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Living with No Excuses
The Remarkable Rebirth of an American Soldier
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Noah’s gripping story is a shining example that with laughter, and the right amount of perspective, you can tackle anything. Whether it be overcoming injury, conquering the Dancing with the Stars ballroom, or taking the next steps forward in life with his young family – Noah demonstrates how to live life to the fullest, with no excuses.
Table of Contents
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"THESE BOMBS are so hot that your bones will actually fuse together," someone said. I couldn't make out who said it, but at least I thought I heard it. I couldn't open my mouth. Panic surged through my body, as I feared my jaw was fused shut from an explosion. I tried and tried to open my mouth. And then I felt someone place an object in my hand and I heard, "If you're in pain, press this button."
My eyes popped open. It was a nightmare. Just a bad dream. But as my eyes darted around the room I suddenly realized I didn't know where I was. Gone was the hot desert sun, the swirling mix of dirt and sand, and comrades all around in camo. The sounds of war had been replaced with the faint sound of children's voices singing Christmas carols. Suddenly I was aware of severe pain that pulsed throughout every inch of my body. I remembered the device in my hand—I assumed it was a morphine drip. I pressed the button over and over again, but there was no relief from the unbearable pain.
Then the door to the room swung open. In walked a man, a nurse, looking really annoyed.
"We've got kids out here singing Christmas carols for us because we're away from our families and you're being rude," he said. Turns out I'd moved my finger from the morphine button to the nurse's call button.
Are you kidding me? I thought. I couldn't respond because I couldn't open my mouth. He knew that as he stood there smugly. I glared back at him and saw his name on the plastic tag attached to the pocket on his scrubs. I can't remember his name now, but at the time I repeated his name over and over again in my head. I let the pain engulf me as his name became a steady beat like a drum, and the angry rhythm in my head lulled me back to a deep, drugged sleep.
When I came to again the nurse was gone. My focus was hazy at best but in his place I saw a doctor and I heard him say, "I'll take care of this one." And he stayed with me until three flight nurses arrived in Air Force uniforms. I remember the uniforms and I remember how nice they were to me. I was carefully moved from my bed to a gurney and wheeled outside and onto an ambulance truck. The frosty December air hit my body with a shock and I shivered. I remember the bitterness of the cold. It was December in Germany and my body hadn't adjusted from the oppressive heat of the war zone. As the gurney was rolled toward the ambulance I heard another man shouting and ranting. He was a frail, elderly black man and he was screaming words that didn't make sense. I looked up to the flight nurses to ask with my eyes, "What is wrong with him?" One of the nurses answered me saying that he was a veteran who had remained in Germany after completing his service. He was dying. They were taking him home so he could die surrounded by his loved ones. As I tried to make out what he was trying to say I found myself distracted, even just momentarily, from my pain and my confusion. I still didn't really know why I was there or what had happened. But I looked up at the kind faces of the three nurses and felt comforted.
When the ambulance reached the end of the runway, both the dying man and I were transferred onto the plane. Instead of the small seats you'd find crammed together in a commercial plane, there were beds attached parallel to the wall. I was carefully placed on one. The nurses did everything they could to make me comfortable. When I was settled in, ready to go home, I finally felt warmth—whether from the blankets or the compassion, it didn't matter. I was cared for throughout the entire flight and then after a long time one of the nurses leaned down to me and said, "We'll be landing soon, so you'll wake up in the hospital." He gave me a shot and I was out.
I woke up in a tiny hospital room. I didn't know where yet, but I saw the brightness of the fluorescent light streaming in from the hallway as the door opened slowly. I blinked as figures came into focus. I saw her first: petite frame, curly white hair, and glasses. It was my mom! My mom and dad were in the room. I was somewhere safe.
They were smiling, but I could see they were scared. And my immediate thought was, Smile so they know you are okay. I learned later that because my family had missed one of their flights, they arrived after midnight and there was no one to prepare them for what they would see, or tell them about the condition I was in.
The next few days are a painful, terrifying blur. One minute I would be sweating, the next freezing. I was either in pain or I was passed out. In the blink of an eye, I had gone from a fearless, strong soldier fighting a war to feeling like a helpless child. I had no idea how to react to where I was or what was happening to me. One minute I was angry and the next I was overcome with emotion and crying. I cried a lot. I have never been so scared.
