Robert Vaccaro ’05 was a 2nd lieutenant stationed in Baghdad when his Army Humvee was hit by an explosive device on January 13, 2007. He incurred a severe traumatic brain injury (TBI) and spent almost three years in hospital and at outpatient rehabilitation. Almost half of his skull was removed and replaced with an artificial implant. He remains disabled, physically and cognitively, but has achieved a high level of recovery for the severity of his injury.
An essay that Robert’s sister, Bethany Vaccaro ’06, wrote about his injury and the effect it had on his family was published in The American Scholar and was named one of the 10 Best Essays in 2009 by New York Times columnist David Brooks. In this article written for QUAD ANGLES, Bethany continues the story of Robert’s struggle to resume a normal life. Anna Vaccaro, now in her senior year at URI, was awarded the Dean’s Choice Award for her film My Brother’s Story, at the 2010 Visualizations Student Film Festival.
The five Vaccaro children grew up in Kingston near URI where their father, Richard Vaccaro, is a professor of electrical engineering.
“When is Robert coming?” My sister Anna was talking over her shoulder to my mother, Sarah, as they ran back and forth from the house to the yard, arranging the chairs on the lawn and the vase of sunflowers on the party table. “He had better come!” It was a May weekend, 2010. My nephew Eli’s first birthday party was about to begin, as the sun dappled through the great oak tree we had grown up under. Robert was never a social butterfly and hates large gatherings. The home he purchased a year ago is his “Fortress of Solitude.” There he putters around, cleaning his pool, watching TV, and yanking weeds out of the ground when he can distinguish them from the plants left by the previous owners. If there’s one thing a brain injury does, it locks an individual into a new, solitary identity that is hard to share with the rest of the world.
The party began, with babies and bubbles and lots of food. My father, Rick, came out of the house to talk with guests in his quiet, jovial way, pulling up a lawn chair alongside the only other man there. Nathaniel, my youngest brother and Eli’s “Uncle Nazz,” ran around the yard with his friends, while Eli shared his sippy cup with his baby friends and gave them big, wet kisses on the sides of their heads. People were talking, laughing, running around after babies. Just the kind of situation Robert dislikes. He says that too much conversation confuses him. He doesn’t like making small talk.
“Look who’s here!” Anna’s voice broke out over the activity. Robert came ambling up, his dog Berry at his ankles. Berry wasn’t wearing her guide dog vest and instantly left his side as soon as she got wind of the goodies table. Robert walked to Anna and handed her a box, looking down and half-smiling in the bashful way people do when they are pleased with themselves. “It looks like Benny’s came through,” he stated and thrust the unwrapped package into her hands. I don’t remember what his voice used to sound like, before his injury. We’ve gotten used to the way it is now. “Look Eli!” Anna cried, “Your very own yellow swim suit!” It was the kind that has a tube attached to the middle, the kind that Robert had when he was small. Robert shuffled over to a lawn chair and plopped into it.
We didn’t realize when Robert left for Iraq that the landscape of warfare has changed. When we were young, our parents took us to Normandy, France, to see the seas of white crosses there, each a life spent and sacrificed for duty and freedom. We sat at the bottom of enormous bomb craters blown into the green earth and looked at each other. We knew we were on sacred ground. The idea of death in war stayed with me, and it’s all I envisioned when Robert left in August 2006. I prepared myself for a white cross, but never for a different kind of death. What no one in my family realized was that we are no longer asking our service men and women to risk only death when they go to war. We ask them to risk a lifetime of severe disability, to live on when everything about who they are is altered. Weapons have changed and, more importantly, treatment of injury has changed. The doctors told us that if Robert had been hurt like this even during the Gulf War, he probably would have died.
