By MAUREEN ROSE
Gold Standard Acting Editor
Soldiers always love to hear hero stories.
But this one would be more likely to wear an apron than a uniform.
Shannon Viau, wife of retired 1st Sgt. Denis Viau, stood by watching her husband with pride as he was pinned with a Bronze Star with valor device in a ceremony Friday. Denis, who was previously awarded a Purple Heart, was critically wounded in a battle that cost him dearly. As he thanked the audience for attending, he said, “The real hero is my wife; she was with me 24/7 at Walter Reed.”
And so this story is about that hero … the one who held the Family and the Soldier together while he was locked in a second deadly battle to save his life and his leg. The life was saved; the leg was eventually amputated just below the knee.
Shannon said Denis was surprised to hear his award citation describe the events of Dec. 4, 2004; he doesn’t remember the blast of the rocket-propelled grenade that tore through his leg, he doesn’t remember directing his Soldiers through two separate attacks in spite of his own wounds; he doesn’t remember the medical evacuation flight that took him to Landstuhl, Germany and eventually to Walter Reed then in Washington, D.C.
When Shannon saw her husband Dec. 21 for the first time since his injury, he looked terrible. His face was terribly swollen, he was in a medically-induced coma and he had just endured his first amputation. There was so much debris in his wound, the bones of his leg were infected, forcing three more surgeries to amputate more of his leg each time.
During the five months of his hospital stay, Denis was afraid Shannon might leave him alone.
“He wasn’t lucid enough to be his own advocate,” she said.
He worried about medication errors, or waking up from a surgery to learn his entire leg had been removed. He depended on Shannon to be his health guardian.
That dependence put a real strain on their marriage, Shannon said, and it continued to take a toll for about two more years after his hospital stay was completed.
“But now, we have a bond that many couples never develop,” she said. “He knows he can trust me.”
The injury affected the couple’s children as well. In addition to the fright they experienced seeing their father so horribly changed, their stability took a blow. During Denis’s five-month inpatient stay, their first-grade daughter and third-grade son stayed with their grandparents in Vermont. The grandparents spoke little English; they had immigrated from Canada and spoke French. The children didn’t know them well and had a hard time communicating. During the year her father was hurt, their daughter, Elizabeth, changed schools four times. By sixth grade, she was on her 12th school. Now things are relatively normal, although their son still harbors bitterness about the Army.
During the long months at WRAMC, Shannon and Denis were visited by many people and groups offering to help with anything they needed, but Shannon said at that point they didn’t really know what they needed. The USO organized a support group for caregivers that she found helpful.
“We could get together and commiserate, share funny stories and cry,” she said. “I cried a lot in those days, but never in front of Denis. I think tears are a good thing; they’re cleansing and let you release all the negative emotions and then you can handle whatever you need to deal with,” she said. “You learn to compartmentalize. You can’t look at the huge list of tasks that lie ahead; you have to just look at what you must do right now, this one job. That’s the only way to get through it.”
Like most people who sustain a life-threatening injury, Denis had to work his way through a lot of anger and pride issues on his way to healing. Shannon said she was often in the line of fire, but she learned not to take his blowups personally, knowing he needed her to help him work it out. He suffered nightmares and many medication side effects that they both learned to take in stride.
However, some things just were beyond her scope.
“Walter Reed has an army of amputees who would visit and talk to Denis the way only another man could do; they really helped him,” Shannon said. “They told me they needed to talk to him in private and I had to leave the room so he could ask the questions he needed to.”
At last, the worst of Denis’s struggle is in the past.
“The doctors at Walter Reed are amazing,” Shannon said. “He’s considered a success story there; the orthopedic doctors never thought they would be able to get a good socket fit for his prosthesis.”
Denis healed so well, he was able to return to active duty and served another seven years before he was finally “not having fun anymore.” He retired from the Army and currently enjoys being a gentleman farmer, as his wife describes it. She still works full time at Cadet Command, so now he helps at home when she gets too busy to “maintain things.”
Shannon said Denis blends into the general population most of the time because his prosthesis fits so well, he doesn’t limp. Few people realize he’s an amputee, unless he wears shorts.
“He doesn’t want to be defined as an amputee,” Shannon said. “He’s proud of his service and he has a Purple Heart license plate on his car, but he doesn’t want to stand out; he’s a very quiet guy.”
Denis will probably always have medical problems due to his injuries; he still has so much shrapnel that Shannon said she often finds little metallic flakes on the sheets of their bed. Because his residual limb is subject to chronic wounds, he’ll return to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., periodically for his medical care.
Warriors pay a very high price for the freedom they secure for their fellow Americans, she said.
“They are the guardians of the most expensive life insurance policy in the world.”