With Veteran's Life In Peril, His Parents Take Up The Fight

Oct 12, 2013
Originally published on October 18, 2013 12:28 pm

In October 2005, 21-year-old Army Sgt. Erik Schei was shot in the head during his second tour in Iraq. The bullet shattered the top half of his skull.

Christine and Gordon Schei got the phone call about their son's injury at around 4 a.m. Christine Schei says her husband was "white as a sheet" and shaking after answering.

A sniper had struck their son; a bullet "entered above his right ear and exited above his left," Gordon Schei says.

"They told us he'd be a vegetable his whole life — wouldn't be able to eat, wouldn't be able to speak," he says. "And prior to him going to Iraq, I had had a conversation with Erik. He had asked me if anything ever happened to him to pull the plug."

Christine Schei says she understood that promise, but she couldn't bear the idea of ending her son's life. She asked the doctor to confirm, to show her on paper that there was no brain activity.

"And he looked at me and he was really quiet. I said, 'You know what? There's no more talking about unplugging.' And at that point, we decided to take him home," she says.

And they've been his primary caregivers for the past eight years.

"I was scared out of my mind," she says. "I was scared to death to give him the wrong meds. So I must have measured over and over the first week, so I wouldn't kill him."

But now, Erik Schei is "smiling and laughing every day," his father says.

Once in a while, he does have a bad day, Christine Schei says.

"But it's rare. And I think he doesn't want to show that side of him. He knows how hard it is to feed him, cut his fingernails, shave him," she says. "And he must say 10 times, 'I'm so sorry Mom. I'm so sorry,' because he knows that I have to change his diaper. And I know that's hard on him."

Gordon Schei worries about the future and their ability to care for their son as they get older (they are both in their 50s now), but he once asked Erik if they had made the right decision.

"I'm alive," he responded. "And I'm glad I'm alive."

Audio produced for Weekend Edition by Yasmina Guerda.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Time to check in with StoryCorps and the Military Voices Initiative, honoring those who have served in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and their families.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: This story starts in 2005. That October, 21-year-old Army Sergeant Erik Schei was shot in the head during his second tour in Iraq. The bullet shattered the top half of his skull, and his parents, Christine and Gordon, have been his primary caregivers for the past eight years. At StoryCorps, they remembered finding out about their son's injury.

CHRISTINE SCHEI: I remember hearing the phone ring really, really early in the morning. It must have been 4, 4:30. And I saw you white as a sheet, shaken all over your body, and I just said, is it about Erik? And you said yes. And I said is he dead. And you said no. And I said is he OK and you shook your head.

GORDON SCHEI: It was a sniper that hit him. And it entered above his right ear and exited above his left.

SCHEI: Do you remember seeing him for the first time in the hospital?

SCHEI: Yeah. The first time I saw him, he just looked at peace.

SCHEI: I remember the machines beeping, all these tubes coming out of his nose, his mouth, his brain.

SCHEI: They told us he'd be a vegetable his whole life - wouldn't be able to eat, wouldn't be able to speak. And prior to him going to Iraq, I had had a conversation with Erik. He had asked me if anything ever happened to him to pull the plug.

SCHEI: I understood what you had promised, but I just could not be the one to end his life. So, I pulled the doctor aside and I said can you show me a piece of paper saying that he's gone, that there's no activity on his brain? And he looked at me and he was really quiet. I said, you know what? There's no more talking about unplugging. And at that point, we decided to take him home. I was scared out of my mind. I was scared to death of giving the wrong meds. So, I must have measured over and over the first week so I wouldn't kill him. But now he's...

SCHEI: Smiling and laughing every day.

SCHEI: Well, once in a while, he has a bad day when he's getting extremely frustrated. But it's rare. And I think he doesn't want to show that side of him. He knows how hard it is to feed him, cut his fingernails, shave him. And he must say 10 times, I'm so sorry, mom. I'm so sorry, because he knows that I have to change his diaper. And I know that's hard on him.

SCHEI: One of the biggest fears I got as I get older and you get older are we going to be able to handle taking care of him? But I once asked him did we make the right decision? He said I'm alive and I'm glad I'm alive.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: Gordon Schei and his wife Christine, talking about caring for their son, Sergeant Erik Schei who was shot in Iraq in 2005. This interview was recorded in Rio Rancho, New Mexico as part of the Military Voices Initiative. And like all StoryCorps recordings, it is archived at the U.S. Library of Congress. To download the StoryCorps podcast, you can go to npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: And you're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.