A Hero’s Healing: Ohioan, Afghanistan Hero’s Road To Recovery
Each Wednesday, Doug Reed walks the three blocks from his home to the Jackson Firehouse for a weekly work detail.
For Reed, the city’s fire chief, there is nothing unusual about putting in long hours at his department until one learns of his remarkable story, 10TV’s Glenn McEntyre reported.
“Every bone in (Doug’s) face was pretty much crushed,” said his wife, Jana Reed. “Fifty percent of the floor of his mouth was completely gone.”
When she took her vows 29 years ago, Jana Reed knew the man she was marrying was not the retiring type.
“(Doug) said, ‘You know, I’ve always wanted to be a firefighter. As a little kid, I always wanted to be the Army man and the firefighter,’” Jana Reed said.
Ten days after his wedding, Doug Reed left for eight months of basic training.
Seven children and 26 years later, Reed, now a member of the Ohio Army National Guard, was leaving on his first combat mission for war-torn Afghanistan.
“Deployment was the hardest thing I’d ever done in our married life,” Jana Reed said. “He gave me a hug and I was crying and he said, 'I’ll come back to you. I promise.' That was the hardest I’d ever cried in my entire life, the fact that he was gone.”
It would be the last time she would see her husband as she knew him, McEntyre reported.
On April 11, 2010, MSgt. Reed and his unit encountered a roadblock in the Afghan village of Pol-e Khomri when they were ambushed.
“My initial assessment was he’s not (going to) make it,” said Sgt. Ty Henery. “We came under attack from three sides.”
“(There were) mortars going off. There (were rocked-propelled grenades) bouncing across the ground. Machine gun fire was everywhere,” said 1st Sgt. Michael Burress.
Henery said that the unit was returning fire when the call went out.
“Over my headset, I heard, ‘Man Down. Man down,’” Henery said.
He turned and saw that the man he calls his best friend, Reed, was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade.
“An RPG actually bounced down the road that we were on and came up at an angle and basically glanced off his plate carrier and hit (Reed) in the face,” Henery said.
Henery, who was the team’s medic, ran to Reed’s side.
“The force actually took off essentially everything, exposing all the vasculature of his neck, his airway,” Henery said. “I looked at Capt. France and I said, ‘He isn’t (going to) make it.’ It was completely grievous. I mean, you just don't expect people to survive things like that.”
“They couldn’t get (Reed) into a vehicle. His injuries were just too extensive. The only option they had on these Humvees -- the Humvees are pretty crowded to begin with -- they put him up on the hood and then Ty got on top, laid on top of him to cover him up until we could get him out of the kill zone."
Photos taken from the unit showed Henery pinning Reed to the hood of a moving Humvee for a six-mile trip from the ambush site to the nearest medical unit.
“Physically, it was a difficult thing to keep him on the hood, and mentally there were a lot of things going on there,” Henery said. “Your mind's going 10,000 mph. You don't have time to think about emotion or what ifs. One thing I did think about was, ‘Hey Doug, you can't stop here man. You gotta keep fighting because how in the world are we going to tell your family that this happened? You got seven kids at home. You can't afford this. Your family needs you.’ That's one of the things I was yelling at him on the hood of the truck. I did quite a bit of yelling at him because I figured he needed it."
While the surgical team worked to save Reed's life, Burress did the only thing he could think of to help, to clean his friend's blood from the Humvee.
“Doug was my roommate, my battle buddy,” Burress said. “It was my job to clean that up so I took care of it and got the vehicle where the guys wouldn't see it. I was praying, and crying, and everything all at the same time because (I thought), ‘I hope I’m not washing Doug away.’”
Jana Reed remembers vividly about the day and the phone call that she received.
“That day was so innocent, so beautiful. It was a spring day. The 1st Sgt. Got on the line and said, ‘Ma’am, this is 1st Sgt. Fish and I have Chaplain Sizemore with me.’ I said, ‘Stop right there. How bad is it?’”
Reed learned that her husband was alive but suffered near-catastrophic injuries.
“All these bones -- the mandibular bone, the lower jaw, the upper jaw -- everything was gone,” Jana Reed said.
Reed was airlifted out of Afghanistan and was eventually flown to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. Jana Reed said that she was not able to see her husband for seven days.
“(Doug) was obviously swollen, but his eyelids weren't purple,” Jana Reed said. “He didn't look grotesque. They had him bandaged up and I was just so relieved to see him."
The next day, she saw him without the bandages. In his horrific injuries, she said she saw hope.
“They took the bandages off and you could actually still see his jugular vein, and the blood was coursing through it,” Jana Reed said. “You could see it pump and I just thought, 'Thank you God.’ Another millimeter and it would have been all over."
Doug Reed’s crisis was far from over. His doctors prepared Jana for the worst.
“I didn’t tell the kids. I didn’t tell anybody what the doctors told me, that it was that serious,” Jana Reed said. “They knew it was serious but I didn't tell them that the doctors didn't expect him to live."
Even after he opened his eyes, Doug Reed was unresponsive, unable to communicate, and for nearly two months, unable to remember anything.
“Typically, a person will stay in about four or five days, but his total time was 55 days,” Jana Reed said. “They they didn't know if he would come out of this amnesia state, and if he did, what kind of person is he going to be able to be? I just kept thinking, 'I don't accept this. This is not who I think my husband is. I think he's in there. I just prayed God would give us some kind of sign, just every day to keep me moving forward. He did. Every day there was a little miracle that I knew. Doug is in there and somehow he's gonna get out.”
Seven weeks after the ambush, when Jana Reed brought their children to see him for the first time, Doug had a breakthrough.
