TAMPA — As he faded in and out of consciousness, Marine Lt. Col. Ty Edwards remembers thinking he was about to die on the side of a mountain in Afghanistan.
Edwards, 39, had just been shot in the head during an ambush. He survived with the help of comrades, but his injuries were devastating: He was unable to speak and paralyzed over much of his body.
Now, a year after arriving at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center, Edwards is talking again. He can operate a wheelchair and move his left arm and leg.
Through it all, his wife, Anna, has been his caretaker, along with the U.S. Marine Corps Wounded Warrior Regiment, created in 2007 to help combat-wounded Marines through their recovery. The active-duty regiment anticipates his needs before he realizes them, he says.
Members give his wife time off to deal with her own needs. They connected him to a nonprofit that gave them a wheel-chair-accessible van. They helped him buy a house.
Edwards, who grew up in the small Panhandle community of Blountstown, knew by the time he was 13 that he wanted a career in the military. He was attracted by its esprit de corps.
"I'd do it all over again," he says. "Even knowing the outcome."
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All of America's military branches saw growing numbers of wounded returning from the Iraq war and Afghanistan. And each responded.
The Navy established its Safe Harbor program in 2005. The Army started its Wounded Warrior Program in 2004.
While Marines helping Marines isn't new, the Wounded Warrior Regiment, founded in 2007, devoted a military staff specifically to aiding the injured with nonmedical needs.
"In the past, some of these guys fell between the cracks," said Maj. Kevin Farrell, officer in charge of the Wounded Warrior detachment at Haley. "Now we're keeping tabs on them."
On a typical day at Haley, four mobilized Marine reservists assist about a dozen recuperating veterans.
They dress them. They get their medals and ribbons in order. They do administrative duties, such as pay and evaluations, which can only be done by the military. They arrange for transportation and link families to nonprofits.
The Maryland regiment bought the Edwards family warm clothes for winter, gave their visitors drinks and took their children — 6-year-old Alaina and 8-year-old Mason — trick or treating.
Farrell met the Edwardses at the airport last year in Tampa. He helped them move, buy a home and find contractors to make it handicap accessible.
"They handled everything," Anna Edwards said.
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After he was shot, medics ferried Edwards to Germany, where Anna met him. After "a week that was one day long," she said, they landed at Bethesda Naval Hospital.
While there, President George W. Bush pinned a purple heart to his hospital gown. Edwards mustered a smile. A doctor told them he would be lucky if he could feed himself and brush his own teeth.
Edwards could not talk or move and still had a tracheotomy.
He takes recuperating seriously.
He hopes to walk one day.
"He's a stickler for making it to therapy," said his wife.
He does speech and physical therapy, including pool work to strengthen his legs. They want to stay near the VA services and plan to make Tampa their home.
On Saturday, Edwards took his wife to the Marine Ball in downtown Tampa. A line of Marines formed to welcome him.
For now, his goals are simple. He wants to pick his kids up from school, help with homework, watch TV together and play ball.
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On Monday, he talked to first-graders in his daughter's class at Lawton Chiles Elementary School. Alaina introduced him as her hero.
Edwards told them about his last mission: to train, mentor and advise the men in the Afghan national army.
He passed a picture of an Afghan outdoor school. Most of the people there were illiterate, he said.
The children wanted to know if he saw the bad guys who shot him and where he was hit.
He pointed to the top of his forehead, where the bullet went in.
Before the attack, he said, he was tailing a convoy on route to patrolling a voting registration site in a small Afghanistan town not far from the Pakistan border.
The attackers hid in a ridge.
When he heard gunfire, he jumped out of his Humvee to help the Afghan soldiers riding in the back of pickup trucks ahead of him, he said. That's when the bullet went through his helmet and lodged in the back of his head.
He credits his local interpreter for saving his life.
"I remember Hakimi coming to drag me off," he said. "I'm lucky to be alive."
He told the children service is important in any form.
One by one, they saluted him.
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3431.