone out there understand what has happened to her child?
“Stupid old me”
Rory came to her strong, 10 pounds, the last of her four children, the one to pick her daisies. He was popular in high school, a prank-pulling basketball player, a B+ student who wasn’t ready for college.
Cynthia wanted to argue when she heard his plan to enlist. But Rory would not budge. He had lost his job as a house painter. The Army would pay for college. Besides, he had always admired the sacrifice soldiers were willing to make.
“Silly, stupid old me,” Rory said.
As soon as he enlisted, in June 2002, Rory regretted it. He never liked playing follow-the-leader. But he held fast to his word, and when the war broke out, he volunteered to go to Iraq ahead of soldiers who had wives and children. It felt like the right thing to do.
The day of his 22nd birthday was when it all went wrong. Rory was riding in a convoy in Fallujah, the scene of some of the war’s worst fighting, when an IED exploded from a tree, triggering another one lying on the ground. It was May 26, 2004. Shrapnel sliced through his skull and left him eyeless by the side of the road.
Call changed everything
Before the phone rang, Cynthia was so many things: wife, gardener, community-college instructor. She had built herself up — college degree at 46, master’s degree at 50. The goal was a Ph.D.
Then, in the time it took for her to hear the words, that identity, years in the making, was gone. She became the mother of a wounded veteran.
Her first order of business was waking him up. For six long weeks, as Rory lay in a coma, Cynthia played country music close to his ear. She ran his fingers through her hair, so he could feel the silk of something nice.
“I wanted to put him back together,” she says.
When he finally woke up, Rory had questions. Every day, she had a new one to answer. What happened to me? Did anyone get hurt? Anyone get killed? And then, the inevitable: Who?
Rory talks about them all the time. Ricky Rosas, the 21-year-old devout Catholic who would not laugh at his crude jokes. A role model for Rory, sitting in heaven, right next to Jesus.
And James Lambert, his fellow prankster, his 23-year-old best friend. They had planned a vacation in Las Vegas, as soon as their tour was done.
The last thing Rory remembers is lunging toward his friends. He heard later how shrapnel sliced through Rosas’ back and out his belly. Lambert took longer to bleed out. The medics leaned in to help, but he redirected them toward the body with the head blown apart.
“Go help Dunn” were his words.
A wounded personality
In another war, with less sophisticated medicine, Rory Dunn would not have made it. But in this war, more than a dozen surgeries later, he did. The right eye was gone, but they managed to fit Rory’s left eye back in its socket. They gave him someone else’s cornea, handed him a hearing aid, then sent him home to heal, one of thousands of veterans with lifelong traumatic brain injury (TBI).
The blast left Rory with lifelong health risks, from diabetes to heart disease. But the personality changes are what he struggles with most — the irritability, the impatience, the short fuse he inherited from the stress of combat, or the effects of TBI.
One minute, he’s walking with Cynthia by the Cedar River, talking about blackberry cobbler and baseballs he once hit out of the park, and the next minute he’s leaning down, red-faced, railing at his dog Duke. His favorite animal in the world will not heel.
“Oh, honey, don’t be so hard on him,” says Cynthia. “Honey!”
The world is full of irritations for Rory. Parents who let their children scream in restaurants. Doctors who disrespect him by running late. The bomb damaged his frontal lobe, the part of the brain that controls impulse and emotion, so it’s hard now to contain his frustration, to follow the social road map he learned as a child.
“Same thing we all feel, he just says,” says his stepfather, Stan Lefever, a manager at Boeing.
Rory can recover some social skills with practice: The way the shrapnel hit, it missed the part of his brain where memory and cognitive ability lies. His temper still flares. But now, when children scream in restaurants, Rory sits tight and quiet. He lets the moment pass.
Friends fall away
Lying in bed, back at Walter Reed, Rory made an announcement: I will not be one of those disabled veterans who sits on the couch all the time.
So Cynthia pushed him hard, forcing him to wear pants when he wanted to stay in pajamas. She insisted Rory do his own laundry when he was still struggling with his vision. If independence was what he wanted, independence was what he was going to get.
