When a Soldier Comes Home

updated 06/01/2009 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/01/2009 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The Florida sky is just turning pink outside the new beige stucco house, and Staff Sgt. Russ Marek and his father, Paul, have already been awake for an hour. Paul has hauled his 37-year-old son out of bed, attached his prosthetic arm and leg and helped him shave. Leaning on a walker, Russ makes his way into the kitchen. He tucks into a bowl of bran flakes, then scratches his neck with his prosthetic hand while glancing at the morning paper. "I missed a spot shaving this morning," says Paul, 64, leaning in to examine his son's neck. "I've got to get you some lotion."

Caring for his adult son full time was not in Paul's retirement plans. But ever since the Army called more than three years ago with the shattering news that Russ had sustained life-threatening injuries in Iraq, Paul and his wife, Rose, 69, have had their lives upended by this man who left home as a fearless soldier and returned a disabled vet needing the same basic care as a small child. Most mornings the Mareks rise at 5:30 a.m. to get Russ to physical therapy. Russ' identical twin, Todd, and younger brother Adam, 31, come by every few weeks to relieve their parents, hang out or take Russ to get a haircut. And Russ, who lived alone before going overseas, now finds himself dependent on parents who take two-week shifts in his house in Viera, Fla., to care for him. "When you wound a soldier, you wound the whole family," says Paul, a mortgage broker who took early retirement when Russ came home. "You do what needs to be done and don't wait for anyone to help you."

Having his mother put the toothpaste on his toothbrush again wasn't in Russ' mind either when he shipped out for his second tour in Iraq in early 2005. "When they sent us off, they would say, 'This could happen to you. Are you ready?'" says Russ, sitting in a customized beige recliner which can lift him to a standing position. "Everybody was, 'Yeah! Yeah!' But I was like, 'Hmmm, that won't happen to me.' But it did happen." On Sept. 16, 2005, his tank rolled over a makeshift bomb in Baghdad. The explosion killed two of Marek's crew and the right side of Russ' body was severely burned. He eventually lost his right arm and right leg, still struggles to control his left side because of a brain injury and now speaks with a slight slur. Though he's slowly reclaiming his abilities, autonomy remains uncertain. "I wish I could be normal—wake up, get the paper and cook breakfast," says Russ, who is learning to walk again. "But my parents have always been there for me."

Russ spent a year—part of it comatose, most of it unable to speak—at hospitals in Washington, D.C., San Antonio and Tampa. His mother moved with him to each hospital and didn't return to her Florida home until Russ did too. "I read to him and sang songs that my mother sang to me," Rose says. "And I played with his toes: 'This little piggy went to market.'" When he awoke from an induced coma four months after being wounded, the Mareks rejoiced—and considered their new reality with clear-eyed determination. At a family meeting next to his hospital bed after Russ was bestowed the Purple Heart in 2006, they vowed to resist despair. "We all had tears in our eyes," recalls Paul. "We agreed there's not a damn thing we can do to change what happened. We could only look forward."

As soon as he was able to be moved, the family loaded Russ into a van and drove him down to the Florida Keys where they had spent nearly every one of the twins' birthdays, even lighting candles on key lime pies. "That made a world of difference," Rose says. "After that trip, Russ had a renewed energy to get better." Still, when Todd now looks at his brother, once his mirror image, he tries not to dwell on their carefree years spent surfing and drinking beer. "My initial reaction was: Let's fix him. He's obviously broken," says Todd, who took a job with a defense contractor after Russ was injured. Now, though, "we're just happy to have him here," says Todd.

A year after the injury Russ moved in with his parents in Satellite Beach, Fla. The demands of care overwhelmed them. Russ' wheelchair was too big for the bathroom, so Paul and Rose had to carry their son every time he needed to take a shower or use the toilet. "I could barely do it," says Rose, a retired secretary. Their burden has eased considerably now thanks to the nonprofit Homes for Our Troops (see box), which agreed to build Russ his own customized house. Last fall he moved into a three-bedroom house with wide hallways, a bidet—which freed him from relying on his parents for bathroom needs—and a pool in the backyard.

Now the challenge is helping Russ do more for himself—without letting the stress of "Russell-sitting," as they call it, unravel the rest of them. "Our goal is for him to spend a night alone by July," says Paul. Rose would like someone to teach her son life skills—"someone who could teach him to make a sandwich"—since he doesn't always love listening to his mother. "I don't want it to be a battle of wits," she says with a rueful laugh. "You're still dealing with a child, except he's an adult child!"

The family takes great pride in keeping Russ moving forward. "Yes, there are days that are frustrating as hell," says his dad. "What he's done is nothing short of a miracle." So far Russ has battled depression and put all his sweat and grit into regaining independence. "When I first woke up I thought about killing myself," he says. "And when my arm doesn't work, I want to throw it across the room." Instead he now focuses on small victories such as buckling a seat belt or walking without spilling a glass of water. He also savors time with his family—time he almost didn't have. "I thank the Lord every day that they're so supportive," says Russ. "We've always been close, but now it feels like we're a family again."

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