Those first few days in Walter Reed Army Medical Center, in Washington, D.C., were more terrifying than anything I encountered in Iraq. Each time I was deployed I had accepted that I could die. I prepared myself to die in Iraq. It never crossed my mind that I could wake up in a hospital bed severely injured. We had already lost some of the guys in my company. They weren't injured, they were killed, and we had all accepted that risk. It wasn't supposed to go this way. I wasn't supposed to be writhing in pain in a hospital room in Washington, D.C. I was supposed to be still in Iraq or dead. There was no in between. I didn't know how to handle in between.
My fear was amplified each time I was taken out of that stiflingly small hospital room, because every time they came to get me, I was wheeled into another painful surgery. I was heavily medicated but that only took the edge off the pain and added to my confusion. I still didn't really know what was going on or what had happened to me. And now I was in and out of consciousness, so I couldn't get a firm grasp on reality. At one point on one of these trips to surgery, I remember grabbing my mom's arm. I clutched on to her and begged her, "Don't let them take me, please don't let them take me again."
When there was a lull in the trips to the operating room my mom was the one who finally told me the extent of my injuries. My mom is a very sweet, unassuming person, but she's also very direct. There would be no sugarcoating here. She was working hard to be strong for me and I remember her walking into the room normally, as if everything were fine, and standing by my bed as she rattled off my injuries in a very matter-of-fact fashion—as if she were listing the ingredients in a recipe. "You lost your left arm above the elbow, your left leg above the knee, you have severe injuries to your right leg, your right hand also sustained some injuries, and your jaw is wired shut."
My mom was far better at masking her emotions than my dad was. He was standing behind her as she told me, but he never said a word. This was a lot for Dad to take in. He lost his arm at age eighteen in an industrial accident. All I'd ever known was a dad with one arm. As I sat there stunned, processing all Mom had just told me, she filled the silence in the room with, "Look, this is what it is and now let's figure out what's next."
My next reaction was, "Who died?" Because if I was that bad off, then how was everyone else? It wasn't until about a week later that I received a call from my platoon leader telling me that I took the worst of it. There were only three of us in the vehicle that night and I was the most severely injured. So, with the knowledge that everyone else was going to be okay, my attention turned to what I was going to do.
I had always been a very physically active person. And I loved my job. I got into the military because of September 11, but I stumbled into a career that I absolutely loved. I was meant to be an infantry soldier. I thought, I will never be physical again and my career in the military is over. One tiny trip wire had taken everything away from me in one explosive moment.
I sank into a very dark place. I wallowed in both my physical pain and my mental anguish. One day my parents were sitting by my side in the hospital room—as they did every day—and I turned to my mom and blurted out, "How am I ever gonna be able to tie my shoes again?"
Mom rebutted my pity party with, "Well, your father can tie his shoes with one hand. Andy! Show Noah how you can tie your shoes with one hand." And as I started to protest, Dad cut my whining off at the pass. "Oh my gosh, Noah, I can tie my shoes with one hand." And he did, as I had seen him do so many times growing up. "I just need a little sympathy," I said. To which Mom replied, "Well, you're not getting it today."
A few days after I'd had my shoelace meltdown, after many tears, I found myself drained of emotion, a hollowed-out shell. My mother saw the blank expression on my face and she saw an opportunity to drag me out of the fog. She took it. She came up to my bed, leaned in close—but not so close that the other people in the room couldn't hear her, and said, "You just had to outdo your dad and lose your arm and your leg." She smiled, waiting for my reply, but all I could do was laugh. It was funny but it was also at that moment that I think I felt a little spark of excitement and anticipation again. It would take a while to fully ignite the flame but what she said definitely tapped into some important part of me. I have a very competitive side and Mom knew that. She knew just what to say to shake me up, so I could realize, Okay, life will go on from here. I thought to myself, My dad could do a whole lot with just one hand. Imagine how much more impressive it'll look with two missing limbs. And I smiled the best I could through a wired jaw.
