Winning the Battle
A soldier returns unscathed from Iraq, only to watch his son suffer the “signature wound” of the war
At first, 14-year-old Austin Story resisted the family’s plans to go hiking at beautiful Stokes State Forest on the morning of Tuesday, Aug. 31. “He didn’t want to go hanging out with adults because adults are too slow,” recalls Army Lt. Colonel Shane Story, 48. “But we insisted because it was going to be our last part of a weekend vacation with friends in New Jersey. … We wanted him off the TV and the Xbox and outside, enjoying the forest and the hills.”
Despite his initial stubbornness, as soon as the Storys and their friends pulled into the small gravel lot at the park, Austin jumped out of the car, sprinted to the base of Buttermilk Falls, and began eagerly climbing the stair stepped rocks alongside the water. Concerned about his son’s safety but not wanting to dampen the boy’s enthusiasm too much, Story kept calling to Austin to stop so they could take pictures. “Slow down!” he continued to urge as Austin scampered up the side of the waterfall, slippery leaves beneath his feet.
Austin made it to the top and started splashing through the low water to get to the other side. Distracted and scoping out directions for the trail they were about to hike together, neither Story nor his wife Lisa were watching when Austin slipped. Lisa looked up to see him free-falling, with nothing to grasp as he tumbled 75 feet, and she screamed.
A 25-year military veteran, former helicopter pilot, and strategic planner for the Army Reserve, Story is now stationed in Alexandria, Va., and works in a building two blocks from the Pentagon. During his two tours of duty in Iraq in 2003 and 2008, he had witnessed firsthand the effects of traumatic brain injury (TBI), which, according to Army field studies, has affected more than 10 percent of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I had the experience of being on the receiving end of indirect fire and was used to explosions happening in the vicinity and having friends or acquaintances, people I knew, killed by that,” he says.
One comrade suffered a concussion in a vehicle accident; another was standing too lose to a bomb that detonated in Baghdad. Often angry and frustrated, the men still struggle to regain their memory and language skills and “make sense of the world,” Story says. “All of that just made me aware of the risks of mental challenges or injuries, and the rehabilitation and recovery process associated with trauma.”
As for his own fears of getting hurt, he says, “As a young man, I felt immortal, that I could survive anything. I took too many risks in hindsight, as a young man and a young officer. When I went off to war, even for the second time, I still believed that nothing bad was going to happen to me. I was nonetheless aware that it could and I accepted that risk.”
Parenting was a different story. When his two daughters started driving and staying out late, he worried he’d get one of those calls a father never wants to get. And when Austin, a strong athlete, took up football, lacrosse and weight lifting, Story cautioned the boy not to take too many chances. Stubborn and sometimes reckless, Austin didn’t always listen.