Lives Blown Apart

By BOB HERBERT

New York Times

August 15, 2005

Sema Olson was in the living room watching television when the phone rang. It was the Department of the Army calling. A voice asked if she'd heard from her son in the past 24 hours.

Ms. Olson tried to ward off the panic. "Is he still alive?" she asked.

After verifying her identity, the man on the phone assured her that her son, Bobby Rosendahl, who was stationed in Iraq, was still alive. But he'd been badly wounded.

With that Saturday night phone call, life as Ms. Olson had known it came to an end. Her family's long, long period of overwhelming sacrifice was under way.

Bobby Rosendahl, a 24-year-old Army corporal (and avid golfer) from Tacoma, Wash., was literally blown into the air last March 12 when an improvised explosive device detonated beneath his Stryker armored vehicle. He remembers landing on his back, with fuel spilling all around him and insurgents firing at him from the roof of a mosque.

Ms. Olson, during an interview in Washington, D.C., where Corporal Rosendahl is being treated at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, quietly cataloged her son's wounds:

"Both of his heels and ankles were crushed. He had a compound fracture of his femur in two places. Three-quarters of his kneecap was missing. His thigh was blown away. He had many, many open wounds, which all have closed except four right now."

She paused, sighed, then went on: "His left leg was amputated three weeks after he arrived here. He's not willing to give up his right leg. He's hoping to save it. All he wants to do is golf again. But we don't know. He's had 36 surgeries so far."

When you talk to close relatives of men and women who have been wounded in the war, it's impossible not to notice the strain that is always evident in their faces. Their immediate concern is with the wounded soldier or marine. But just behind that immediate concern, in most cases, is the frightening awareness that they have to try and rebuild a way of life that was also blown apart when their loved one was wounded.

Ms. Olson, who is 45 and divorced, gave up everything - her work, her rented townhouse, her car - and moved from Tacoma to a hotel on the grounds of Walter Reed to be with her son and assist in his recovery.

"He was still in a coma when I got here," she said. "He didn't have his eyes open, and he was hooked up to all the machines. When he did open his eyes a couple of days later, he didn't respond. His eyes didn't follow me. That was a scary moment. But the following day his eyes started following me."

Corporal Rosendahl has improved a great deal since those days and recently has been allowed to go with his mother on brief excursions away from the hospital. "It's difficult for him," Ms. Olson said. "But in those first weeks here he couldn't move a finger. So this gives me so much hope."

Ms. Olson is a paralegal who did work for several lawyers in Tacoma. She also worked as a claims analyst for the city's transit system. With that work gone, she is now living on the $48 per diem she receives from the Army for food and lodging, along with money that she has reluctantly been drawing from her son's Army pay, and assistance she is receiving from another son, Keith, who is 27.

She has also received help from charitable organizations that assist military families.

"My son is the most important thing," she said, "and I knew that if I was going to be with him, I wouldn't be able to meet my financial obligations."

So she gave up the townhouse and "turned in" a Honda Accord that she had purchased just a year earlier. "Voluntary repossession," she said.

There is nothing unusual about Ms. Olson's situation. Families forced to absorb the blow of a loved one getting wounded frequently watch other pillars of their lives topple like dominoes. What is unusual with regard to this war is the absence of a sense of shared sacrifice. While families like Ms. Olson's are losing almost everything, most of us are making no sacrifice at all.

Ms. Olson said she is neither angry nor bitter about her son's plight or the misfortune that has hit her family. "I feel blessed that Bobby's still alive," she said. "To dwell on why it happened, or why it happened to him - well, I can't waste my time on that. I have to look forward."

She said she plans to find work in D.C., and "hopefully, get a place close to the hospital," where she'll stay until her son "is ready to go on with his life."

E-mail: bobherb@nytimes.com