(December 2005–January 2006)
I SPENT MUCH of those first few weeks in a drugged haze. I was in and out of the present. On one of my trips outside of my head and outside of that tiny hospital room, I found myself back in the sweaty, gritty desert I'd left so abruptly.
My unit was deep in a perilous region of Iraq. We lived among the enemies we were fighting, even though we frequently didn't even know who they were. We were far away from the comforts other soldiers found in camp. We didn't have access to phones and it was a month before I was able to call home for the first time. After that, I managed to call home only every couple of weeks at best. Our missions kept us far removed from the realities of everyday life back home. At that point though I only wanted to know how my son, Colston, was doing. Brandi and I really had nothing to say to one another. Our relationship was deeply fractured before I left. I had little hope it would ever be repaired. I hadn't pulled the trigger on divorce, but I had actively thought about it. I saw a lawyer. I just didn't make my move. I only got so far as to transfer my power of attorney to my mother.
On one call I remember Brandi's voice sounded so chipper when she picked up the phone. I could almost see her smiling as she answered, but as soon as she heard my voice on the other end of the line, her tone immediately changed. Everything she said after that was in a monotone. She had no emotion left for me.
"Hey, what's going on?" I asked.
"I just can't do it anymore. You obviously love the Army more than me. We're not happy. I can't do it anymore," she repeated.
"I understand. It makes sense. When I get back, we'll finalize everything," I replied and hung up.
I felt like a rock had just sunk to the bottom of my stomach. We'd been in such bad shape for so long, but this was the end. She was right, of course. I did love this job more than I loved her. I had chosen the military over my marriage. I didn't mean to, but I had done exactly that.
I grabbed Jerry, my platoon leader, and stuttered, "Brandi and I are done."
Jerry pulled me away from the group behind the only cover available—a big mound of dirt. With his hand on my shoulder I sat there mumbling, "This sucks. I mean we're not in love, but it hurts." I told him how I'd already gone to a lawyer, that I knew we would be divorced when I got home, but the reality of it was unexpectedly overwhelming. I was so thankful to have Jerry there. By then we'd become fast friends, and out there, these guys were my family. We talked for a while and then I gave him a hug and thanked him. I took a deep breath and I was good to go. That was the last time I spoke to Brandi from Iraq.
When I lifted my heavy eyelids again, Brandi was standing there, clutching the side of my hospital bed. Her face was tear-stained, her eyes puffy and red from exhaustion. I reached up with my one hand and she tenderly took it in both of hers. She leaned in so she was closer to me. My mouth was still wired shut, so it was hard for me to get any words out. She leaned in and I said, "I know our marriage is over. But please just stay with me through this recovery." My eyes brimmed with tears, and fresh, salty drops were rolling down her face as she nodded yes.
What I didn't know was what had already been discussed before I even made it out of Germany. I had no idea what my family was going through back in Alabama or how they found out what had happened to me. I had no idea of the conversations they had until later. But when they were first notified I'd been injured, they assumed my condition was far less severe than it really was. I don't think my family ever really grasped that I could have been in that much danger. I never told them. On every call home, I made sure to make it sound like I wasn't doing anything near the fighting over there. I never wanted them to worry.
When the Army first notified my family, Brandi took Colston to my parents' house to wait for further instructions. She was pacing a lot and went outside for a cigarette. My dad joined her and asked her what was wrong.
"I don't know what to do. Noah and I have been talking about divorce. We were planning on getting a divorce," she said.
"What's going on out here?" my mom asked, as she came outside to join them.
"Brandi says she doesn't know what to do. She and Noah are getting divorced," Dad told Mom.
And my no-nonsense mother turned to Brandi and said, "You can go on home then. I'm gonna take care of my boy. He's going to be just fine. You can go now."
She meant what she said. Mom always does. But Brandi did come with my parents. She did stay once I asked her to, but it wasn't more than a week before I think she realized there wasn't really anything she could do. She wasn't needed. I was in and out of it, my mom and dad were there, and my sisters were on their way.
