Gravely wounded in Iraq, Mike Schlitz might not be alive today if it weren’t for the fact that his mother Robbi has been with him every step of the way. Her love and sacrifice underscore the gulf between how much our wounded veterans need and how much we give them.
BY MATT TUTHILL
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is Part II of a two-part feature. For Part I, download our November 2016 issue or click HERE.
The message came in varying forms. There were subtle hints, like when the visitor chairs were removed from her son’s bedside. Then there were not-so-subtle clues, like when doctors and nurses began prodding her at every turn to begin emotionally letting go of her son. Robbi Schlitz heard it loud and clear. She knew there was a very good chance that Michael was going to die. But no amount of advice, no matter how well-intentioned, could get her to stop being the doting mother she had always been. As long as Michael was breathing, she would be there.
She had birthed him, nursed him, and nurtured him in all the ways that only a mother can. She had been there through the ups and downs: when he got in trouble as a kid for blowing up neighbors’ mailboxes, when he decided to feed his adrenaline junkie by becoming a competitive bull rider at 16, when he dropped out of high school during his junior year. She was the first call he made when he was toying with whether or not to re-enlist, and she held the opinion he valued most. She always gave him the answer he needed to hear: that the military gave him the structure he needed in life.
From the time he joined the Army in 1996 until the IED explosion that maimed him in 2007, it had been hard to argue with the decision to re-up. School had never been his thing. He grudgingly finished high school only after a recruiter told him that the Army wanted to see he wasn’t a quitter. Besides, whenever Michael thought of leaving the Army, he wasn’t lining up any “safe” options for himself.
“He would talk about being a police officer or a fireman,” Robbi says. “At one point he wanted to be a fire jumper.” Here she pauses and laughs to herself. “He wanted to jump into fires.”
At the time of his final re-enlistment in 2006, Michael was 30 years old and 10 years into military service. “With another 10 he could retire and choose to do whatever he wanted, and he’d be young enough to do it,” Robbi says. “Of course, it was easy to make that call when we weren’t at war. Then 9/11 happened and the world turned topsy turvy—and it got harder.”
In February 2007 when Michael was gravely wounded in Iraq, Robbi got a phone call that made her numb. She recalls actually feeling sorry for the guy who was calling, then drawing all the blinds in her apartment, stuck in the powerless place where she couldn’t go to meet him because the Army didn’t even know where he was being sent. When Michael was finally transported to San Antonio, Robbi met him within hours and scarcely left his side for the next nine months. She ultimately left her job to be his caregiver.
“It is a proven fact that the wounded heal faster after going home,” Robbi says. “If Michael had not had a home and someone to care for him he would have ended up an inpatient at a veterans’ hospital. I did not stand by him for 9 months to lose him to a veterans hospital.”
ADVOCATE AND CAREGIVER
A military hospital can be intimidating for any civilian. Today, Robbi spouts military shorthand like SAMMC (San Antonio Military Medical Center) and TBI (traumatic brain injury) and a dozen more as part of her regular vocabulary, but at the time the constant flood of acronyms made her feel like she was on another planet.
Initially, Army personnel told her to call whenever she had a question or wanted an update, which she did with regularity. But when they tried to keep Michael’s many flat line episodes to themselves she stopped calling.
“They lied to me sometimes,” Robbi says. “They thought it was better for me not to know, but I would always find out. Because someone who didn’t know that I didn’t know would say something. I’d go to see him and one of the nurses would say, ‘Wow. Close call last night.’ I quit calling because what was the point? “
The incidents were not without a silver lining; in navigating that environment to become a better advocate for Michael, she was able to teach other family members of wounded veterans to be better advocate for their loved ones.
“The biggest thing I learned was to keep asking,” Robbi says. “If someone tells you they can’t give an update or that you can’t go in to see a patient, find someone else and ask them.”
At about the six-week mark, Michael woke and demanded to speak with his brother Jonathan. He has no recollection of the ensuing conversation, but Robbi remembers it clearly.
“He’s downstairs getting lunch,” Robbi told him. “Why do you need to talk to him?”
“I need to say goodbye,” Michael said. “Dad’s here and I’m going with him.”
“I said, ‘Tell Dad not now. You’re needed here. He loves you enough that he’ll understand.’”
When a nurse overheard the exchange, that’s when pressure began to mount for Robbi to begin letting Michael go. But Robbi had already dealt with a devastating loss at far too young of an age; she lost her husband Dale to a stroke just a few days after the couple’s 40th birthdays (they were born less than 24 hours apart). It was a crash-course in the fragility of life that made her take nothing for granted. When they told her to preemptively set up a meeting with a grief counselor, she politely declined. When they took away the chairs in his room, she stood. When nurses made their rounds to tell everyone that visiting hours were up, she stayed until the second or third reminder. When they moved him out of ICU and to another wing of the hospital for the next three months,
Robbi got her chair back and stayed at his side 10 hours a day.
