Coming Home: A Love Story

updated 11/13/2006 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/13/2006 01:00AM

It was 10:30 a.m. on Oct. 7, four hours before his wedding, and Sgt. Ty Ziegel couldn't find his left hand. He rifled through the drawers in his Washington, Ill., bungalow, until at last he unearthed the prosthesis and, with the two remaining fingers of his right hand, screwed it on. Ty, 24, then pulled on his Marine dress blues, straightened his Purple Heart and sped off in his black Silverado to meet Renee Kline, his 21-year-old bride.

She was at a local photo studio, primping for their wedding portrait. Crowned with a faux-diamond-and-ruby tiara, Renee stepped into her white satin gown. When Ty arrived, he said simply, "You're beautiful." Two hours later they stood before 400 guests in the auditorium of Metamora Township High School, Ty's alma mater, which was festooned with bowers of white voile and pots of white chrysanthemums. Gingerly, Ty slipped the band on Renee's finger. They repeated their vows, pledging to love, "in joy and in sorrow, in sickness and in health."

In fact, the couple have already shared enough sorrow and sickness for several lifetimes. They'd been engaged a little more than a year when, on Dec. 22, 2004, Ty became one of the 20,000 troops wounded in Iraq. While he and six other Marines were patrolling in Anbar province, a car bomber struck their truck. Ty, a machine gunner, took the brunt of the blast, which engulfed him in flames, left him blind in one eye and shattered his skull, riddling his brain with shrapnel. Doctors later removed his left arm below the elbow and three fingers of his right hand. Ty was also disfigured beyond recognition, his ears, lips and most of his nose burned away.

For Ty and Renee the two years since have been a wrenching test of love and character. In a culture obsessed with physical perfection, Ty is now vulnerable to stares and whispers. Not naturally introspective and blunt to the point of gruffness, he says he doesn't bother with what-ifs. Rather, he relies on a store of dark humor. "I'm thinking of writing a book, You Know You've Been Blown Up If...," he says, in homage to redneck comic Jeff Foxworthy. "Like, 'You know you've been blown up if a year later you bleed in the shower.'" One night, out to dinner with a Marine pal, Ty had a little fun with a man who was smoking. "My friend was like, 'Hey buddy, do you mind? Do you see what happened to this smoker?'" Ty recalls. "The guy put his cigarette out and walked away."

His wry wit was one of the qualities that attracted Renee, who was just 19 when Ty was injured and who has remained constant during his year-and-a-half ordeal of eye surgeries, skin grafts, prosthesis fittings and painful rehab. "I've done everything you can possibly think of," Renee says, rattling off the nursing tasks she has mastered. "Dressing changes, feeding, personal hygiene." Publicly, at least, her manner is unwaveringly matter-of-fact—if she feels anguish over Ty's injuries, she prefers to keep it to herself. Among loved ones, however, Renee sometimes lets her guard down. "She would call me from the hospital in tears," recalls her mother, Donna Kline. "She puts on a good front."

Ty and Renee's romance blossomed nearly six years ago, not long after he went to work at her parents' auto-repair shop in Metamora, a leafy town surrounded by cornfields outside Peoria. When they met, Ty was a high school senior, voted outstanding voc-ed student. After graduation, he went to boot camp, became a Marine reservist and deployed to Iraq during the early months of the war. Returning in June 2003, he took a job operating heavy equipment while reporting to his reserve unit once a month. He and Renee grew closer that summer after she lost her father in an ATV accident. Ty became her rock, talking her through her grief long into the night. Then, on Aug. 13, 2003—Renee's 18th birthday—he dropped to one knee and held out a pin box. Inside was a note: "I owe you one engagement ring."

"That was probably the first romantic thing he ever did," says Renee, playfully needling him. Indeed, they have an affectionately teasing relationship. "She gets kind of blonde sometimes," Ty confides. "She'll just have some airhead moments that are pretty funny."

