Perry Young met Samantha in eighth grade. They were different than the other kids, both dreaming of a big world, far from their hometown of Adairsville, Ga. One day in the high school lunchroom, they came up with an escape, a trip to Jamaica. It would be exotic. They would bask on beaches and swim in a cove with a beautiful waterfall. By the end of lunch, they made a pact: After graduation they would go together. • But they had no money. And nothing scared them more than following generations of their families into the town's carpet factories. So Perry enlisted in the Army. • After basic training, they realized there was something more between them than friendship. At 18, they said their vows in a candlelit chapel and soon were eating "beef and leaf" from street vendors in Korea. He had signed up for an infantry tour, wanting to do exactly what he saw on television commercials, and both of them accepted the risks. • One tour in Afghanistan led to another. Then in July, while returning from a mission, Perry remembers telling his platoon leader they were in a treacherous place. That was just before a bomb went off. • Later he would remember that right before it happened, the man, sitting on a donkey, was awkwardly perched on top of something covered by a blanket. • Perry saw his eyes. He looked angry.
• • •
When he tells the story of the "incident," another version plays out in Samantha's mind. Two movie reels side by side, she says.
Every time he left on a mission, Perry would send Samantha a text and another when he returned.
On July 23, 2013, he sent such a message. It was morning in Afghanistan and he was heading out. He would text when he got back.
"Please do," she responded. "I love you Baby! Be SAFE Bunkin."
It was 11:10 p.m. when Samantha sent another text from Georgia, where she was living with their baby, KinLee. Samantha was sick, her head hurt and she was cuddling in Perry's jacket, wishing he was there to hold her.
"Please let me know you're back and safe bc I'm worried as usual. I love you with all my heart Mr. Young."
He had not responded by morning.
She sent a text just before 8 a.m. "Baby ..." it said.
Just before 10 a.m. she sent another. "Babe. I'm scared ..."
• • •
The mission had gone off without a hitch. Perry and his troop were returning to the base through a village in Wardak Province. He had been there before carrying a squad automatic weapon. Now he was the radioman. He knew the enemy would be looking for him and the platoon leader. Take out the radio and a troop can't call for help. It was about 8:30 a.m. when he saw the man on the donkey and heard the click of the bomb detonating. Three American and four Afghan soldiers and an interpreter were killed.
Perry was blasted into the air and broke his neck as he landed. Shrapnel seared into his neck, near his spinal cord. He was paralyzed.
• • •
A month later, they arrived in Tampa. Perry, now a quadriplegic with a purple heart, was released last week from the spinal cord injury center at James A. Haley VA Medical Center. They moved into an apartment in Tampa Palms near Haley so he can continue therapy for a couple of years. He can move his right arm and operate a stylus. He can raise both legs a little.It has been a whirl of chaos for them both. Samantha longs for peace. Perry is still on active duty, working on his discharge, and as a specialist, money is tight. A nonprofit group, Operation Helping Hand, paid to move them from Georgia.
A couple of weeks ago, KinLee turned 1. On Wednesday, the couple celebrated their third anniversary. They both are just 21.
Last week, the Internet wasn't yet set up so Perry sat in their apartment unable to operate the TV and with nothing to do.
"I feel trapped in my chair and trapped in my body," he said.
What now? he wondered.
Samantha has an idea. Many people work their whole lives so that they can relax, enjoy life and travel.
Perry doesn't have the money for it yet, but he hopes to visit the big cities in the United States, where he can get around in his wheelchair. And one day, after he gains more mobility, they plan to go to Jamaica.
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3431.