Through wind and rain she shielded her candle of hope, but when Michael finally woke and was conscious of his new reality, when he was at last out of the woods after flat lining 10 times, he was covered head to toe in bandages, permanently disfigured to the point where he saw no meaning in his new life.
“He said ‘Momma, no one’s going to love me the way I look,’” Robbi recalls. “He said, ‘I don’t have hands, I don’t have a nose, ears. I don’t know what I’m gonna do. I can’t live in this bed for the rest of my life.’
“I said, ‘You’re not going to. You’re going to walk and do things with your life. There’s a reason you made it.’ As he started progressing, he said, ‘There’s nothing I can do.’ I said, ‘Yes you can. You can be the voice for those that don’t have a voice. You are going to fight a new battle. You’re going to take care of your brothers and sisters in arms using everything you know.’ He said he couldn’t talk in front of people, that he didn’t like crowds. I told him he could overcome that. And if not that, then he would find something else.
“Michael is Michael. Only the wrapper has changed. The man he was is the man he is today. He has prosthetic ears that he never wears anymore because his friends didn’t notice one way or another. After a while of knowing Michael you don’t see the wrapper. You only see the man.”
STARTING OVER AS A PARENT
The thing most people don’t understand about prosthetics is that no matter how skilled the user becomes, hooks are still an extremely difficult way to interface with the world. Buttoning a shirt or a pair of pants becomes a serious ordeal. So does reaching for anything above your head. Robbi has become Michael’s hands for anything that’s too difficult to handle on his own. To help restore his independence, she sewed keyrings onto the zippers of his pants.
The experience of once again having to baby her son was surreal and jarring for both of them at times.
“I started over as his parent,” Robbi says. “When you first become a parent you check fingers and toes. I was checking him like that. Early on I realized his fingers weren’t going to make it. His gloves were melted onto them. His feet were in good shape. There were parts of his legs where I could see tendons and bones, but I did my momma check on everything. As he progressed, we went through his first steps, words, eating, we did all the firsts that you do as a parent with a baby—only he was a little bigger.”
Because she provided daily wound care, she grew accustomed to the gruesome nature of his injuries.
“I was constantly seeing it and we become… not desensitized, but it becomes part of the normal and the shock value wears off,” Robbi says. “You’re looking for progress more than anything, and how you’re going to move forward. But I went through the stages of grief for everything he was going through. I went through denial, all the stages, I think… but not anger.”
Not even at the insurgents who planted the IED.
“You’re too exhausted to be angry. It would take away from needing to be there for Michael.”
THE FIGHT NO ONE SEES
Michael and Robbi met Gary Sinise on the set of CSI: NY. Sinise was immediately taken with Michael’s positive attitude in the face of all he had endured. Shortly after the meeting, he called Michael to extend an offer: the Gary Sinise Foundation wanted to build a specially adapted smart home for him and his mom.
“Michael told him no,” Robbi recalls. “A lot of guys do. They don’t want to take something when they think someone else could use it.”
Robbi was touched by Michael’s generosity, but reminded him that they didn’t have the money to build him what he needed, and that the home they lived in at the time was 2,500 square feet.
“He called Gary back and said, ‘You know, I think it might be a good idea.’” Robbi laughs.
The connection with the Gary Sinise Foundation also turned out to be the perfect outlet for Michael’s new career as a public speaker. As he honed his public speaking skills, he realized that his burns would be an asset in his new line of work.
“You can’t miss my injuries,” Michael says. “Other guys who have wounds that you can’t see, people might not listen as closely. When I get in front of a crowd, they stop to listen.”
And fittingly, when Michael does get up to speak as an ambassador for the Gary Sinise Foundation, his message is that we need to give love and attention to all the soldiers whose wounds aren’t out in the open. The hidden wounds are often what drive a man to suicide, and with 22 veterans committing suicide every day, the epidemic shows no signs of slowing.
“We live in a society where you have to touch it, feel it, see it,” Robbi says. “Well, I can’t touch a brain injury, but it’s still real. I can’t touch PTSD, but it’s still real.”
Robbi says she can only hope that we start to pay more attention to the veterans with hidden trauma and she’s proud to see Michael go to bat for them as a Gary Sinise Foundation ambassador.
But if there is one group that remains forgotten, she knows firsthand that it’s the caregivers. When a man or woman joins the military, their family truly serves with them. Robbi is living proof of that. The sacrifices that she and other people like her have made are impossible to quantify, and like so many war wounds, invisible.
“There have been times when people have pushed me out of the way to get to Michael,” Robbi says. “Like, ‘Oh, you’re just his mother.’ The wives go through it, too. The wounded soldier is placed on a pedestal, as he should be, but there comes a time when they need to come down from there and back to reality. That reality is family. If we don’t treat the wounded as a family unit, how can we be surprised that their marriages break up, that they have all kinds of financial problems, that there is so much suicide?
“There is a struggle there for the whole family that the world never sees.”