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With mother at his side, a wounded veteran fights to stay positive

RIVERVIEW

When asked what gets him out of bed every morning, J.T. Doody's response is simple: Jesus, football and women. • His morning ritual involves an hourlong process in which the 30-year-old Iraq War veteran depends on his mom or a nursing assistant to do everything. Brush his teeth. Scrub his body. Wash his hair. • Doody spends his life in constraints, paralyzed because he contracted a hospital-borne infection while under treatment for injuries suffered in Iraq. • His days consist of a series of movements between his hospital bed, a 375-pound motorized wheelchair, and a sling that transfers him from his bed to his shower. • But Chris Ott refuses to let her son's limitations define his life. They eat at restaurants, check out bikini-clad girls at beach bars, host football parties every Sunday, even go to strip clubs. • "We try to make his life as normal as possible," Ott said. "Especially important is the socialization. You can't meet anyone if you're sitting in front of your TV." • While Doody possesses the technology and support to get out of bed, his will to want to move, to live, distinguishes him. It's one of the reasons the SouthShore Chamber of Commerce will honor him at its annual Ruskin Seafood Festival this weekend. • Nursing assistant Sheri Womble said that many wounded veterans simply stay in bed, glued to their televisions, no interest in an outside world they can't participate in. • "He's the only person I've met in his condition that really leads a normal life, and it's because of her," Womble said of Ott. "He does normal, typical 30-year-old guy stuff. It's a normal life, he just happens to be in a wheelchair."

After five years of surgeries and prayers, J.T. Doody must find a way to go forward. He must convince himself that each day is worth getting up for.

"Life's not a race," he said with a hint of bitterness. "You're going to end up there anyway. Might as well enjoy it."

• • •

In 2007, Doody spent three months in Iraq. He wrote letters to his mother, went on combat missions in Fallujah and turned 24 years old. On his birthday, he proudly told his mom by phone that he had been awarded a combat action ribbon. Don't worry, he said, the insurgents always shoot over my head.

On March 9, just two days later, bullets struck his leg. First his right thigh, then his calf, then his shin. The final bullet traveled up his leg, tearing through the flesh and nerves. It left a hole big enough to swallow a man's fist.

The lance corporal was flown to San Diego for treatment. Over time, his body and mind began to heal from his brush with death. With braces, Doody learned to walk again. His limp was barely noticeable, and his mind crafted ways to deal with what he saw.

Sometimes the post-traumatic stress disorder would kick in. But he'd brush it off, either through friends or alcohol or a trip to Las Vegas. He spent his disability money on a diamond necklace for his mom and new gadgets for his car.

His mother went through a tidal wave of emotions, fretting over the health of her only child. But he was healing. She allowed herself to hope, to envision his future now that he was safe at home.

And then in January an unknown infection growing along the lining of his heart broke free. Less than a year after the battle in Fallujah, a mass of bacteria acquired during his hospitalization struck more severely than the bullets from the sniper had.

The Marine went from injured in Iraq to safe at home to decimated in a hospital.

Doctors later identified the infection as endocarditis, a mass of bacteria that traveled to his brain, triggering a series of strokes and causing him to slip into a coma.

"It just looked like somebody salt-and-peppered his brain," said Ott, recalling the X-rays.

• • •

For months, he lay unresponsive. Doctors encouraged Ott to check him into a nursing home and forget about him. He'd never recover, they said.

She knew better. She knew that her son still listened as family members would crack jokes or tell stories.

His recovery started simply: a partial smile after his grandmother inadvertently passed gas while visiting him. Muttering "No" when his mom asked if he'd like to watch South Park again.

Little by little, he progressed.

Five years later, he has regained movement in his head, shoulders and arms. He can make a fist and raise his arm. He can move the straw to his water bottle and initiate conversation.

But he remains dependent on others for everything. Eating. Bathing. Getting out of bed.

Privacy doesn't exist.

• • •

Each morning, he lies patiently as a nurse turns his body one way, then another, undressing him and preparing him for a shower. Sometimes he sings along softly to the Pandora music in the background. It's almost always set to Chris Tomlin, a contemporary Christian singer.

"How you doing today?" Dorothy Mangum, his nurse for the day, asks as she prepares to shave him.

"Bored," he replies.

