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The triumph of love
The US marine Ty Ziegel suffered horrific burns in a suicide bomb attack in Iraq. After months in hospital, he was eventually able to return home — and marry his childhood sweetheart. By Sarah Baxter. Photographs by Nina Berman
When Marine Sergeant Ty Ziegel woke up from his coma, he was still in a fog of drugs. He knew his fiancée, Renee, was there and sensed her love for him. She had been playing with his feet because there was so little of him she could touch. He was told of his injuries but was so out of it, he thought: “Whatever.”
As the scale of his injuries sank in, his heart tightened. One arm was a stump and his remaining hand had only two fingers. Later, his big toe was grafted on in place of a thumb. One eye was blind and milky, as if melted, and his ears had been burnt away. The top of his skull had been removed and inserted by doctors into the fatty tissue inside his torso to keep it viable and moist for future use. He was a mess.
Renee received the news that he had been blown up from his mother and father, who asked her to come over. They didn’t dare tell her until she reached their house. The next morning, on Christmas Eve, they flew together to the Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas and set up a vigil at his bedside. “He was a strange charcoal colour, but Ty still looked like himself,” says his mother, Becky. By the time his burnt flesh had been removed, he didn’t.
“I don’t remember saying it to Renee, but I’d have understood if she’d said, ‘Yeah, I’m out of here,’” Ty says.
He had seen other badly wounded soldiers and marines get dumped by their girlfriends in hospital. Sometimes they would be cruel to their girlfriends and chuck them pre-emptively to spare themselves hurt. But quietly and with little fuss, Ty, 24, and Renee, 21, resolved to stick it out.
They were married in October, in their home town of Metamora, Illinois, a small farming community in the Midwest. Friends, family and marines were present: it was as if the whole town had turned out. The wedding was planned to the last exquisite detail by Renee and her mother, Donna, who spoke regularly on the phone because Ty was still undergoing operations in Texas.
“I did the male part of the wedding planning,” says Ty. “They’d ask me questions, but I always gave the wrong answer, so eventually they stopped asking me about it.”
Renee felt sick with nerves before going up the aisle, but she had no second thoughts. She looked radiant in a white dress. “You’re beautiful,” Ty told her. He wore his combat medals and a Purple Heart for being wounded in action.
Donna had been shocked when she found out the extent of Ty’s injuries, but she told her daughter she simply had to “follow her heart, and that we’d make it work, if she wanted it”. Today she is convinced that they will never part.
Ty was on his second tour of duty in Iraq and had been patrolling the streets in a truck with six marines around al-Qaim, an entry point for foreign fighters on the Syrian border. He had been there for five months, and the mission had become routine. “Mostly we just rode around and came back. The atmosphere was not particularly menacing. They weren’t shooting guns at us any more.”
Suddenly a suicide bomber blew himself up by his truck. “It felt like somebody just blasted me in the face really hard,” Ty recalls. “I was rolling around on the bed of a truck, yelling the whole time I was conscious. The guy next to me kept putting me out – I guess I kept relighting.”
He was put in a helicopter and his clothes were cut off.
“I kept saying I was cold, and they put a poncho liner on me.” He continued to shiver under the flimsy covering. “I remember saying, ‘Oh, thanks, a poncho liner!’ before passing out.” Ty had taken the full force of the blast. The marines travelling with him mostly escaped injury, though one had to have a foot amputated when it failed to heal.
Ty’s sense of humour kept his spirits up through the long months of recovery. His deadpan wit was one of the reasons Renee had fallen for him. She was just 15 when Ty, an athletic, handsome 18-year-old, began working as a mechanic at her dad’s garage. They were barely more than children then, and kept their relationship a secret from Renee’s family. It was more of a flirtation. They would mess around at the garage, both in their greasy overalls and T-shirts. It changed when Ty, a reservist, invited Renee to the Marine Corps ball in nearby Peoria. He looked dashing in his dress uniform; she stepped out of a green pick-up truck in a beautiful long, red gown. “He wouldn’t let me leave his side,” Renee remembers. “I never said, ‘Do you want to go out with me?’” Ty chips in, “but it was clear I wasn’t going to be hanging out with any other girls.”
When Ty was sent to Iraq for the first time, they had just started dating. Renee avoided watching the news and carried on with life as a schoolgirl, while Ty experienced the excitement of the Iraq invasion, storming through the desert to Baghdad. It was thrilling to be part of such a successful operation. Three weeks after Ty returned home from his first tour, Renee’s father died in a freak quad-bike accident. She was devastated. “I made Ty stay with me, whether he wanted to or not,” she says. “I was sure he’d get sick of me.”
On her 18th birthday, Ty arranged for a single rose to be sent to Renee every hour for four hours. The first note said: “Happy birthday.” The second: “I love you.” The third: “Renee Nicole Kline, will you?” By then, she guessed what was coming. The last words were: “marry me”. And then he walked in with more roses. “They are hopeless romantics,” says Becky, who tended her son with Renee and grew to know her future daughter-in-law inside out.
Becky recalled that on Valentine’s Day in hospital in 2005, Ty was so wounded he could hardly speak. She and Renee taped a pen to the splint on his hand and he wrote as best he could on a dry erase board: “Ty and Renee”.
“Well, we think it said ‘Ty and Renee’,” Becky laughs. “Then doctors removed his ‘trake’ – the tracheostomy tube in his neck that had been feeding him when his lips were too burnt – and he said, ‘Renee, will you be my valentine?’ I cried.” His next words were: “Do you want to make out?” Months passed before they could, but at that moment she knew that he hadn’t really changed.
Renee had feared that while Ty was in a coma, he would emerge brain-damaged. In addition to his burns, shrapnel had entered his brain. “The only thing that might have changed my mind or made me leave him was if the brain injury had made him into some sort of psycho.”
Ty gets headaches sometimes, but he just takes an aspirin and gets on with it. In hospital he saw soldiers and marines with fewer injuries than him behave more self-pityingly. “Anger has a lot to do with the person,” he says. “I’ve seen guys who had no complaints, really, act pretty pissed off.”
Ty has a plastic skull now, and the old one is still stuck in his insides. He taps the side of his waist, where there is a slight bulge. The lump of bone will be removed one day but he is in no hurry to undergo another operation. There will be plenty of those ahead: he hopes the sight in his blind eye can be restored, though he doubts he is going to rebuild his nose – it involves too many awkward skin grafts.
In Metamora, people know him well enough not to stare a lot, but he gets plenty of looks elsewhere. Mostly he shrugs it off. “I give people the benefit of the doubt. If you were me, I might look at you.” If they are particularly rude, he will turn and say: “So what were you going to ask me?”
On the plus side, Ty claims: “I can be a lot more of an ass and get away with it.” It is also a long time since he has bought dinner. “I tried to take Renee out on her birthday and somebody paid for it. People know you are in the military and they want to thank you.”
He did not join the marines to get thanks and he does not feel strongly about the war one way or the other.
“I’m not political and I don’t complain.” His younger brother is also in the marines and may be deployed in Iraq. Sometimes it bothers Ty, but they both signed up, so that’s that, he says stoically. At one stage he hoped to remain in the marines, but when he thought seriously about it for 10 minutes, he decided to quit. He is living on his pension now while Renee works part-time in a bar. In the spring, he hopes to build a house on a plot of land near his family: “When that’s done, it will be the last house I’ll live in.”
Renee and Ty are thinking about having children soon. “We want to be young, cool parents,” says Rene.