“We didn’t know,” Jana Reed said. “Is he in there? The lights are on. Is anybody home? When he went up to (their children) and he called them their pet name, like Baby Girl and Saber Man, it was just so exciting for all of us and we all began to cry because it was confirmation. He’s really in there!”
Jana Reed said that when her children then left his bedside, Doug started to cry.
Recovery didn't come quickly or easily for Reed.
“He was almost like a 2-year-old, a 3-year-old,” Jana Reed said.
Success was measured in syllables and moments were like mountains.
“When you can't think of a day at a time, take it moment by the time,” Jana Reed said. “There were times that I just had to get through the minute.”
In ways big and small, again and again, Doug Reed defied expectations.
“He just kept proving everybody wrong,” Jana Reed said. “I hated to do it, but I was able to compare. I would look at that person in that room and the wife would come every day and brush his teeth. He was the same every day, but my husband wasn't. Every day was a little bit different. My husband was walking and my husband began to talk so I just kept taking any little bit of positive and I focused on that positive."
In a series of operations, doctors worked to rebuild Doug's broken face, harvesting bone from his leg to replace his jaw and tissue from his leg to replace his lower palate and cheek.
It was clear early on that no amount of surgery would make Doug Reed look like he once had.
“He went to to the mirror and he looked. I could see the expression on his face was not good,” Jana Reed said.
“When I looked in the mirror, it was just (seeing) the magnitude of the injury,” Doug Reed said. “Obviously it was disfiguring. (I) noticed I didn't have my finger. (I) noticed my teeth were gone. I think one of my initial fears, which was really irrational, was whether (Jana) was (going to) stick around."
“I think this is how he phrased it, ‘Are we gonna be OK?’” Jana Reed said. “No matter how many times I kept saying, ‘We’re gonna be fine. We’re gonna get through this. Just wait and see. I promise you. We’re gonna do this together,’ I don’t think he really believed me.”
There was another question that haunted him since he had no memory of how he was hurt.
“I guess you could say I was worried. Was I a coward and got hurt or was I fighting and doing what I was there to do and got hurt? That was probably my biggest concern coming out of that injury,” Reed said.
The question was answered in August 2010 when Reed’s unit was welcomed home from Afghanistan. Reed’s doctors allowed him to travel from Texas to Columbus to greet his brothers in arms.
“The doctors had their hands full with Doug because -- I'm telling you right now -- he was a soldier's soldier, all the way through that process,” said Gen. Rufus Smith, the commander of the 174th Brigade.
It was the first time Reed had seen them since Afghanistan and the first time he was able to hear first-hand about the day that changed and nearly ended his life.
“He goes through months of grueling surgeries and the first and only thing he's worried about is, ‘How did I hurt the team? I let the team down,’ and truly he didn’t. That couldn’t be further from the truth,” Henery said.
They were back on American soil, reunited with their families but Reed’s fellow soldiers said their work was unfinished.
“That wasn’t our homecoming,” Burress said. “Our homecoming was when Doug got released from the hospital, finally.”
The day would not come for another year, McEntyre reported.
After 487 days and more than 12 surgeries, the Reeds finally returned home to Jackson. His family and much of the community welcomed him back in October.
The homecoming benefitted a hero for a man who does not see himself as one. Reed was awarded a purple heart before his friends and family. For the men who fought beside him and fought to save him, it was mission accomplished.
“We came home as a team minus one until Doug got here,” Burress said. “We are home. We’re mission complete now."
Reed’s recovery is still a work in progress. He is rebuilding his strength and learning to work with his new features and the attention they draw.
“You’ve got to love little kids because they just ask, ‘Hey, what happened to you?’ It never bothered me -- It still doesn’t – that people look at me because it’s just a natural thing. It doesn’t bother me that people stare. I would just rather they ask – just ask me what happened – if that’s what you want to know,” Reed said.
As in so many military families, there are the scars you see and those you don't.
“He sleeps great at night,” Jana Reed said. “He doesn’t have flashbacks.”
“I’ve just recently begun sleeping a lot better,” Jana Reed said. “It’s difficult. Different things spark different emotions. I don't like talking about myself. It’s a journey and we all have to journey on it together.
There have been times I wondered, for (Jana), if it would have been just as easy if I hadn't survived. Her wound and scar have almost been continual. She had to deal with the trauma of the injury, and then the recovery, and now the appointments for therapies, and all that goes with that.”
They thought they knew the risks of the military when they signed on but today they will tell you they were wrong, McEntyre reported.
“Most people think that when you go to war, you're (going to) die,” Doug Reed said. “My mom didn't want me to join the Army in 1983 because her son was (going to) join the Army and go die. We talked about that. What you don't consider is ‘What if you don't die? What about living with the aftermath of injury?’”
“My heart fills with pride every time I watch him because a lesser man wouldn't be doing this. A lesser man wouldn't be sitting here,” Jana Reed said.
Although Doug Reed’s military career is coming to an end, he is far from done serving.
“I just want to get integrated back into the team,” he said.
Reed is back at the firehouse in Jackson.
“It’s something I love doing,” Reed said.
It was not the outcome anyone predicted.
“He’s actually a walking miracle, in my mind,” said Jackson Assistant Fire Chief Dave Channel.
It is not the life Doug Reed used to have. Henery called it the new face of freedom, from small town Ohio to a battlefield a half world away, to the brink of death.
“It’s really no more than just a chapter in my life and it's just the turn of a page,” Doug Reed said.
Reed resumed his duties as Jackson’s fire chief on Jan. 1.
Henery was nominated for a Silver Star for his actions on the day their unit was ambushed.