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Ed and Karen Matayka


Karen Matayka:  Ed and I met in nineteen ninety-nine going through advanced individual training for the Army in San Antonio. 

Ed Matayka:  We were going through our respective school. She was going through phase one of her x-ray course. I was going through phase one of my nursing school.

Karen:  We ended up splitting up for two and a half years after we dated for a while. And then Nine Eleven happened.

Ed:  And she had started emailing me again while I was overseas. And when I came back I had a little bit of money and I said I got to go visit important people in my life, or good friends. 

Karen: We were talking and we said you know what, we’re the happiest we’ve ever been with each other, let’s get married. And we would have probably gotten married that night but it was seven o’ clock on a Sunday. So, there was nobody open. So then we got married in two thousand four. And six months after we got married we deployed for the first time to Kuwait for a year.

Ed:  So each one of us had two hundred and ten rounds of live ammunition and we didn’t end up shooting each other. So, that was a good thing.

Karen:  And it was a year of guarding a gate, doing personal searches, vehicle searches, not doing our jobs as medics. So it was a little frustrating. It was really the most frustrating deployment we had.

Ed: We did manage to get R and R together. So we took two weeks in the middle of that deployment and we went to Hawaii. And so we technically call Hawaii our honeymoon. But we spent two weeks at KMC on the mountain military resort on the island of Hawaii near the Hilo Airport. And we just had a great time. We bought our own snorkels and our own swim fins and threw them in the trunk of the rental car. And when we wanted to we went down to the beach and we swam, and we did the boat tours through the rain forest and through the plantations and we had a great time.

Karen:  About a year after our deployment we bought our first house. We lived there for a couple of years. You know, bought this big beautiful house. We said oh we’re going to, we’re going to grow into this house. We’re going to have our family here. We’re going to renovate it cause’ it was a fixer upper. And then we found out we were getting deployed again. So we said okay we’re going to put off the family for a little while, we’ll do this one last deployment together and then we’ll start our family.

Ed:  Married couples in a combat zone were a relatively newer thing. So for us, we were kind of like the black sheep because we were married. If that makes sense. A lot of people were very upset and jealous that their spouse wasn’t there. And our biggest thing was your spouse is more than welcome to join the National Guard.

Karen:  When I was really young and dumb I was really gung-ho and I wanted to be one of the first females in combat. So, this was the closest I was going to get to it. And I really enjoyed being able to go out on the missions and patrol and meet the locals and do my job. 

Ed:  She had been out on a mission, technically called an air assault mission where she and the other members that went with her got onto a helicopter and then that helicopter would land and all the soldiers would run off and they do what they needed to do. And then, in the case of Karen and that mission, they were going to arrest what the military calls a high value target.

Karen:  And we were gone for a long time. We ended up getting into a firefight. Right after that I had another twelve-hour mission and that was right before Ed got hit.

Ed:  She had called me on the cell phone; a local national cell phone overseas and just basically said I’m going to be getting back late. You know, I might not see you but you know, I love you and all that other stuff. So we talked but that was it. I basically went on that mission and that was the last thing I remember for probably about six, six and a half weeks.

Karen:  I had a rough night that night. I had a hard time sleeping. I think I knew something had happened. And at five o’clock in the morning they knocked on my little b hut door and said Sargent Matayka wake up. You need to get dressed. I instantly knew that it was Ed.

Ed:  Specialist Grady was driving, Jacobs in the gunner seat, the gunners hatch, so right in the middle. And then on the opposite side of him was Dan Hart. So I was sitting directly behind the driver, on the driver’s side, in the driver’s rear seat. The blast went off underneath the driver, Ryan Grady. He was killed in the blast instantaneously. The blast wave as in a concussion or any other TBI causes a coup, countercoup reaction in your brain. Meaning that it sends you back and your brain slams into the front of your head and then when you stop, slams into the back of your head as well. So you get a kind of a rebound effect of your head slamming into your cranial cap, skullcap. That was one of them. I had also sustained a jaw fracture from the same blast wave that my nine-millimeter rode on my chest. And what it did was it actually sent the nine-millimeter up into my jaw and the hammer broke my jaw right about here. Which is where the tooth is missing. Back injury, my spinal cord injury can be explained by my body actually being pushed backwards by the blast wave into my hard armor plate on my back.

Karen:  The concussion wave actually pulled his Kevlar and stretched his neck and it ruptured the carotid artery and then we also discovered that he had a pretty severe spinal fracture. And that we didn’t know at that point if he was going to have a spinal cord injury or not because he was in a medically induced coma at that point. We left Afghanistan on the Fourth of July. I remember distinctly the flight from Germany home. I was so exhausted from spending four days just going all the time. And not being able to sleep and not eating cause’ you know, my stomach was in knots. That I ended up falling asleep on the plane on one of the stretchers. One of the empty stretchers. We spent two days at Walter Reed. Nobody was optimistic.

Ed: I was expected pretty much to die.

Karen: They assessed everything. Discovered you know, how bad his strokes were. Didn’t know how bad his TBI was at the time. He started to come out of his coma a little bit and then his liver started to fail and that put him right back into the coma and for a total of six weeks he was in a coma.

Ed:  I understand why my parents were there. I understand why my sister had come up. I understand why the Army had rushed me home. I mean I was basically put on the express flight home so that my parents could say goodbye before I die. She would tell me almost everyday that I had lost my legs, that I had injuries to my spinal cord.

Karen: You know he was in and out of the OR every other day to revise his amputations. And he had a broken jaw and it got to the point where he would be so anxious knowing that he was going to the OR. Even in the coma.

