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Iraq vet: Losing home ‘worse than getting blown up’

Updated: 2013-10-29T22:00:50Z

By Tim Potter

The Wichita Eagle

— In 2007, Staff Sgt. Jerrod Hays lost nearly half of his face to a roadside bomb in Iraq.

Now, the 44-year-old Wellington man could lose his home to foreclosure.

“This,” Hays said of the prospect of losing his home, “is worse than getting blown up.”

In the attack south of Baghdad, he lost much of his lower jawbone, 22 teeth, a third of his tongue and one and a half fingers. He nearly lost his right arm and lost movement in a wrist. He lost the ability to see normally: He has to wear sunglasses outside and he has trouble seeing at night. Shrapnel remains peppered into his body. He suffers chronic pain.

Some of the damage is painful in a different way: He feels self-conscious about his facial scars.

“I still feel the stares,” he said.

He has grown a goatee over skin that the emergency room team saved after his jawbone was blown away. The goatee helps to hide the scars.

Because of his appearance, he is reluctant to venture from Wellington or Anthony, the towns where people know him best and he feels most comfortable.

In his kitchen the other day, he looked at a picture of himself in uniform before the blast changed his face. He had a handsome jawline.

“That ol’ boy is dead,” he said, peering at his pre-blast face. “He’s dead as a hammer.”

His jawline is different now. A scar juts from the corner of his mouth. Because of damage to tissue and muscles that form precise sounds, his speech is somewhat slurred.

The prospect of losing his house is a wound to his pride. He views it as a failure.

Hays is a husband and father of two teenage sons. Before he became a casualty of war, before the 45-plus surgeries to repair his body, he worked for a foundry in Belle Plaine.

He had been a supervisor. He served in the Kansas National Guard for 26 years before retiring in August at the rank of sergeant first class. He led soldiers.

He said he and his wife, Nancy, take most of the blame for their mortgage trouble. They began missing mortgage payments a couple years ago. He said they always wanted to pay their bills, that they tried to catch up, make things right with the lender, but couldn’t.

The couple says his wounds have left him unable to work. She spends so much time helping him – “Nancy’s a better soldier than I am,” he says – she is unemployed.

Now, they are doggedly trying to modify their loan so they can hold onto the home where Cocoa, their pet Chihuahua, is buried in the back yard. Hays said the dog saved him and his family by boosting their spirits as he tried to recover. Cocoa would gently lick his scars. To Hays, the little dog also deserved a Purple Heart.

They said it could be too late to save the house, that they could lose their home any day. To their knowledge, no foreclosure day has been set. They don’t know how soon it could happen.

They didn’t talk publicly about their predicament until an Eagle reporter approached them, after indirectly hearing of their trouble. The reporter asked them to share their story.

Dream home

They closed on their Wellington home on Sept. 11, 2007. The combat-wounded soldier couldn’t help but note it was the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. They had lived in a “shoebox” home before, and they got the bigger, two-story home about seven months after he nearly died in the attack.

It was their dream home, Hays said. It had been built in 1900, with “real wood” and 12-foot ceilings.

Hays takes pride in a tall flagpole in his front yard. An American flag, its colors vibrant, flaps at the top. At the bottom, Hays erected a “military cross” from wood carved into the shape of an M-16 rifle, topped with a vintage combat helmet.

Inside the home, plaques with patriotic slogans line the walls.

Hays doesn’t waver in his belief that going to war was the right thing to do and his opinion that American soldiers should still be there.

“I’d do it all over again,” he said of his service.

The toll of war

Still, the war has taken a toll on him. He went from being a leader of soldiers to being somewhat reclusive because he doesn’t want people to gawk at his injuries.

“It’s a kick in the butt,” he said.

He has dealt with depression and has gone to the VA for help with it. “I love it there,” he said.

He calls his psychologist and therapist “my coconut mechanics.” He hasn’t lost his sense of humor.

Still, he has struggled with drinking. Earlier this year, he said, he got charged with driving under the influence, and dealing with that has been a further financial setback.

He said he has suffered from PTSD and “freaks out” in certain traffic situations. To him, an overpass is a place where the enemy can hide. He avoids situations where traffic bunches up. In his war-trained mind, that makes him a sitting target.

His advice for motorists: “If you see a veteran tag, don’t tailgate. These guys are trained … hardwired, and it’s hard to diffuse it.”

He still wakes up in a panic, wondering where his weapon is, because he was programmed to know where it was at every moment.

‘In a mess’

After the hell of Iraq, Hays found comfort in the airy old house.

They had been paying their bills but then got behind. “It was our fault,” Hays said.

He said the Kansas Adjutant General’s Department, which oversees the Kansas National Guard, and retired Adjutant General Tod Bunting have tried to help the couple with their mortgage situation.

Bunting said of Hays, “He’s a very special guy to me. ... He’s one of our medical miracles.”

Sharon Watson, spokeswoman for the Adjutant General’s Department, said of Hays: “Our department is still assisting him, and we want to assist him in any way we can.” Military members who get into difficulty with their mortgage have some legal protection, so the department’s legal staff is looking into whether Hays would qualify for help, Watson said. The department has a family assistance program that helps veterans and is looking into how the Hays family can be helped, she said.

Hays said he and his wife paid a Florida company about $5,000 to help them refinance the mortgage but that the company took advantage of them.

At one point earlier this year, their house sold at a “sheriff’s sale,” an auction of foreclosed homes. Hays, still active duty then, showed up at the sale, at the courthouse.