Robert is one of the better recovered TBIs, particularly for his level of injury. He can function independently, walk, eat, drive. He lives on his own, driving the three miles to my parents’ house at least once, if not twice, a day for meals and company. What he needs help with is managing the details of life. My parents discreetly look over his shoulder, stepping in when he trustingly buys insurance over the phone or asks for his fingernails to be cut. Robert’s rehabilitation program designed a part-time job for him, which began in January 2010. For a few hours four days a week, he is working for the Department of Defense as an entry-level technician at a Navy site in Newport. He enjoys moaning about the trials of being a working man at the dinner table each night, proudly smiling when he says he even volunteered for overtime. He takes the fact that he needs security clearance to enter the facility very seriously. Berry goes with him and is quite popular, making the rounds to different work benches before curling up under Robert’s to sleep.
Robert has worked very hard throughout his rehabilitation process to achieve what he has. But there are many things that hard work can never cure. Robert used to curl up with huge tomes of Civil War history but cannot sit down and read a book anymore. Fatigue is one of the worst nettles, cutting into just about everything he tries to do. His focus remains singular and multi-tasking is difficult. We joke that every weird problem you can have, Robert has. He points to his head, lifts one eyebrow, and squints his eyes. “Brain injury,” he says, chuckling.
The birthday party continued, as Robert sat benignly in his lawn chair, slumping a little with the curve of the green fabric. “What’s that box on your knee?” I loudly asked him, a few chairs down. Robert usually wore a black leg brace on his left side. Now his shorts revealed a simple band below his knee with a rectangular electronic box attached to the front. “It helps me walk,” he replied gruffly and shook his head as if to dismiss the topic. Instantly, I realized it wasn’t nice of me to call attention to it in public. Robert has become more at ease with his physical challenges, but no one needs to have their sister yell about them from across the group. I tried to quickly change the topic. Babies are useful for this.
Soon another of Eli’s baby friends arrived, this one brought by his father James Ferguson ’08, who works at the same site as Robert. Robert nodded as James dropped into the seat next to him. They both leaned back in their chairs and made the kind of small talk that guys make at a 1-year-old’s birthday party. “We should throw the ball around,” James said.
James has recently gotten Robert involved in his church’s softball team. Every time my mother tells my sister and me that Robert has gone to softball practice, to a game, or to the batting cages, we jump up and down squealing. Robert’s re-integration into social life has been slow and rocky. Some attempts to go out with old friends have ended up with him embarrassed, dejected, and stating that he will never leave his house again. But this time, it has been different—more persistent and sensitive. James invited Robert over with a group of other guys to put up a backyard shed. They’ve gotten together a few times just to toss the ball around. He taught Robert a tricky move that allows him to both catch and throw the softball with his right hand. This simple acknowledgement and comfort with Robert’s challenges must be part of what is making it work.
Seeing Robert’s burgeoning participation in life again makes my mother and the rest of us happy. It also makes us quiet. We watch Eli stand on a chair next to Robert, holding onto his shoulder, and stealing French fries off Robert’s plate. Robert is clearly tickled by Eli’s attention, reaching out to steady him with both hands, the left slower to grasp Eli’s torso than the right, as the fingers stiffly respond to the hard-earned commands his brain is giving them. “Mr. Tiberius,” he calls Eli, raising one eyebrow and making him cackle. The simple joy of life continued is precious to us. What quiets us is the tragic beauty of this adaptation, the fact that Robert has had to adapt like this at all. All life changes, and we twist and shift until we can continue. But what we shed in these transformations is mourned, just as the very metamorphosis is embraced. We do not forget all that Robert has lost, even as we celebrate all that he has gained.
In March 2007, two months after Robert’s injury, I stood in an art museum, alone and crying. The room was filled with metallic, elemental beings, bare human figures pared down to their essential forms. A lone figure was frozen mid-stride, body pressed forward, persisting into the future. His weight already on the forward foot, his arms in mid-swing, willing the form into propulsion. I stared through my tears at this eroded being. What endures in a person when everything that can be cut loose is lost? When all is stripped away, down to the very insoluble core, what is this obdurate form that remains? I had seen Giacometti’s sculptures before, but this time, I was seeing my brother. Attacked, altered, reduced, but still there. Persisting.
— Bethany Vaccaro ’06
Bethany Vaccaro has taught a course in introductory philosophy at URI.
Photo by Nora Lewis