When Ty learned he'd be going back to Iraq for a second seven-month tour, "I said, 'Let's go to the courthouse before you leave,'" Renee recalls. "I just wanted him to be my husband." But Ty wanted to wait and have a proper ceremony. Ever pragmatic, he bought a two-bedroom white clapboard house so it would be there for them when he returned. On her 19th birthday—exactly one year after he'd proposed—Ty shipped out, and Renee threw herself into planning a spring wedding. Then, just before Christmas 2004, two months before Ty was due home, Renee received a call to come to his parents' house. "I was thinking he's home, surprising me," she recalls. "I got to their house. His mom was crying. They told me Ty had been blown up." Clinging to life, he'd been flown to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. "The next morning," Renee says, "I flew down there with one suitcase and a week's worth of clothes."

She lived there a year and a half. When she first saw Ty in the ICU, she was relieved. "He looked like himself except swollen and burnt black," she recalls. But, a little while later, Ty was taken out of the room to have the layers of dead skin removed; when nurses wheeled him back in, Renee couldn't recognize her fiancé. "I asked a nurse, 'This isn't Ty—where is Ty at?'"

Putting her shock aside, Renee rolled up her sleeves. Says Ty's mother, Becky Ziegel: "There were weeks of, 'if he makes it through the night, if he makes it through the next 48 hours.' And Renee stayed throughout everything." Her greatest fear, Renee says, was that brain surgery—doctors removed Ty's damaged frontal lobe—might affect his personality. She was overjoyed when she heard him swearing from his hospital bed. "It was a miracle," she says. "He still cussed. There was nothing different about him whatsoever."

For two months Ty was kept deeply sedated. All the while, Renee showered him with affection, donning sterile gloves to hold his remaining right hand, leaning over to kiss his face. It was a while before they could lock lips—not until surgeons grafted him new ones with groin tissue. (As for greater intimacy, that took many months. Now, Renee says, "it's the same as it always was.") Renee's and his mother's devotion, Ty says, hastened his recovery. "Why should I get any better if there's nobody there to get better for?" he says.

After Ty became more fully conscious, around Valentine's Day 2005, doctors told Renee not to tell him how badly he'd been hurt—the shock, in her words, could lead to a "depression state." Typically physicians believe it's best that patients like Ty become aware of the extent of their injuries only gradually. "We'd take him outside, and he'd say, 'I want sunglasses,'" Renee says. "We couldn't tell him, 'You can't wear them because you have no ears.'" As he came out of his fog, Ty slowly caught on, one day noticing the nub where his brawny left arm had been, another day glimpsing himself in a mirror during a prosthesis fitting. "We were talking one day, and he said he had seen himself," Renee says. "I was shocked. He had no reaction when he told me." Ty reveals little about how he adjusted to his appearance, saying, "I guess I took it pretty well." But Renee hints at what that has been like for her. "He doesn't resemble anything of what he used to look like," she says. "But I look at Ty and I see Ty. I don't even notice a difference now."

In May 2005, Ty, Renee and Becky moved into Fisher House, a nonprofit communal home for injured troops and their families, where they lived for 14 months. From the start, the couple impressed with their swagger. "He was just as cocky as he could be, and she's just as cocky as he is," says occupational therapist Stephanie Angle. "Ty is going to tell you what he thinks, and Renee gets right back at him." While Ty underwent rigorous therapy, Renee cooked meals and grew close with other young wives—sometimes they'd gather in a gazebo for a smoke and a break from reality. At night she and Ty might play cards or watch TV. Ty carved a niche for himself as a sounding board for other patients, motivating them when they'd get discouraged. "If they were complaining about garbage," Ty says, "they'd see me and feel they don't need to complain."

