Soldier's wife fights for wounded, families

Sarah Wade's phone rang the night before her usual shift as a waitress and bartender at a Chapel Hill restaurant. It was her boss. He said he had to let her go.

Wade, 32, has told this tale often, and she offered it again last week, speaking into a microphone before members of Congress. Her boss, she recalled, said Wade "had too much going on" in her life - what with her husband missing a right arm and brain-injured because of a bomb blast in Iraq.

Lawmakers and young staffers gasped. She was here to argue for legislation that would allow family members to leave their jobs for six months to care for troops wounded in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Her husband sat behind her, smiling with patient eyes, his prosthetic arm resting in his lap. Sgt. Edward "Ted" Wade, 29, couldn't begin to keep up with his wife's words. His sentences come slowly as his blast-injured brain struggles to fire the synapses to execute his thoughts.

This is how the couple often works, Sarah making the arguments about what needs to change, her husband a quiet symbol for the system's failings. For the first two years after his injury, she fought for him.

Now she wants to fix things not only for Ted but for other veterans who don't have a voice. Returning to Washington again and again, she walks the halls of Congress and makes calls up the chain to someone's boss's boss.

In Washington, corporations pay lobbyists hundreds of thousands of dollars to get their voices heard; but Wade has found that stubbornness and a strong story can get attention, too.

"He fought for his life," Wade said of Ted in an interview. "He doesn't need to fight anymore. None of them do."

So she went last week to a hearing of a House Education and Labor subcommittee, arguing for legislation that would allow family members to leave their jobs for six months to care for a loved one wounded in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The bill is an extension of the 14-year-old Family Medical Leave Act, which allows family members time off to care for newborns or sick family members. Some in Congress want to extend the unpaid leave from three months to six months for family members of injured service members.

A Senate version, sponsored by Democratic Sens. Chris Dodd and Hillary Clinton, has been attached to a larger bill on children's health care in that chamber.

The bill is important to Wade. But it wouldn't have applied to her. The restaurant that fired her, GoodFellas, was too small to qualify for the Family Medical Leave Act.

Wade says she was most frustrated that she didn't get any advance notice. She was a part-time employee who could only work certain days, and she said last week that the owner probably found it tough to cover the workload.

"It's hard for small businesses, basically," Wade said. As a result, she doesn't think the FMLA extension should include small businesses.

But her situation also points up the complexity of employment for family members of injured service members. Steve Woodham, the owner of GoodFellas, said Wade wasn't fired because of her flexibility, but rather because of a personality clash with a new manager. It's true that Wade was working only a few hours a week, he said, but scheduling hadn't been a problem.

"It may be a misconception of what she thought the reason was," Woodham said. "I would never do that. I have too much respect for Ted and what he did for our country."

Some business professionals are wary of extending family leave. It could exacerbate problems companies already face in juggling staff and figuring out how to define "serious medical problems," said Christine Vion-Gillespie, a human resources manager for SAS Institute in Cary, N.C. Vion-Gillespie also testified at last week's hearing, on behalf of the Society for Human Resources Management, a professional organization.

"Employers can be significantly affected" by their workers' leaves, she said. "Adding an additional leave requirement to the FMLA ... will only exacerbate the frustrations HR professionals have experienced."

She wants lawmakers to know: She and Ted aren't the only ones facing these problems with jobs. Nearly 28,000 service members have been injured in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Thousands of spouses and loved ones have left jobs to tend wounds, then struggle alone in a bureaucracy that can leave many warriors behind.

"Being my husband's advocate, attendant, case manager, driver, personal attendant, and of course, spouse, is more than a full-time job," Wade testified this summer before a presidential commission on injured troops. "Many families like ours are still struggling because of mistakes made years ago that still go unresolved."

Ted's was one of the first severe brain injuries of the war, Wade said. And she realized that, after years of fighting for her husband, she could try to fight for others, too.

"She is one of the more gutsy, dynamic people I've ever met," said Bill Cahill, chief counsel for the minority on the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee. "She tied that patient advocacy into national policy advocacy. It's really nice to see."

Sarah Wade tells a lot of stories: how she and the young 82nd Airborne soldier met arguing about a mixed drink she served him at GoodFellas. How she flew to Germany after his injury in February 2004 and wept next to her comatose fiance when American military doctors said there was little hope for his survival. How she held his remaining hand and sobbed to Ted that it was OK if he was ready to die.

She sensed somehow he wasn't. His fight became hers.

She tells of how the couple eventually married months later in the Hillsborough, N.C., courthouse. A copier repairman served as a witness. Ted could barely form words then.

But perhaps the most important story is the one that takes place in Washington, in an underground parking garage on the afternoon in February 2006 when someone found a suspicious white powder in a Senate office building.

About 100 people were quarantined in the garage for fear of anthrax contamination. They included Sarah Wade, who had gone to meet with Cahill, the chief counsel. They also included about half a dozen U.S. senators - Richard Burr of North Carolina among them - all of whom happened to serve on the Armed Services or Veterans' Affairs committees.

Over three hours, Wade lobbied one after another.

The senators, engaged by the young blonde woman with a forceful voice, started making calls in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, she was advocating for Ted at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, meeting people who knew other people. Word got around, and she and Ted eventually were invited to meet with an undersecretary of Veterans Affairs at the Pentagon.

The couple became known because their story illustrated the struggles of thousands like them.

Wade testified at a veterans' disability commission, then this summer at the president's commission on wounded veterans. Last spring, she and Ted stood at Clinton's side for a news conference announcing Clinton's bill to screen soldiers for traumatic brain injury and train family members to be personal care attendants.

She persuaded the Wounded Warriors Project, a national association that organized sports outings and lobbying trips for amputees, to begin advocating for patients with traumatic brain injury.

"She said, I'm going to teach you about this whether you want to hear about it or not," said Meridith Beck, the organization's national policy director. "She's very interested in resolving the issues, not only for her husband, but for others as well."

Wade has been quoted in national publications, can tick off the differences among various bills and has a calendar filled with appointments. She still regularly visits Burr's staffers, and he will be hearing more now that he is the top Republican on the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee.

In a statement, Burr called Wade "a strong and able advocate for our veterans."

Wade came to this with some knowledge of the system. She grew up in suburban Washington and spent a summer after high school interning on Capitol Hill. She attended the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill but quit for good after Ted's injury. Her and Ted's families have been able to help pay the bills for now. She had considered returning to school someday to study international affairs. Now she is considering public policy.

"We've all sat around and complained, but that's not going to fix anything," Wade said. "I feel there's an obligation to inform them, and then you can complain if they don't fix anything."

Wade has a whole list of ideas that she can prioritize: a sharper focus on helping family members, compensation for non-medical caregivers, better coordination between the Defense and Veterans' Affairs agencies, electronic paperwork, fuller health coverage for retired veterans.

Part of her success, she said, is understanding a bit how Washington works. It's articulating exactly how the failures happen and offering ideas for improvements rather than just complaining about her husband's care.

Ted Wade was tired one morning last week after hours of therapy at Walter Reed. He had practiced taking apart and putting together an M-16 with his prosthesis, then tried to balance his unsteady walking gait under the guiding hand of a physical therapist.

Two years ago, he couldn't talk at all. Until his wife found a speech therapist who understood brain injuries, the Army wanted to put him in adult day care.

Last week, through long pauses and blinking eyes, Ted had this to say about his wife:

"To have someone give so much for another person is just not seen so often, I believe. That's why I'm still here.

"And still talking."