Ed:  And that was when she kind of knew that it was sinking in.

Karen:  I was in the room while the neurosurgeon was doing his exam. And I said you know he’s really responsive. He really is. You have to believe me. And he’s going through everything and Ed’s just laying there. I’m like Ed come on. You have to; you have to do this for me. These guys think I’m crazy. And the neurosurgeons like Ed, just stick up a finger. I don’t care which one it is. And with his one good hand, he was laying on the bed, he uncurled his middle finger and he curled it back up. And I was like he’s in there; he’s going to be okay. At that point there was no doubt in my mind.

Ed:  I had woken up from my coma and Karen was just talking to me. And I was sitting up as I could in a hospital bed with a broken back. But she said something to the effect of you know they might not allow you to stay in the Army. I basically broke down and started crying. That was a tough one for me.

Karen:  The hardest part for me was realizing and grieving for the life that we thought we were going to have. And that’s something that you have to do. You have to go okay, no; we’re not going to hike these mountains ever again. We’re not going to be able to do this. We’re not going to be able to do that. So you grieve that. It’s like; it’s almost like a death. You grieve the death of the life that you thought you were going to have. But once you do that, you’re able to fully embrace the life that you will have.

Ed:  I should have died from a corroded dissection, which is a very low survivability. I should have died from the strokes and the basilar skull fracture, which have a low probability of survivability.

Karen:  I let him sulk for a while when we hit therapy at first. He says I don’t want to do this. You know, I just want to go home. And I said that’s fine but if you go home you’re going to be bed ridden because you need to work for this. If you want it fixed, you have to do it. Nobody’s going to hand this to you.

Ed:  You are the master of kind of your own destiny. If you want something to happen, one of the few things that Karen told me that really stuck was this is what’s happened. If you want to get better, if you want to improve, you’ve got to do it. 

Karen:  And after that he just hit it head on.

Ed:  I think in the grand scheme of things my wife had a very good understanding of what my limits were. And she would always try to push. Not because she was trying to be mean in any way but because she as well as the therapist were trying to get me to a point where I could start doing this on my own. Or exceed expectations. Or surprise everybody who, basically the naysayers, the doomsayers, the world is going to end people. And we’ve had quite a few of those and I think Karen found more joy in the fact that she kind of said you know what, I knew better than you did. You know, for all your fancy degrees and your, your doctor title, you don’t know him. You don’t know what he’s capable of.

Karen:  After he got out of therapy we were with each other twenty-four seven. We started to go oh my gosh, this isn’t going to work. And you know, at that point we had already talked to people. We were like this is, you know this is not that hard. It’s easy to stick together if you love each other. And then we found ourselves falling apart.

Ed:  I think my wife and I have enough in common that we keep the interest and the spark there but we have just enough different that we can say you know what, hey your wrong. Or you know, hey here’s what I think.

Karen:  We’ve strengthened our marriage through marriage retreats and, and through, I don’t want to, it’s not really counseling, it’s coaching. It’s life coaching is what it is. And we’ve strengthened our marriage through that. We’ve been brought back together. 

Ed:  I think a lot of people when they have to deal with stuff like that they just say you know what I’m done. I can’t deal with this. Or you know what, you’re kind of a jerk. 
Karen:  He’s actually gotten to the point now where he’s actually more willing to apologize. For a long time he was so I didn’t do anything wrong. And that was all TBI related. And we’re slowly working through a lot of these TBI issues.

Ed:  She gets frustrated when I say I don’t understand. Or you know, I kind of get the inkling of what you’re saying but could you explain it a bit further. You know. And she’ll do the same thing to me. And it’s one of the easiest things to get frustrated at. 

Karen:  You know we’re happy. We’re in love. We communicate a whole lot better now. It’s almost, almost back to where it was pre-injury. With the brain injury things are still a little dicey. But communication is open it’s honest. 

Ed:  My wife and I are actually the first recipients of the TRICARE in vitro fertilization benefits for wounded soldiers. My children were born of that new law and we were actually kind of the poster children for it. The Doctor, we had been working with Doctor King, had said if anybody ever needed to use this benefit or have it passed it would be you guys. 

Karen:  And a week before I was scheduled to actually have my IVF we got the phone call that the procedure was covered by TRICARE. So Ryan and Alana are the first two children born under the new IVF TRICARE rules for wounded and ill soldiers. 

Ed:  You know, there’s a lot of things that go on especially with people that have been in the military. There’s you know, diseases, conditions, things that come out like everyday, every other day, every other month. And especially me having been blown up that I think kind of shortens your life span a little bit. 

Karen:  We’re in a very comfortable situation but we’re not at that point where we’re just going to relax because we know if we relax we’re going to end up being ripped apart again. So we actively work on our marriage constantly to help keep ourselves together. But he is an amazing dad. He is able to talk to them about his experience. You know. They joke all the time about daddy doesn’t have feet. You know. He’ll say something about like don’t step on my toes and they’ll say daddy you don’t have any feet. You know. So he’s an amazingly engaged parent when the TBI isn’t affecting it. So many great things have come out of this situation but we wouldn’t have our two kids if it wasn’t for this. You know. We’d have a different life. Would we even still be married? We’ve been through a lot together. We’ve bonded in ways that a lot of couples never, never even imagine going through. And we did it at a very early time in our marriage. We’d only been married for six years. 

Ed:  If I had to tell you anything and you’re just starting out in this TBI journey. Number one it’s going to be a little bit of a long road. Number two is don’t give up. Number three is everyday is a blessing. Look at is as such and if you want it back you’ve got to work for it.