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Fort Hood shooting sent warrior, fiancee on odyssey of despair, hope

DALLAS — When Jessica Hansen awoke that Thursday morning, she found a text message on her cell phone.

"Happy Nov. 5th. I love you."

It was from Staff Sgt. Patrick Zeigler of Fort Hood. He and Jessica, a senior at Boston University, had met 11 months earlier on Dec. 5, 2008, and they liked to celebrate each new month of their relationship. They kept in constant communication, so when Patrick followed up his text with a noontime call, it wasn't unusual — except for the way it ended:

"I love you, Jessica," he said.

"I love you, too," she replied.

"No, really, I love you," he insisted.

He sounded serious, unlike his usual wisecracking self. She wondered if he was having a hard day.

Hours later, after the news broke of a mass shooting at Fort Hood, after her frantic calls to Patrick's cell phone went unanswered, after the late-night call from Patrick's father telling her Patrick had suffered a gunshot wound to the head, Jessica replayed that last conversation over and over.

"I love you, Jessica. No, really, I love you."

Jessica needed to see Patrick right away, even if it was to say goodbye. When she boarded the flight from Boston through Atlanta to Killeen, she had no idea what lay ahead. She steeled herself with this prayer: Please stay alive until I get there. I just want to hold your hand one more time while it's warm.

In her take-on bag, she carried only pictures of Patrick, his letters and a black dress — for a funeral.

• • •

One out of every 12 people shot in the head survives. Two-thirds die on the way to the hospital. Recovery varies widely; many are severely disabled or linger in a persistent vegetative state.

Patrick's father told Jessica that Patrick was "currently alive," but in critical condition. He had been shot four times, with wounds in his arm, shoulder and hip. But the bullet that struck the right front side of his skull — that was the worst.

In fact, Patrick, now 29, was one of the most seriously wounded in the slaughter at Fort Hood where 12 soldiers and one civilian died and 32 others were wounded. The shooting took place at the Soldier Readiness Processing Center, where soldiers prepare to deploy for war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Police wounded the alleged shooter, Army Maj. Nidal Hasan.

They took Patrick 30 miles to Temple's Scott & White Memorial Hospital, the closest Level 1 trauma center in central Texas. But Patrick's father, a career Navy man whose name is the same as his son's, warned Jessica to expect the worst.

"He's gone," she recalled Patrick's dad telling her. "You need to get down here right away."

Tears held in check all night began to flow. "I just kept saying we were going to get married," said Jessica, now 22. "It was supposed to be fate."

What else could explain how a soldier from Fort Hood, about to deploy to Iraq, and a college student from Boston would meet and fall in love November 2008 in Hawaii?

• • •

When Patrick deployed to Iraq, Jessica vowed to be his girlfriend for the year he was away. Patrick's deployment in 2009 wasn't as intense as his first combat tour two years earlier. He kept in daily touch with Jessica by Skype and e-mail. He also was accepted into officer candidate school. But his entry was delayed until Nov. 23, 2009, the earliest a slot would open up at Fort Benning, Ga.

He arrived back at Fort Hood on Oct. 23. Jessica visited for a week. They made plans to live together the following spring, after her graduation from college and his completion of officer candidate school.

After Jessica left, Patrick concentrated on the paperwork to transfer to Fort Benning. That's why he was at the soldier processing center the afternoon of Nov. 5.

About 1 p.m., just after a meal of pork and rice from his favorite takeout spot, the C&H Hawaiian Grill, Patrick signed in at the medical section — the 13th and last station — to make sure all his blood tests and immunizations were up to date. About 40 soldiers were ahead of him, sitting in four rows of chairs. He took a seat near the back. Bored, he looked around the room. He saw a man in a soldier's uniform stand up. The man yelled, "Allahu Akbar!"

Patrick froze. He recognized the Arabic for "God is great." He thought that this might be a training drill. Even as the soldier lifted a handgun, Patrick felt strangely disengaged, an observer watching the scene. He saw a laser sight, a moving beam of red light that crossed his vision. Then, he felt something hit the side of his head, like a metal baseball bat.

It was the next morning when Patrick regained consciousness. He was in a bed at Scott & White Hospital, surrounded by family members and Jessica.

The slug entered the right side of his skull and left fragments of bone and bullet embedded in his brain. Surgeons operated immediately and removed a fist-sized portion of the damaged brain matter.

Patrick's recovery astonished his family and friends. Despite the brain damage, his memory and intellect seemed unimpaired. He was talking and in good spirits. Although he had lost use of his left arm and leg, he was determined to walk again. The medical staff was more cautious. "After each bit of progress," Jessica recalled, they'd say, "Don't get excited. That might be how he is forever."