Boredom is a persistent problem for Doody, maybe his biggest. Fortunately, because of the traumatic brain injury and short-term memory loss, he doesn't struggle as much with PTSD. But the lack of physical exertion, the inability to control what he does or when he does it, can be stifling. Being trapped within one's head is lonely, frustrating and dull.

Ott does her best to combat that boredom with daily trips and activities. But her son can't dictate his schedule, feed himself, leave a room when he's annoyed or tired. The frustration is real. And unavoidable.

Sometimes it builds until it reaches the breaking point. Ott calls those his "rage episodes." He'll curse and yell and bite — the one physical reaction left to him to act out or inflict pain.

Sometimes he bites others, sometimes himself. He needs to feel. To see a cause and effect. To know that, despite the rest of his broken body, he can still control something.

When he swears at the nurses — calling them devil women and snapping at their hands as they reach to help — Womble reminds herself that he doesn't mean it. There's no point chiding him, she said — because of the brain injury and memory loss, he'll soon forget he lashed out.

"Imagine constantly being rolled around in bed this way and that," Womble said. "He's frustrated, and I don't blame him."

• • •

Sundays are the easiest days to wake up. Sundays are for praising God at South Shore United Methodist and watching football.

At one recent party at the house, people flitted about, cracking open cold Bud Lights and devouring the chicken that had marinated overnight. Doody trained his eyes on the tie game between the Chicago Bears and the Washington Redskins. The doorbell rang and the dogs barked, signaling a new arrival.

"Hey, Gary," Doody called from the chair back to the door, eyes never leaving the screen. He couldn't see family friend Gary Kluckhuhn, but he recognized his voice.

Kluckhuhn met the family in 2008 when he was developing Angel Hands, a device that helps to lift paralyzed people out of bed.

"Think about all the other guys who came back and didn't have moms like Chris, who didn't have anyone to look after them," Kluckhuhn said. "She's done everything she can for him. She's amazing."

"She is," Doody agreed.

Outside on the porch, Ott and Womble play a game. Ott promised the nurse, who was off duty on this day, that if she can throw an empty beer can from her seat on the couch and land it in the narrow, cylindrical can crusher above the recycling bin, she'll give her a hundred bucks.

The accuracy of the shots varies throughout the day. It's hard to tell if Womble's aim gets better or worse as they drink. As Ott finishes another beer, she hands the empty can to Womble.

Eyes trained on the can crusher across the porch, she aims, cocks her elbow and releases. A clang sounds when she hits the ceiling fan, and a ping echoes as the can lands first sideways on the crusher and then rights itself to slide in perfectly.

The porch erupts in cheers.

"I can't believe you did it!" Ott yells, throwing her arms around Womble. For a moment, the spontaneous joy produces a snapshot of a normal American family.

Inside the house, Doody cocks his head toward the noise. A few years ago, his reaction likely would've been instant: Stand up, take two steps, open the sliding door and join the crowd. Instead, his eyes stayed trained on the TV, his body confined to the chair.

• • •

Still, he remains positive. Asked if he would enlist again, knowing the decision would land him in this chair, he answers unequivocally: yes. He's happy to have served his country, he says. Every day is a blessing.

"This isn't the end," he says. "It's not even the beginning."

But sometimes his strength crumbles. Faith and sports and desire aren't enough. There are mornings his eyes open and the dread of yet another groundhog day closes in around him.

"It's depressing, absolutely. But everyone is depressed sometimes," he says.

He lives for church on Sunday mornings and donning his Denver Broncos Peyton Manning jersey on Sunday afternoons.

He lives for the trumpet of the Marine Corps hymn and the curves of a woman's body in a swimsuit.

He witnesses it all from his chair, but he witnesses it all just the same.

Caitlin Johnston can be reached at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (813) 661-2443.

. if you go

25th Annual Ruskin Seafood Festival

Marine Corps veteran J.T. Doody will be honored between 10:30 and 11 a.m. Saturday during the opening ceremonies of the Ruskin Seafood Festival. The festival takes place from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday at E.G. Simmons Park, 2401 19th Ave. NW. Other than seafood, the event will feature arts and crafts, a kids' area, a boat show and music. Admission is $5 for adults, free for kids 12 and under and active military members, plus a $2 entry fee per car to park at E.G. Simmons Park. Pets on leashes are okay.

With mother at his side, a wounded veteran fights to stay positive 10/25/13 [Last modified: Sunday, October 27, 2013 1:48pm]

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