It’s the little things that get to Sergio Lopez the most. Like not being able to get his daughter Sofia when she wakes up from her nap because he’s not balanced enough on his prosthetic legs to maneuver stairs with a 1-year-old in his arms.
Since losing both legs when a roadside bomb exploded below his Humvee in Iraq in January 2006, Sergio has found his role as dad to Sasha, 4, and Sofia, 1, changed in a million small ways. But how he and his wife Maria have handled the challenges of the past year gives the young couple confidence that with perseverance they can overcome anything as a family, Sergio says.
While Sergio can talk in detail about his accident and flight to Germany and Walter Reed Army Medical Center for treatment, Maria remembers nothing except that when she received the call on her cell phone about Sergio’s accident she had to pull over to the side of the road. The resulting events are a blur as Maria, one month pregnant at the time, prepared to go to Walter Reed. There, Sergio’s legs were amputated below the knee and he spent months learning to walk again.
Being strong for each other
Although he faced great physical challenges, Sergio gives most of the credit for being strong to Maria. "The first time I was deployed (to Iraq in 2003-04) she was able to deal with the baby on her own," Sergio says.
She was pregnant again when the bomb exploded, 10 days after Sergio had arrived in Iraq the second time. She, Sasha and Sergio’s mom were at Walter Reed with him for months while he recuperated. "She was the strong one. My mom was crying and it was Maria who was pulling everyone together." Maria was only 21 at the time.
Sergio spent almost a year at Walter Reed and then retired from the Army because of his injuries. Sofia was born at the naval hospital near Walter Reed, with her dad at her side. Near the end of Sergio’s rehabilitation, Maria returned home to Joliet with both children and bought a house for the family.
The couple struggles with creating a life that is nothing like what they envisioned when they met in high school. Financial complications have kept Sergio at home all day when he’d prefer to be out earning an income for his family and not dwelling on the limited amount of help he can be to his wife and kids.
"I like being home with them, but I don’t like being home all day," says Sergio, who receives a military pension and social security. To maintain those benefits, he can only earn $850 or less per month. To make it worth losing the benefits, Sergio would have to earn more than $3,000 a month, an amount he finds daunting since he hasn’t attended college and is disabled. "So it’s very complicated, that’s the only way to describe it."
For Maria, having a disabled husband means "I now have to consider many things that people my age are not necessarily worried about, such as when we go out I have to get the wheelchair in and out of the truck, make sure he is OK and also get my daughters," she says.
Finding the positive
"The good part is that Sergio is here with us, and there is more family quality time," Maria says.
And the children are learning a lot from what their family has gone through. Sasha was with her dad and the many other disabled soldiers in daily physical therapy at Walter Reed. "If she’d stayed here and one day I got back without legs, it would’ve been a shock. But she was there for my amputation and she was at the hospital every day. At times we’d get in the elevator and she’d just start talking to people in the hospital. She grew up fast because of this," Sergio says.
Sergio notices that Sasha has learned to be more tolerant of people with disabilities. She’ll tell Sofia not to stare if they encounter a disabled person when they’re out. "I know she’s a better person already because of this," Sergio says. "I hope from this they’ll learn that life can throw things at you, but once you tackle a situation, the way you handle it will show the kind of person you are."
And Sergio says this situation has shown what an incredible person his wife is. "I’m not the only veteran in my family. My wife had to stay here and fight the same battle I was fighting over there. Military spouses have the toughest job in the world because not only do they have to worry day and night, but they have to take over the entire household while the family member is gone," Sergio says. "I really appreciate my wife for what she’s been through and what she’ll still go through because we’re only getting started."