NEW PORT RICHEY — Lauren Price's second chance at life started in a Navy recruiting office.
It was September 2004. She was 39. Behind her lay three bad marriages. She was looking to put some order back into a life that had been too chaotic for too long. Order and a little honor, too. As far back as the American Revolution, every generation of Price's family had served in the military.
Except one. Hers.
While she was raising three sons (all of whom would later enlist), her siblings were dealing with drug addiction, mental problems and unemployment. Her drill sergeant father deserved better.
"Serving my country was something that I knew I needed to do, both for my father's respect as well as my own self-respect," Price says.
So as soon as her youngest son graduated from high school in the spring of 2004, she packed up and left New England. She turned her back on the abusive husbands, a train of dead-end bartending and receptionist jobs, and the glass installation business that had actually made some money until she caught her husband having an affair and kicked him out. He took the company's equipment with him.
She was sworn in to the Naval Reserve 10 days before her 40th birthday. She picked the Navy because the Marine Corps said she was too old, she refused to join the Army, and the Air Force recruiter was literally out to lunch.
A little more than two years later Price was driving a Humvee at the head of a convoy through the streets of Baghdad. This was not the clerical job helping to rebuild the Iraqi legal system that she had been assigned, but she wasn't complaining. She liked being useful.
This moment was the fulfillment of her adult life and also, in some ways, the beginning of the end.
In September 2007 she came down with a cough that everyone called the "Iraqi crud." She'd always been a smoker, but this was new. She couldn't shake it and she suspected it had something to do with the acrid smoke that wafted constantly from the smoldering garbage in Forward Operating Base Victory's massive burn pit.
"Some days if the wind was right you wouldn't notice it," Price says. "Other days you'd be choking on it."
Meanwhile, she was racking up the missions, as the military calls them, transporting people and goods across the capital and the country. But as her hours in the driver's seat began to climb she began to notice that her slight, 5-foot-6 body was breaking down. Her hands were in constant pain, brought on, she thought, by the strain of white-knuckle driving down roads laced with hidden bombs.
Her convoy was never hit during her tour, but three days before she was due to come back to the States she got caught in a barrage of mortars. For 45 minutes, she and another reservist counted the 17 mortars that rained dirt and gravel on them as they huddled in the bottom of a small bunker.
Once she got back to the States it was clear her medical issues weren't going away. One doctor determined that the bones in her wrists had been crushed from all the driving. Another diagnosed her cough as constrictive bronchiolitis and said she'd need a lung transplant within two years.
When she sleeps she has to lie at a 45-degree angle to help her breathing. Her husband says she breathes so shallowly that he sometimes puts his hand on her chest to make sure she hasn't stopped.
Her head is a mess, too.
She was never particularly good with people who struck her as stupid or incompetent, but now she's prone to unexpected fits of anger. Grocery shopping gets on her last nerve. Thunderstorms make her clutch her head in panic. Driving alone can trigger flashbacks of Iraq and leave her so shaken she has to pull over.
The saving grace has been her marriage to the man who endured that mortar barrage with her in Iraq. She met Jim Price just before she deployed. They moved in together in 2010 when he retired from the Navy after 20 years and married in November.
He has helped her deal with her battle for compensation from the Navy. (She retired for medical reasons in the summer of 2010.) He was there to help her brush her teeth when she recovered from tendon surgery on her wrists. He has helped her deal with her unemployed son's shaky family life. He helped her get through a hospital stay this spring when her lungs hurt so badly she thought she was having a heart attack.
And he has helped her try to find a little joy in whatever time she has left.
This summer Lauren and Jim went on a six-week "bucket list" trip up the East Coast to see Jim's son graduate from high school. They visited with friends and family, saw Niagara Falls and spent a few weeks in New Orleans.
Lauren is a certified genealogist, so she wanted to spend time haunting the graveyards in search of family. She doesn't know if she'll be capable of this kind of travel a year from now.
"A big thing for me right now is getting the missing pieces filled," she said in New Orleans.