In February, I wrote an open letter to a soldier I encountered en route from Washington, D.C., to Seattle. I shared my regret at crossing paths several times and not thanking him for his service. Though I don’t know whether he ever stumbled on the column, I promised I wouldn’t make the same mistake again. When opportunity knocked, I’d be ready.
Finally, last week on the train to attend Book Expo America in New York City, opportunity didn’t exactly knock — it laughed.
I was on Amtrak’s Acela making my first stop in Baltimore on the way to New York’s Penn Station when I heard commotion and laughter over my shoulder. A moment later, I watched a man lift and transfer someone from a wheelchair into a handicapped accessible seat next to me.
During the next three hours, I learned a lot about that young man. He was friendly, a comedian and a veteran of the Iraq War. He and his parents were honored to be traveling to the Wounded Warrior Project Courage Awards at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City.
He and his parents are also fighters who prove that laughter really is the best medicine.
Jason Ehrhart was barely out of high school when he enlisted in the Army and survived boot camp at Fort Benning. Soon, he was serving near Baghdad as a member of the 10th Mountain Infantry Division. By December 2005, he was part of a personal security detail sweeping buildings that would be used for the first free elections to be held in the country in over 50 years.
Ehrhart had been in Iraq just three months.
The eager gunner was riding in a Humvee speeding along the "racetrack" — a long, straight dirt road heading in and out of the desert base — when the enemy remotely detonated an improvised explosive device. The blast shot Ehrhart from the vehicle and killed his sergeant and an Army canine.
With his body badly burned, one leg needing to be amputated and the other mangled, Ehrhart was rushed to Fallujah, then to Germany, then to Texas.
Due to a traumatic brain injury, Ehrhart slept for three months in a dark coma that baffled doctors and his parents, Mike and Pam. He survived nearly 40 surgeries and skin grafts but no one knew whether he’d ever open his eyes again.
Then, on an otherwise uneventful day, his mother and her sisters laughed at a joke across his hospital room. Without warning, but not surprising to anyone, Jason laughed.
And he hasn’t stopped laughing since.
After seven months rehabbing in Richmond, Virginia, Erhhart’s parents brought him home to Maryland where he belonged and the long, challenging recovery continued.
As our train sped north to New York, I asked the wounded warrior how he managed to maintain his smile.
With a well-worn grin, he turned to me and said, simply, "Life's too short."
His father explained the blessing of his son’s sense of humor. “It was completely intact when he awoke.” Often when soldiers recover from injury, particularly after comas, families discover a different loved one than who they said goodbye to at boot camp. “He’s been so fortunate — no PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), no significant change. He’s still Jason.”
I asked Ehrhart what he’s learned about himself since awaking from the coma and his response drew a groan and eye roll from his mother, Pam. “What have I learned?" he said, "I've learned that I love myself even more than I did before.”
“Oh, stop it,” his mother said.
“Hey, if I don't love myself, who will?"
At one point, an Amtrak attendant stopped to thank him for his service, share a laugh and to take a selfie “with a hero.”
I wondered aloud whether the Purple Heart recipient would do it all again. “No regrets,” he said, bluntly. Before long, fatigued from travel and conversation, he dozed off.
With his son quietly sleeping next to us, Mike spoke openly about the tremendous life changes he and his wife have experienced as full-time caregivers. “It would be so easy to become bitter,” he said. “But you just can’t.”
With Jason’s shoulders slumped and chin dropped down as he slept, I asked about two large spots on the back of his head. “Those are not from the attack. Those are bedsores." He paused. "The hospital didn’t notice them in time.”
He watched his son for a moment before turning back to me and saying quietly, “Bitterness can ruin you.”
Mike also shared his family’s mission to advocate for critical reforms at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. They’ve spent many hours on Capitol Hill lobbying for better care for Jason and the thousands of other injured vets who deserve much more than they often receive. Their work has been hailed by the Wounded Warriors Project and the family was featured in a short film broadcast on MSNBC (and also available on YouTube.)
When our train came to a stop, I stayed with the family and joined them on a long journey to the street that took us through Penn Station, on three separate elevators and through parts of Madison Square Garden until we could find a way outside to meet their ride. What would have taken anyone else just a minute or two took us 15. But oddly, I was the only one who seemed to notice.
As we took a picture and I said goodbye to Jason Ehrhart and his family, I thanked him for his service and acknowledged the privilege of being on the same train, the same car and the same row with the young man with the big smile.