Mom pulled Brandi aside and said, "You can go home. Take care of Colston. Noah will be okay." So she left. As she walked out of the hospital, my three loving, overly protective, and, if I'm being honest, slightly intimidating sisters walked in the door. Jennifer told me later that as she, Katherine, and Sara marched into that hospital as Mom's reinforcements, they didn't utter a single word to Brandi. I knew what really happened between Brandi and myself, but to my sisters she was leaving me and they didn't owe her a thing. I believe in basketball it's called the "elbows out" approach. They didn't need to say a word to let anyone know that the Galloway women were taking charge now. Brandi was no longer needed to help their brother.
I understood why she left. I understood why our marriage failed. But Brandi's departure was when reality hit me like a wrecking ball. I no longer had anyone to worry about but myself. I had to face the facts. I remember thinking, I've lost my job, two limbs, my wife, and everything I've known, and I'd rather be dead.
My emotions were all over the map, though. I went from "This ain't nothing, I ain't worried about it. I'll make something of this," to "Why did this happen to me?" to crying like a baby, all in under a minute. But mostly everything was terrifying.
I was still in and out of consciousness so much, and so emotional. But there were little things that helped. I remember at one point hearing my dad say, "He likes music. I am going to put on some music." He brought in a little red radio and left it on this Top 40 station all the time hoping to cheer me up. Top 40 stations play the same songs over and over again. At the time there was one song that stood out and struck a chord with me: Sheryl Crow's "Good Is Good." I don't know what Sheryl Crow's intentions were when she wrote it, but I felt like she was singing to me directly.
I really related to this song. The words would bounce around my head even when I was asleep, about things going south and that it was up to you to make it better. Things are only as good as you make them. I felt calmer and comforted every time I heard it.
I was, however, still very much an emotional wreck and sometimes this resulted in misdirected anger. Unfortunately, my sisters bore the brunt of that. Sometimes I would just blow up without reason or warning. Once, my sister Sara was in the room and she was just moving things around, trying to clean up, and I blew up at her. She was so stunned and upset, she just walked out of the room and into the hallway to cry. Another soldier in a wheelchair came by and asked if she was okay. Through sobs and tears she choked out a "yeah."
"Did your soldier yell at you?" he asked. She nodded yes and he said, "I don't know why we do that. But don't take it personally. We're all going through it."
She calmed down and walked back in. She stood squarely in front of my bed and told me that I really pissed her off. Clearly I'd already forgotten I yelled at her because I looked at her with a bewildered expression and managed to push out through my wired jaw, "What's wrong with you?"
She glared at me and spat back, "You son of a bitch, you're what's wrong!" I was clueless. In fact, I pissed off my family members on a pretty regular basis until they figured out how to deal with it. They'd just control when I got to talk. My jaw was wired shut, but I could talk a little bit with some help.
I'd had a tracheotomy so I had a hole in my throat. I had this little purple plastic piece that I could put in the hole that would keep the air from coming out so I could talk. Every time I woke up, the purple plastic piece was clear across the room. They didn't keep it near me. I had to put my fingers over the hole so I could wheeze out, "Gimme. . . gimme. . . the. . . thing." I think this amused them.
After a while my dad grew concerned with how much medication I was being given. My dad formed this opinion based on his vast medical experience, having worked in construction. Obviously. But he harped on that topic a lot. It was his soapbox issue. Well, as it turned out, he was right.
I was being prepped for my umpteenth surgery and they injected me with the anesthetic. I was lying there waiting to fade out, waiting and waiting and waiting until they came to check on me, expecting to find me fast asleep. Instead, I was in that hospital bed, still totally awake. The nurses walked away but not far enough way so I missed what they said. I overheard one of the nurses say, "He's not going to sleep." Another said, "Well, he has so much medication in his system, it's probably not enough. He's going to have to go to surgery awake." I panicked and screamed, "NOOOOO! I'll go to sleep!" I closed my eyes and told myself, Go to sleep, go to sleep, go to sleep. Nothing happened. I did not go to sleep, so they took me into surgery awake. I was conscious but numb. I didn't feel physical pain, but I was completely freaked out.
Several more surgeries followed that one and with each one my terror only grew. I clung to my mother begging her to not let them take me. They started upping my dosage of medications because of all the anxiety. They were trying to calm me down. All along, Dad was standing there saying, "No. This is too much. This is too much."
