As a woman struggles after a coma, her family says the armed forces have not been forthright. Officials say it's a misunderstanding.
On July 15, Lance Cpl. Nancy Fucile was riding with a friend back to her Marine Corps base in North Carolina when a deer darted onto the road. At least that's what her mother, Tanya Russo, was told by the driver, another Marine, one who was fit enough to report for work not long after the resulting crash.
Fucile, however, is still at her Indian Shores home recovering from extensive brain damage and reconstructive surgery to her face. The driver had swerved to miss the deer but lost control, causing the car to roll over three times, Mrs. Russo says.
Once able to ride her bike 40 miles a day, Fucile can't walk or use the restroom without assistance now. Her speech is slow and careful.
Still, she has come a long way from those early days in July when doctors believed she would die. A paramedic even called Mrs. Russo just after the accident, wanting to make sure that Fucile knew Jesus Christ as her lord and savior _ before she entered the hereafter.
But this story is not about the tragedy of Fucile's accident, or her against-all-odds recovery.
This is about what happened after Mrs. Russo and her husband, Michael Russo, arrived at the civilian hospital near Jacksonville, N.C. _ a dispute that has entangled a U.S. congressman and officials at the Pentagon in Washington.
The call had come at 7:30 a.m.
After waiting hours at Tampa International Airport for a delayed flight, the Russos made it to North Carolina at 10:20 that night.
Mrs. Russo arrived to find her fears were confirmed. According to doctors, "There was little hope that Nancy would make it through the day," Mrs. Russo said.
As she and her husband, Fucile's stepfather, struggled to find out more information, they say they were approached by military men, wanting them to sign papers that would retire Fucile from the Marine Corps. If the papers weren't signed before Fucile died, Mrs. Russo says she was told, the family would not be able to cash in on her retirement benefits _ a solid $478 a month.
Mrs. Russo didn't sign.
"No. 1," she said, "we didn't feel she was going to die."
No. 2, she said, she didn't feel she had the right to retire her grown daughter without her permission.
For days, the family sang Amazing Grace, danced for and read stories to their comatose daughter, hoping to bring her back to consciousness.
Fucile came out of the coma after about two weeks. The Russos, strapped for cash after spending $1,800 on hotel rooms, decided it was time to transport her closer to home.
But that wouldn't be easy. Because Fucile was still active in the military, the choice of hospital was the military's, not the family's, Mrs. Russo said she was told. Fucile would be sent to a naval hospital in Washington, D.C. If the family elected to take her elsewhere, the Russos said they were warned, Fucile would be deemed "absent without leave."
The family says they were given one other option _ the one they had tried to avoid:
If they signed retirement papers, Fucile could be transported to Florida at government expense and her medical bills thereafter would be covered fully.
Mrs. Russo said she signed the papers, only to be told later that the government would not pay for the transport.
That's when Mrs. Russo decided to go the political route. She called congressmen's offices, including that of Sen. Jesse Helms, which directed her to call her own Florida congressman, U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young.
Young agreed to try to help.
"I have contacts at the Pentagon," he said in an interview. He has since been involved in the Fucile case and visited her three times.
Not long after Young got the call, Fucile was on a plane specially equipped for patients and flown to MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa.
But Mrs. Russo said by then her faith in the U.S. armed forces had been shaken.
"I didn't feel safe in America anymore," Mrs. Russo said. "If they couldn't get one 19-year-old from North Carolina to Tampa, Fla., without calling in all these services, I didn't feel real safe that they could protect us from terrorists."
Fucile came home about a week ago, after short stints in a local rehabilitation center and area hospital. Her parents care for her throughout the day, neglecting the lingerie business they own. Therapists come to the house for sessions that help Fucile regain strength and flexibility.
Problems persist, the family says. Fucile's health care coverage changed after the retirement went into effect. The private insurance company that handles military health care won't pay 100 percent of medical costs, as it would if she were on active duty. The company pays only 80 percent of approved expenses incurred after the retirement became effective.
Mrs. Russo says she thought the coverage would change only for future illnesses. And the insurance does not cover certain needs, such as a special wheelchair for their daughter. Because the accident occurred while Fucile was a Marine, Mrs. Russo believes the government should pay for expenses related to that accident in full.
Now, Fucile is responsible for the costs. And the Russos say they don't know what the bottom line is because they have not yet received a bill.
The U.S. armed forces have rules, Ensign Kelly Bricko explains. For grieving relatives untrained in the ways of the uniform, those rules might not seem compassionate, she says from an office in North Carolina.
Bricko is a public affairs officer for the naval hospital at Camp Lejeune, where Fucile was stationed.
"I just think it's difficult for anybody that's not in the military to understand," she said.
In Fucile's case, much of what has happened has been a misunderstanding, say Bricko and Catherine Hill, utilization nurse manager for the naval hospital at Camp Lejeune.
As for the military's persistence about the retirement papers, Bricko said, it is the government's policy to make such an offer if a member of the military is expected to die within 72 hours so the family won't lose out on retirement benefits, Bricko and Hill said.
Did the military say Fucile would be AWOL if the Russos brought her to Florida while still on active duty?
Bricko says she doesn't believe the family was told such a thing. The military no longer even uses the term "AWOL," Bricko said. The modern term is "unauthorized absence."
"I think it was misunderstood facts," she said.
The Navy would have been happy to pay for the plane flight home, but only if the family allowed a military plane to make the trip, Hill said. Eventually, she pointed out, that's just what happened.
At some point, doctors in North Carolina declared Fucile "not fit for duty" because of her injuries, Hill said.
Retirement was almost imminent thereafter, even if her parents had not signed the paperwork before Fucile was transported to Tampa for medical care, she said.
"The active duty people that we have sent to civilian hospitals near their homes are going to be retired," Hill said.
Navy officials and family members said they don't know how long it will take for Fucile to recover. "You can't just go somewhere and stay on active duty," Bricko said.
Hill also says the family was fully informed of the changes in medical coverage. They chose a standard care package, rather than a prime care package that would have paid for more of the expenses, Hill said.
The family also could have taken Fucile to Bay Pines Medical Center in Seminole, the officials said, where treatment would have been free.
As for Fucile, who celebrated her 20th birthday last week, she is aware of her surroundings and able to talk. But she won't bad-mouth the Marine Corps, even now. She hopes to recover and re-enlist someday.
"As the saying goes," Fucile said, "once a Marine, always a Marine."