He wore his uniform. He is still bitter about the experience. “Get all blowed up in Iraq, just to have your American dream taken away from you.”

After the sale, he went out to his vehicle outside the courthouse and cried hard, “like a little school kid.”

As he understands it, the sale should have been canceled because he was an active-duty soldier at the time. But he and his wife missed a deadline to file the necessary paperwork because they thought the Florida company was handling the paperwork.

Somehow, the sale got retracted, Nancy Hays said.

Now, at the very time they are trying to keep their home, their income is at a low point. Hays said that although he is getting military retirement pay, it is significantly below what he received before retirement, and his disability pay has yet to kick in. He’s heard that there is a delay of several months in processing disability payments.

The couple said the lender is no longer accepting payments for the mortgage, possibly because of legal issues, and they fear they could be foreclosed on “any time.” Because he is no longer active-duty, he said, he lost some legal standing to keep his house.

The lender’s attorney on the Hays’ mortgage case couldn’t be reached for comment.

The couple has been submitting paperwork to try head off a foreclosure. Nancy Hays said the lender has been “awesome to work with … it’s just we’re in a mess, and it’s hard to get out of.”

They owe about $114,000 on their home loan, and had been paying $1,105 for the mortgage, taxes and insurance.

Recently, they had to turn to a soldiers’ relief fund to pay an electric bill. While they appreciated the help, Hays said an official with the fund made them “feel like a loser” for seeking help.

Bunting, the retired adjutant general, said it’s not uncommon for non-commissioned officers — whose job is to take care of other soldiers — to be reluctant to seek help. He said Hays repeatedly has told him that it was his job to help others, and “I’m not supposed to need help.”

Bunting said he has heard that Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are the fastest growing group of homeless people and that it reflects some problem with handling finances.

It can be hard for veterans to acclimate to a civilian job, even a good job, because it doesn’t match the rush that goes with war duty, Bunting said. The situation can make it easier for a veteran to lose a job and get into financial trouble. “It can start a bad spiral,” he said.

Attack and aftermath

The attack that blew up the life Hays had known began around 1:30 a.m. Feb. 22, 2007, with a mortar barrage on his base south of Baghdad. The mortars came down with precision, and Hays believes Iranian “regulars” were behind the attack. Higher-ups ordered a three-vehicle patrol to go out and take out the mortar team. Hays said the commander had a standing order: “Draw the enemy out. Smash them like a bug.”

Hays rode with three other soldiers in an armored Humvee that was the trail vehicle. This is what he remembers: Out on the blacktop, an initial explosion lifted up the vehicle in front of them. Then came a second explosion – the loudest sound he had ever heard, even after serving in the artillery. He had earphones on, which might have saved his hearing.

The blast sent a molten projectile past his face, so fast he didn’t see it. But he felt it and instantly thought, “Oh, (expletive)! These are EFPs (explosively formed projectiles or penetrators).” Essentially, he said, an EFP consists of a brass cone with explosives that form a big molten bullet that can blast a heavily armored vehicle.

Hays got hit by the burst of splintering debris left by the molten bullet. One of the fragments that hit him appeared to possibly be a piece of bone from a fellow soldier.

The sensation he felt on his face he compares to being hit by a slushy snowball when your cheek is already red and chilled after playing outdoors on a cold day, like a hard snowball that comes out of nowhere and smacks you in the face. It stings.

“That,” he said, “took most of my face.” It tore out much of his lower jawbone, leaving his lower face shredded.

He looked down at his shaking hands. One finger didn’t work. One lay peeled back.

He looked at his buddy, Staff Sgt. David Berry of Wichita, seated in the passenger seat in front of him. Hays could only grunt to his friend.

Berry was – valiantly and heroically in Hays’ estimation – radioing for help.

“We have wounded!” Berry called out.

And to the gunner, Berry shouted, “Return (expletive) fire!”

But a second explosion hit their Humvee, and Hays saw his buddy die instantly. The two men had been friends since they were 14.

Things went black, except for flames surrounding them.

Hays doesn’t remember exiting the Humvee but was told he got out on his own.

He tried to reach for his M-4 rifle, but couldn’t handle it with his injured hands and arms.

A medic tending to him asked him to tell her about his wife. He told the medic that he was dead, to move on to the wounded who could be saved.

“She saved my life,” he said.

Most of his lower jawbone was gone; someone in the emergency room gathered the remaining skin around his mouth so it could be kept alive.

He woke up not able to see, not able to talk.

“I thought I was dead.”

He spent two years at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, undergoing dozens of surgeries that involved saving the rest of his tongue, which had been charred and split into three parts. That involved constructing a lower jawbone partly with bone grafts from his hips.

Part of his chin remains numb, but the area around it is hypersensitive.

Despite the injuries, he still has a good taste sensation. “I love food,” he said. He patted his belly.

Ready for best, worst

What will he do if he loses his house?

It’s hard to think about, Hays said. “I’ll hope for the best but prepare for the worst, I guess.”

Losing the home would mean having to rent. Another thing: Moving would mean having to dig up Cocoa’s remains. It would be hard to leave her behind.

There are days, he said, when he wonders if he would have been better off dying in Iraq, days “that I wish I could swap with Dave (Berry, the sergeant who died), in a heartbeat.”

And there are times, he said, when he thinks back to how he used to complain to himself when he had to get up at 4 a.m. to go work at the foundry.

“I would trade back to that right now.”

Reach Tim Potter at 316-268-6684 or tpotter@wichitaeagle.com.

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