Six weeks after the shooting, Patrick was admitted to the Texas NeuroRehab Center in Austin. He wondered if Jessica would follow him.

Jessica's parents wondered the same thing. They didn't like the idea of her dropping out of school. Jessica's mother, Lori Hansen, thought her daughter couldn't possibly be so in love "that she would need to drop everything in her life to be with him." After talking to Jessica, "we realized she was where she needed to be, and she needed to be there to take care of him," Lori Hansen said.

On Dec. 18, Patrick took Jessica out on their first date since the shooting six weeks earlier. A volunteer drove them to the Oasis, a restaurant with a beautiful view of Lake Travis. Patrick wore his best suit; Jessica helped to dress him, somehow without noticing the small box he had hidden in his coat pocket. He wore a helmet to protect his skull and leaned on a walker for balance. He hadn't anticipated the cobblestone path that led up to the restaurant.

"Oh, God, what do I do? This is not what I practiced for," he said to Jessica. But she had a firm grasp on the gait belt tied around his waist, and he made it to their table. When the waiter brought a dessert of chocolate cake and coffee, Patrick took the small case from his jacket. It contained a diamond ring.

"Thank you for staying and taking care of me," Patrick told her. "And will you take care of me the rest of my life?" Jessica doesn't remember her exact words, but her answer was never in doubt. He had her at "thank you."

• • •

In mid January, Patrick returned to Scott & White for what was described as routine surgery: A custom-fitted plate would be placed over the opening in his head. But after the procedure, Patrick fell into a coma, and doctors removed the plate. "We weren't sure if he had come down with an infection or if he had a reaction" to the plate, Jessica said.

Patrick drifted in and out of consciousness for the next six weeks. By March, he was back at the Austin rehabilitation center — still without a plate. "He had to wear a helmet all the time. He had to relearn how to walk again," Jessica said. "We were back to square one."

By coincidence, Jessica's father had just sold a house to a doctor from Temple who was moving to Jessica's hometown of Rochester, Minn. The doctor, a neurologist, planned to study neurosurgery at the renowned Mayo Clinic. He talked to Jessica and suggested that Patrick transfer to the Mayo Clinic, which had a well-regarded rehabilitation program for head injury patients. The Army agreed to the transfer, and Patrick was admitted the first week of June.

At the Mayo Clinic, doctors adjusted Patrick's shunt to permit a higher level of fluid to drain. The change was dramatic. "Within 24 to 48 hours, Patrick was cognitively back to where he was," Jessica said.

But he had lost one-third of his body weight. Before the shooting, Patrick was a sturdy 6-foot-1 and weighed 210 pounds. "He was pure muscle when he came back from Iraq," Jessica said. Now, he was a shade of his former self. "Bony with a beard," she said.

Once again, he had to relearn the basics: Sitting up in bed. Walking to the bathroom. Willing the dormant muscles in his legs, arms and shoulders to move, even if only a fraction of an inch.

"For me, it wasn't really a choice," Patrick said. "I wasn't going to be in a hospital or in that situation for the rest of my life."

• • •

On Oct. 14, Patrick came face-to-face again with the man accused of shooting him. He walked slowly into a military courtroom at Fort Hood, the rhythmic click of his metal cane accompanying him, willing himself forward step-by-step.

After relating his experience during the shooting, Patrick rose to leave the stand. He paused and looked straight at Hasan, the man accused in the Fort Hood massacre, who sat motionless in a wheelchair. Then Patrick and Jessica walked from the courtroom. Two days later, he received a hero's welcome during a football game at his alma mater, Florida State.

He's now back at Fort Hood, living on base with Jessica. He goes every morning to the Warrior Transition Brigade for his daily rehabilitation. He has started riding a modified bicycle. His goal is to do the Ride 2 Recovery race from San Antonio to Arlington in April.

They are looking forward to next summer and their wedding — a slender hope just five months ago. At one of Jessica's lowest points, when Patrick was in a coma and fighting for his life, she recalled thinking not how weak he seemed, but how strong. She watched him and took heart from his courage.

"He's 140 pounds, he can't talk, I'm changing his diapers, and I'm thinking, 'That's the strongest person I've ever seen,' "she said. "He won't give up. He kept me strong."

Fort Hood shooting sent warrior, fiancee on odyssey of despair, hope 11/06/10 [Last modified: Friday, November 5, 2010 7:12pm]
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