Then late one night my dad's fears proved true. My blood pressure dropped dramatically, and I passed out. My parents called for help. A few of the nurses came in to try to wake me, but they couldn't. My parents stood in the corner of the room crying, thinking this was it. The doctors answered the page and got to work on me. An army of medical staff filled that tiny room working feverishly to save me, with the soundtrack of my parents' sobs in the background. Eventually they got my blood pressure back up and I was out of the woods. The very next morning the higher-ups from the hospital came down to apologize to my parents for what had happened. They assured my parents it wouldn't happen again. My dad said to them once again, this time a little more emphatically, "Y'all are medicating him too much." He wagged his finger, explaining to the doctors that that was why I almost died. One of the doctors assured my dad he would take care of it.
They did lower the dosage of my medication, the benefit of which was that I was more lucid. The downside: I was now very aware of where I was. I was aware that I was in the hospital, missing two limbs, and terrified about the future.
Uncle Johnny and the Open Door
MY MOTHER'S BROTHER Johnny was a Vietnam vet, and he too had been wounded. He had spent a long time in a hospital and he understood more than most what I was going through. Or at least he thought he did, and I appreciated that—even if I didn't act like it at first. Uncle Johnny started to visit every weekend. He'd come and sit with me to give my parents a little breather.
After my dad won the battle over my medication, I was, as I said, a little more lucid. I was also a little more ornery. I wouldn't let anyone turn on that little red radio. I didn't even care if Sheryl Crow was telling me what was good. I was more aware of my pain. Just lying there and listening or doing anything at all hurt. My whole body hurt and everyone and everything was to blame. All I wanted to do was sit in silence with the door shut. Uncle Johnny obliged me for a while. He'd come in and sit down in the chair next to my bed. He sat and stared blankly right along with me. But after a while, he couldn't handle that anymore.
One day, on the verge of dying of boredom, Uncle Johnny had had enough. He turned to me and said sternly, "Noah, I'm not gonna sit in here like we're in an oversized coffin. We're either opening the door or we're turning the TV on. Which one do you want?" I rolled my eyes and grumbled for a few minutes before answering, "All right. Turn on the TV." Without hesitation Uncle Johnny shot up out of that chair and reached up to hit the power button on the TV mounted from the ceiling. No sooner had his butt hit the chair seat than he was right back up again. "Fuck that. I am opening the door, too, because I want it open." He vigorously emphasized his intention so I didn't protest. He marched over and swung that door open. I swear he might have even taken a deep breath as if it were fresh mountain air. Then he came back to his chair and sat down.
There was a movie on starring Matthew Broderick. I'd never heard of it before but Uncle Johnny was explaining to me that this was a remake and Gene Wilder had played Broderick's character in the original film. In spite of myself, and my stubborn wish to sit and suffer in silence, I really liked the movie. And I remember thinking, I am really enjoying myself. I even turned to Uncle Johnny and said, "I'm glad we turned the TV on. This is great!" Uncle Johnny just smiled as if to say, "Of course! Finally!"
We were right in the middle of the movie when one of my machines started to malfunction. The machine's beeps drowned out the movie. A nurse came in to fix the problem and it just happened to be the hot nurse I had a crush on. She had short hair, a few tattoos on her arm, and she always wore a bandana over her head. The machine she was trying to fix was plugged in on the other side of the bed, up against the wall.
"Oh, I see. Hold on. I have to move the bed out from the wall to fix this," she said.
At this point I was just watching her. She fixed the machine and pushed the bed back up against the wall. She actually hit the wall with the bed and zap! The TV went out! "WHAT?! NO!" I screamed. She couldn't get it to turn back on. She tried but nothing worked.
"Oh no, I'm sorry. We'll have to get maintenance down here to fix it," she said with an apologetic look that I met with a glare of disdain. She was no longer hot to me. She was just the nurse who broke the TV. Maintenance didn't come to repair the TV until the next day. I didn't get to watch the rest of the movie. In fact, I never saw the end of the movie and I didn't even know the name of it until years later. Maybe one of these days I'll get to see The Producers from start to finish.
- On Sale
- Aug 23, 2016
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Center Street