October 30, 2005

When the spirit is willing Wounded Ellenville Marine determined to overcome his injuries

By Paul Brooks
Times Herald-Record
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Gallery: Photos from this story

The first bullet struck Cpl. Eddie Ryan above the right eyebrow and bored through the frontal lobes, the seat of personality and memory in his brain.

Traveling at about a half-mile a second, the bullet generated a shock wave that widened as it went. The pressure crushed brain cells into jelly. The hunk of metal slammed into the left side of his skull and shattered. A second bullet came from the opposite direction. It sliced through the back of his lower left jaw and burst out his chin.

Ryan collapsed on the Iraqi rooftop in Ramadi where he and two fellow snipers crouched. The Ellenville native was bleeding, unconscious, and bullets rained down around him. It was 7 a.m. April 13. Eddie Ryan was as good as dead. He was 21.

Brown eyes. Eddie Ryan has brown eyes, and he stares hard with his eyes wide open, unblinking, straight at you.

He has a pale blue scar shaped like a Y, an inch or so high, on his right side of his brow. His forehead is otherwise smooth, unblemished. Two small scars dimple his chin and the back of his left jaw.

A longer scar, pencil-thin, runs through closed-cropped brownish hair from ear to ear.

Eddie's 6-foot, 1-inch frame is cradled in a wheelchair. He is still slim. He has trouble standing or walking without the aid of a machine. The fingers of his right hand, his trigger finger, too, curl tight to his palm. He holds a small toy dog in his left hand. "Chesty," as it's named, is the Marine mascot. It comes from World War II and has the name Germans had for Marines: Devil Dogs. A dog is tattooed on the Marine's chest; "Ryan" is written in ink across his stomach. He has other tattoos, including a sniper's cross hairs on his right elbow.

"Welcome Sgt. Ryan," reads a sign on the wall of his room in Helen Hayes Hospital, in West Haverstraw, a first-class physical rehabilitation center about an hour's drive east and south from his home town. A flag knitted in red, white and blue yarn, made by the hospital staff to greet Eddie, hangs over the sign. Letters and pictures, cards, even a wooden cross, cover a bulletin board. Some are from friends and neighbors, some from total strangers. The Marines promoted him to sergeant on Sept. 1.

Sunlight pours into the spacious, private room. Eddie's hospital bed is its center. An ample padded chair sits in front of the window. It opens into a bed and Eddie's mom, Angela, sleeps in it every night.

Staffers call her an angel. She has been at Eddie's side constantly for the past six months, from hospitals in Germany to Maryland to Virginia and now Rockland County. Her job as a cafeteria monitor in the Ellenville School District languishes. She lives out of a single suitcase tucked behind the chair. Eddie's only sister, Felicia, quit her job at Gander Mountain and dropped out of SUNY Orange to be with her brother, too. She has been there every day. His father Chris, after nearly four months at his son's side, had to return recently to work as a heavy-equipment operator in Westchester County. Now he drives to the hospital every day as soon as he can.

"Our mission," Felicia says, "is to get Eddie better and work with him every day."

Eddie shouts. It's reminiscent of a bird cry. Angela says it means his mind is working on something or he wants something.

Eddie cries out again. Then his face calms. He pauses, as his brain searches for words. In a low voice, barely audible, he says, "Good to go. Staying motivated."

"He's in there," his dad says.

EDDIE HAD WANTED TO BE a Marine since he'd been 12. His dad was a Marine. In his senior year at Ellenville High School, Eddie knew he was destined to join the few, the proud, as the Marines advertise themselves. He had gotten more intense after the terrorists attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. "He had tunnel vision," Angela said. "He lived on working out and staying in shape." Eddie said he could bench-press 225 pounds.

In June 2002, he graduated high school and immediately enlisted for a four-year hitch. One month later, he hit boot camp. In September that year, he left for Iraq, manning a machine gun. He fought in Nasariya and Ramadi, 70 miles northwest of Bagdhad. He saw buddies killed.

"He would say, 'Mom, I can't wait to get out of this God-forsaken country," Angela said. He came home, but he wasn't done with Iraq.

"His goal was to be the best. He always told me he wanted to be a sniper," she said.

The sniper training went well. His years of hunting deer and squirrel in the woods around Ellenville paid off. Eddie was one of the top three in his sniper class of 100. He excelled at both pistol and rifle.

A picture sits in his hospital room. It's of "Reaper 6," the team of snipers to which Eddie belonged as part of the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines. They are dressed in camouflage and grip the heavy rifles of their trade. Eddie's mom did not want to give their names.