Both Ty and Renee were an inspiration to Staff Sgt. Jason Leisey, their upstairs neighbor at Fisher House, who lost all the fingers on his left hand in Iraq. "I saw guys whose girls left them," says Leisey, 26. "But for them, it seemed they got stronger." In time, Ty and Renee started venturing into San Antonio. One favorite haunt was a tattoo parlor, where Ty had "Chicks Dig Scars" stamped on one leg. Of course, getting out in the world meant dealing with gawking strangers. "Little kids look at me, and I'll give them the benefit of the doubt and wave and say hi," Ty says, adding devilishly, "But if they're still being little turds, I'll make a face or hide behind an aisle and pop out when they go by."

For his birthday last Oct. 18, Renee treated Ty to a weekend in a hotel along the city's scenic Riverwalk. They wined and dined with friends, then returned to their room. Then, to her surprise, Ty did something she'd never seen him do: He wept. "He said 'I feel sorry for you. You don't deserve this,'" she recalls. But Renee refused to pity him—or herself. "I told him to shut up. I said, 'I've seen you at your worst. I'm here because I want to be.'"

This past July, Ty and Renee finally came home to stay, moving back into Ty's house. In September townsfolk gathered to put on a new roof, build a new front porch and redo the floors. Renee put off college to care for Ty, but plans to enroll at Illinois Central College in January. Ty hoped to stay in the Marine reserves but couldn't stomach a desk job and took medical retirement. For now they're living on his pension and Renee's pay as a part-time bartender. Uncertain what he'll do next, Ty says, "I haven't ruled anything out."

The couple quickly slipped back into old routines, knocking back drinks with friends (he favors Black Russians, she, Corona beer) or dining out with family. Ty still does most of the driving, bickering with Renee about what CD to play: She prefers country; he's a fan of heavy guitar—and used to play a bit, before he was wounded. Ty has opted against prosthetic ears and a nose—they're too much trouble to glue on each morning and remove at night. "Everything is the exact same except he got blown up," says Renee of the man she impishly calls Mr. Potato Head. "We get up and do everything we used to. The only difference is I button his pants because that's one thing he hasn't figured out."

Fiercely independent, Ty often rejects Renee's offers of help these days. Remembering little of the bombing—the impact "was like getting hit with a baseball bat"—he says he has none of the phantom-limb pain that frequently plagues amputees and takes only Advil for the occasional headache. Remarkably, say those closest to him, he has displayed no obvious signs of post-traumatic stress. "He could get pissy—he's not Mr. Sunshine-and-Daisies all the time," his mother, Becky, says. "But as far as having a pity party for himself, that's just not him."

On the eve of their wedding, Ty and Renee gathered for the rehearsal barbecue at Ty's parents' house. Downing shots of Jägermeister in the kitchen, he joked with his father, Jeff, 53, and some G.I.s he'd met in rehab. Later the couple met outside and strolled a few paces away from the guests. Under a full moon, she leaned into him and they kissed.

Their lips met again the next day, when Steven Huff, a Marine chaplain, pronounced them husband and wife. The auditorium erupted in whoops as Ty and Renee walked out into the brilliant sun, where a Marine detail raised swords in unison, forming an arch for them to pass through. Following USMC tradition, the last Marine dropped his sword to block the way, while another gave Renee a swat on the butt, "officially" welcoming her to the Corps. "Usually they say opposites attract, but I think their souls are exactly the same," Renee's sister-in-law Christie Kline said in her toast. "If Renee can fart and burp in front of Ty, I think they're meant for each other."

There's a little more to it than that, and whether or not they'll admit it, the Ziegels face more challenges than most. "Right now everything is exciting," Huff says. "Everyone in Metamora was either at the wedding or knew about it. But once the hoopla dies down and friends and relatives get on with their lives, it will be up to Ty and Renee to make this marriage work."

The couple hope to start a family in a year or two. Renee isn't worried about how their kids will react to their dad's appearance. "They won't know any different," she says. Renee, of course, does know different. It's just that, most days, it doesn't seem to matter. "I fell in love with his heart," she says. "They haven't taken that away."

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