LEHI — Mason Wells and Richard Norby still nurse open wounds on their legs.
Dresden Empey had surgery last week to remove a piece of shrapnel nestled against a nerve in his leg.
Sister Fanny Clain is scheduled to have surgery on her wounded ear in two weeks.
One year to the day after a terrorist carted a murderous bomb within yards of four Mormon missionaries and detonated it, killing 16 people, each of the four say they carry both physical and emotional scars.
A psychologist told Norby the first year would be for physical healing, the second for emotional healing. In fact, they all seem confident about their futures despite deeply mixed feelings about March 22, 2016. As they continue to recover, their emotions are a startling jumble of spirituality, positivity and love mixed with constant reminders.
There are things they desperately want to remember. They say the physical scars they will carry the rest of their lives are welcome reminders. There are things, however, that they'd rather forget.
"What they witnessed was as bad as any war scene you'll ever see," Chad Wells, Mason's father, said.
Empey initially worried ISIS would target him in Utah, but said he would serve his mission again, even knowing how it would end. Wells has battled post-traumatic stress disorder and doesn't like to revisit the event, but believes he and Empey were supposed to be at the airport that day. Norby worries about the toll on his wife, Pam, and their children. A fifth missionary who narrowly escaped the bombing said she tries not to think about it but says the experience was good for her.
A one-year anniversary, then, is a chance to see the progress they've made, and to mark time adding distance between them and that bomb.
"The further behind, the better," one mother said.
Still, Norby insisted, "we're not victims, we're survivors." Wednesday, he and his family and Wells' parents, Chad and Kymberly, will get together and release balloons to "celebrate survivorship."
This is what survivorship looks like.
Wells, 20, is a paid congressional intern on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.
Empey, 21, works for his father, a pain specialist in St. George, Utah. Empey runs the X-ray machine. He is on track to start working toward becoming a paramedic. He thinks eventually he would like to be a firefighter in Las Vegas.
Sister Clain, 21, teaches the gospel of Jesus Christ, as a missionary in the Ohio Cleveland Mission of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Norby, 67, lives in Lehi, Utah, embracing the active life of a retired seminary teacher and grandfather intent on "travel and taking pictures." He and his wife, Pam, are trying to write a book.
The four missionaries stood close together in line at the airport until the bomb, laced with nails, blasted shrapnel into their bodies, ended the missionary service of three of the four and blew them away from each other, literally at the time, and figuratively today.
A son is home
For the first two weeks after the bombing, Empey said, he had scary dreams. After he was transported to the University of Utah Burn Center and was about to be released, his apprehension grew.
"I had unrealistic fears that since we had survived, ISIS would target us specifically because we were LDS missionaries, that they would show up at my house and kill us," he said.
Back home, the fears continued for a day or two. They subsided, he said, when he pushed them away by recognizing "that I didn't have any control over that and couldn't stop it."
Since then, he said, he hasn't struggled much with psychological or emotional fallout. Last week, doctors removed shrapnel next to a nerve on the back of his right leg. He still has another 10 pieces of shrapnel in his left leg. They may work themselves out naturally, or stay where they are. He doesn't plan on more surgeries.
He speaks regularly at LDS youth conferences. He talks about God's love and the two great commandments, love God and love your neighbor.
"He's fine," said his mother, Amber Empey. "He seems like a son who came home from a year ago from a mission."
"I would say it was all positive," Empey said. "In the end, there was nothing negative that came from it for me, personally. I feel bad for those who lost their lives or were injured, and for their families. That makes me more grateful for the things we have and the people we love and gives me a greater desire to do good in the world."
Wells has been working on Capitol Hill since January. Despite the turmoil of a new presidential administration, he said the experience has "reinforced my faith in the people running the government."
"I'm a lot better than I was a year ago," he said. "My parents might say I look a lot better, too. I'm on my way to returning to life as a normal boy."
Wells said that when he looks back over what he admits has been a tough, up-and-down year, he sees "the tender mercies of God's hand in shaping my life. I'm eternally grateful."
The biggest lesson is a small one. "I've come to notice the smallest things can make the biggest difference," like the Muslim woman in her late 20s who helped him outside the airport as blood gushed from his shredded ankle and he worried openly whether his brain was visible through a cut on his head.
"It might seem it's not a big deal to hang around with someone, but it's the small details of that day I remember. The people who stayed, it was a small thing, but they are my heroes. March 22nd proved that ordinary people can do extraordinary things."
Wells didn't want to go into detail, to relive the day more than necessary. Shrapnel ruptured his right Achilles tendon and broke the bone in his ankle in five places. He still has a small, open wound, but it is mostly healed. It doesn't stop him from anything. He runs and rock climbs, whatever he wants.
"I've had to overcome PTSD, some of my own fears, some of those natural tendencies to be fearful or I would say freak out in some circumstances," he said.