In March of this year, the unit shipped out for Iraq, Eddie with them. Why? "To make us free," he said.

ANGELA SAID SHE HAD A horrible feeling something was wrong. There had been some bad fighting in the area where Eddie was. Chris had called to say it was OK, that Eddie's unit had moved out before that. "But I felt something was up, something was not right," she said. A Marine officer called. He asked if he could stop by in five minutes. When he and another officer arrived, Angela opened the door.

"Tell me, is my son dead?"

"No, but he is severely injured. We need to get you to Germany." Within hours, she and Chris and Felicia were on a flight. It was April 14.

Eddie's buddies pulled him from that rooftop April 13 to safety. They did first aid and saved his life, Angela said. Military officials said last week that fellow Marines accidentally shot Eddie.

He was tough, rock-solid at 200 pounds. On leave at home, he used to load his pack with rocks and go on long runs.

The body in the American hospital in Germany weighed 250 pounds, swollen from wounds. It was strapped upright to allow the fluids to drain. "The only way to tell it was my son was the tattoos," she said. "They told us he wasn't going to make it. I slept in a chair for a week, just hoping and praying he would pull through. It was bad."

Two-thirds of his brain had been affected by the bullet damage, including bruising. Doctors cut away part of his skull to make room for swelling. Surgeons removed as much of the bullet fragments as they could. Some they left behind. It was less damaging that way.

They put Eddie in a coma for nearly four weeks. The first word he said when he came out of it was "Mom."

SOMETIMES A SHUDDER runs through Eddie as he sits in his wheelchair in Helen Hayes. His family sees it as a good sign. "The doctors say the brain is like a river. It will reroute. What his brain has been doing is reconnecting," Angela said.

Dr. Glenn Seliger, a neurologist at Helen Hayes Hospital, said Eddie's injury could have been worse. If the bullet had entered lower and traveled through the brain stem, he probably would not have survived. Yet a slower moving bullet wound have caused less collateral damage.

The family says he hasn't lost his memories or his personality.

The tray on his wheelchair has carefully chosen pictures under a clear plastic top: his home, his cherished Toyota Tacoma pickup and four-wheel all terrain vehicle, his family. He can name them all.

Felicia arrived one morning, She threw her arms around his neck and told him, "I love you." He burped and laughed. He smiled at her when she made funny faces and blew kisses to a female photographer. In halting fashion, he answered many of a reporter's questions.

"He is amazingly better than he was," Seliger said. "He is still very impaired from this injury, but I do expect continued significant improvement," Seliger said. "The big challenge is to become independent again and resume his life. He is doing a great job up to now ... but he has a very long haul ahead of him."

THERAPY AIMS TO PUSH him down that road faster. Most days he has double sessions of physical and occupational therapy. A speech pathologist works with him as well. His days run from 8:30 in the morning to 4 or 5 in the afternoon. It is hard work.

Two therapists pulled at Eddie to get him upright in a machine. Yelps spilled from his mouth until they settled his feet on footpads and hooked up the safety harness around his hips. His forearms rested on a shoulder-high shelf.

"Stand up straight," one therapist said and pushed his shoulders back. Eddie did. The day before he had walked down the hallway outside his room with the help of a machine. Like a good Marine, he has set himself a goal to walk. How long, Felicia asks. "Ten weeks," he says.

The family support makes a difference, much as the support and prayers from Ellenville and other places buoys the family. They even got help from Rep. Sue Kelly, R-Katonah, who pulled a few strings to get Eddie into Helen Hayes, Angela says.

"Faster," Felicia and Angela urge Eddie as he turns the handle on a video game, part of his occupational therapy. The faster he twists it, the higher his score. The more they clamor, the faster he twists the handle.

Behind the closed door to the office of speech pathologist Christina Zacharopoulos, Eddie works to shorten the pauses in his speech. It's working.

"He's in there. His comprehension is intact," she said. "He remembers what happened (in Iraq), but he does not want to discuss it."

He says he wants to put his uniform back on.

"When are you shipping me back?" he asks. He means Iraq.

"He wants to be with his boys," Angela says.

Right now, it's one day at a time. Maybe six or eight weeks more at Helen Hayes. Then home to Ellenville, Angela says.

"This kid is my hero," said Eddie's father, his voice soft. "I said to him, 'Eddie, your mission is not over. God's got a plan for you.' It's a long road, but Eddie's got a lot of determination. He knows. He's going to keep trying till he gets back."

This article appeared in The Times Herald-Record

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