Back in Renton, Rory used his earnings from the Army to buy himself a condo five minutes away from every store he would need. One day, with special equipment, he’ll drive again. But for now, Rory relies on his mother, his stepfather, a couple of acquaintances who have since turned into good friends.
There used to be more. A bunch showed up at Rory’s bedside at Walter Reed. They clapped in the stands at Liberty High School, when James Lambert’s mother and his older brother pinned the Purple Heart on Rory’s shirt.
But after that, when Rory called, they mostly made excuses.
“I thought I had some really good friends,” he says. “Maybe you can count the good ones on one hand.”
From the edge of his high-school circle, others stepped in like Aaron Bishop, the older brother of Rory’s childhood best friend. He called out of the blue one day, and now they hang out every week, head out on a fishing trip, or over to a friend’s barbecue. Aaron can’t see what all the fuss is about.
“He’s pretty much the same,” Aaron says.
Same deadpan humor, same floppy, friendly way, same colorful turns of phrase.
But there’s also the difference. On this day, Rory, once an agile athlete, struggles to climb into the family rowboat. There are problems with balance and coordination. He wears thick glasses, or a contact lens in his left eye, plus a patch where his right eye once was.
On bad days, the injuries add up, make him bitter: All this war has done is make more terrorists, push up the debt and the number of dead. President Bush is a war criminal. Why won’t Americans protest?
“The sacrifices I’ve made with my eyes, my ears, my skull, my long-term health,” he says. “It’s overwhelming.”
But mostly, he feels grateful — for his life, his safety, his family, his friends. On good days, he dismisses the health problems as a bummer. They won’t stop him from finding a smart, funny woman to marry.
“The only problem I can see is the one-eyed babies,” he says.
A second later, he smiles.
Some empty days
That first year home was for resting. The second year, Rory got involved in conferences, helping other veterans to heal. Then, last winter, he mentioned in an interview for a local newspaper article something about culinary school. Cynthia was hoping.
“It’s just too easy to sit back,” she says.
Rory keeps busy enough, between conferences and retreats and family outings. But there are plenty of days he has nothing to do. He wakes up early anyway. He makes a point of walking down to Starbucks or Fred Meyer.
“Life’s not that terrible to be sleeping until noon every day,” he says.
It’s good to get out. But it can be even better to come back. There are no surprises in his condo, nothing to aggravate his post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He can turn on the television if bad times flash back. A therapist has always been out of the question.
Rory is the first to say it: He can do more. Doctors never expected him to wake up, and here he is, walking, talking, socializing, making speeches in front of dozens of people. He stopped drinking when he found out about possible seizures. He learned to hunt all over again, using his left eye.
No way he’ll live off a disability check for the rest of his life. He’ll get to college and career soon enough. It’s just a matter of when.
Right now, Rory has “a bajillion” other things to do.
Mom on a mission
When the sadness comes, Rory watches sitcoms. Cynthia works in her garden. They are waiting for the war to end. So much healing depends on that day.
Years have passed since they slept side by side at Walter Reed. After Rory moved into his condo, he would call Cynthia in the middle of the night, wanting to talk. Now they go days without seeing each other.
Still, Rory keeps her close. He brings her flowers. He drapes his arm around her shoulders. He makes her laugh until she cries. It’s not easy being his mother, and Rory knows it. Sometimes Cynthia tells him: I need a time out.
She slowed down to a stop a few years ago, after they came back from Walter Reed, and Rory settled in his condo, and she was done fighting doctors. Cynthia slept for days in the same clothes. It took months to come out of that cocoon.
Some mornings, she would still rather crawl back in. She flashes back to the soldiers with no mothers by their bedsides, the boys with their faces burned, saying they were ready to leave this world. Her son said the same thing once.
But Rory is better now. And Cynthia is by his side, traveling the country educating first responders about TBI and PTSD, lobbying officials for more preventive care, proposing free gym memberships for wounded veterans. Recently, they persuaded the VA to agree to provide medical alert tags to the severely wounded, whose injuries are not always visible.
Last spring, Cynthia received an award from Sen. Patty Murray for her activism. She’s on a mission now, to do better for veterans than the country did after Vietnam. The homelessness. The divorces. The unemployment. Let it not happen to this new generation.
Let it not happen to her son.