He makes small choices to stop the fear when something starts to bother him. The first six months of recovery felt like years, but the past six months moved fast.
Maryanne VanDenBerghe has been dreading the anniversary. She was a missionary mother sound asleep on March 22 when the phone rang at 4:30 a.m. in her Riverton, Utah, home. She didn't answer it.
Then it rang again, immediately.
"Then I knew something had happened to someone," she said.
She and her husband were days from flying to Belgium to pick up their daughter, Sister Haylie VanDenBerghe, who was Sister Clain's companion, at the end of her 18-month mission. Haylie had told her mother that another senior missionary couple was going to drive her and Sister Clain to the airport to catch Sister Clain's flight.
Now here was Haylie's sister on the phone. Up in the stillness of an early Oklahoma morning with a young child, she had seen the news of the bombing and the injuries to Mormon missionaries. Maryanne VanDenBerghe thought Haylie had to be one of them.
"I couldn't move," she said. "I was just paralyzed. I knew Haylie was going into Brussels with Sister Clain that morning. What other missionaries would be there?"
Fortunately, the other senior missionary couple soon emailed: "Haylie is with us, and she's safe."
That didn't end VanDenBerghe's trauma.
"I really thought that my daughter was there," she said. "Even if she wasn't, I knew missionaries were there, and they were Haylie's friends. The Norbys were my friends, as well. When I saw Elder Norby's picture on KSL-TV, I just fell down. I just dropped."
Some of those feelings returned as the anniversary neared. VanDenBerghe's glad it finally has arrived, because now she can put it behind her.
"The further behind, the better," she said.
Haylie VanDenBerghe has dreamed of working for Disney. Today, she is working at the Epcot Center at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. She is taking time off from BYU, where she is a junior in mechanical engineering.
She doesn't enjoy memories of March 22.
"That whole day was just insane, just so full of so much worry and concern," she said. It intensified when she learned Empey, Norby and Wells were together without Sister Clain.
" 'Where is Sister Clain?' " she thought. "No one knew. 'What if she's not OK? What if she's hurt? What if she's dead?' It was the most terrifying feeling I've ever experienced."
Finally, after she knelt in prayer with the senior missionary couple, a nurse called and told her where Sister Clain was and that she was alright.
"I'm grateful I was able to go through that, because I feel it was good for me to live through something hard like that and be able to be OK with that and keep moving forward with it, even if I'm not perfect at it," she said.
Sister Clain was unavailable for interviews. The Frenchwoman from Réunion Island near Madagascar sends her weekly emails — in French — to each of the other three missionaries. She works at an LDS Church history site in Kirtland, Ohio.
"You can definitely tell by her emails she's a focused and happy missionary," VanDenBerghe said. "On Monday she wrote that she was excited that she and her companion found a new person interested in the church."
Back on his feet
Norby, the most greviously wounded of the four, is walking on his own again. He was fitted with an ankle-foot orthotic on Nov. 10. On Nov. 22, Pam wheeled him to Temple Square and he walked around it without a walker. He had told his brother Steve, who has battled leukemia, that some day they would walk out of the Huntsman Cancer Institute together. On Nov. 23, after his brother underwent tests there, he said, "Hey, Richard, can you do the stairs?"
Norby did, and he hasn't been in a wheelchair since.
He still has a pressure wound on his heel that requires antibiotic dressings each morning. Last week he received a shot of amniotic fluid that has helped shrink the still-open wound. He'll always have issues with skin irritation or infections where grafts were needed for his many burns. His body has pushed more than a dozen pieces of shrapnel out through his skin, mainly out of his head. He has a doctor's note to pass through airport security, but the remaining shrapnel, dozens of pieces in his legs, did not set off detectors when he went to Belize and Guatemala with family and friends in February.
As the focus on physical recovery has begun to subside, he's noticed that his mind is turning toward emotional recovery, though because he was in an induced coma and sedated so much that he feels he has less trauma to overcome than Pam and his children who saw him then.
He's planning to take them all back to Brussels in the summer of 2018 to visit the site of the bombing for a moment of contemplation and reverence for those who died or were injured there.
"The more time passes, the more motivated I feel to do that," he said.
"There have been marvelous and miraculous physical and emotional healing," he said, "but the emotional healing is something that we're still going through. Not that we have our shoulders shrugged, but there are always reminders."
Wells' mother, Kymberly, said those reminders are vital.13 comments on this story
"To be completely honest with you, I want this anniversary," she said. "I don't like a lot of attention with it. I don't really want to relive those emotions. But it's important to remember the blessings we had that day and the tender mercies that happened."
Wells was home last weekend. As his mother said goodbye before his flight back to Washington, she hugged him and delivered an anniversary message.
"I know Wednesday will be a normal day on the Hill for you," she told him, "but I want you to realize what day it is and remember all the blessings you received that day."