By Kevin Ferris
Kevin Hardin was home in Eddystone, Pa., for the July Fourth weekend. He was visiting with his parents, Terry and Charles, and two of his three brothers, Kyle and Keith.
The 23-year-old didn’t grow up in the Delaware County rowhome. He’s from Jupiter, Fla. The trip north has been a circuitous one, taking him from Fort Benning, Ga., to Samarra, Iraq, to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.
Kevin has been at Walter Reed since Oct. 2, 2007. He arrived unconscious, about 48 hours after his Humvee was hit by a rocket in Samarra. The combat medic’s torso and legs were badly burned. Parts of his hands were missing or barely attached. Almost a dozen small pieces of shrapnel were lodged in his brain — they can’t be removed without endangering his life.
As is so often the case with wounded soldiers, it was his buddies who saved his life. They stopped the bleeding — Kevin had trained them well. And sped the still-drivable Humvee to an aid station.
Months later, his friends would send him pictures of the damaged vehicle. Kevin wasn’t sure his mom should see them, but she did. “It looked like a mass murder had taken place,” she said in an interview. “His blood was all over.”
Within an hour of his arrival at Walter Reed, his parents were by his side. They’ve stayed as close as possible ever since.
His dad, a Vietnam vet, quit his job as a security guard and moved to Washington for a few months to be Kevin’s caregiver. That was about 30 operations ago. His mom, a legal secretary, went back and forth almost weekly, sometimes with the help of the military, other times thanks to pro-vet nonprofits such as Veterans Airlift Command or Luke’s Wings.
During all this, Kevin’s grandfather, Harold Stewart, was fighting bone cancer. When he died last fall, leaving the Eddystone house empty, the Hardins decided it was time to stop commuting from Florida to be near Kevin. They moved in April.
“I have such a feeling of peace in this home,” Terry Hardin says of the house where she grew up. “I’m just so thankful we have a roof over our heads and our son is alive.”
They travel to Washington once a week, or, like the July 4 weekend, Kevin comes home on convalescent leave. In between, the priority is finding jobs. To support the family. To pay for the trips to D.C., and supplement Kevin’s Army pay. To repair and remodel the house, which Stewart couldn’t keep up with during his illness. To pay for the hotel Kevin and his full-time caregiver use when he visits — the two-bedroom house is already overcrowded.
Kevin’s dad would welcome something in security again, but has also applied for counter jobs at Wawa. So far, no luck. His mom has found a part-time position at a title agency. She has been interviewing at law firms, from Wilmington to Philadelphia to the suburbs. But it’s a tough time to look for work. Their 18-year-old son Kyle just started at Shop Rite, and has promised to turn over his paycheck to his parents.
Kevin’s full-time job is treatment and therapy. He and his caregiver live at Mologne House, a four-story hotel on the grounds of Walter Reed. He’s still in the Army, which he had hoped to make a career. But the brain injury — the rocket missed his head by inches when it tore through the Humvee — makes staying impossible. He’ll be medically discharged once his level of disability is determined.
He is relentlessly upbeat in interviews. As he told the Palm Beach Post during his first trip to Florida after being injured, “What is there to regret? Doing a service to your country — I love to help people — there’s nothing to regret about it.”
But he’s a different young man from the one who first joined the service. Kevin’s dad, recalling his own time in a war zone, had warned his wife, “He’ll never be the same after what he’s going to see.”
His mom does see changes. Kevin is more reserved, more cautious. He’s forgetful, needing reminders to take his medicines. Nightmares prevent him from sleeping for more than two hours straight. During a trip to Ohio, he had to leave a campfire when the crackling noises of the fire triggered a flashback.
X Kevin Ferris is assistant editor of the editorial page of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.