November 22, 2008, San Antonio, TX – Mary Dague hears the catty whispers sometimes. “So ugly,” the strangers say when they think she can’t hear.
The 24-year-old has bright green eyes, a quick smile, and on the days she gets her husband’s help, perfectly applied mascara and blush.
But all the gawkers really see are her arms, each amputated above the elbow.
What they don’t suppose – with no fatigues or standard-issue Army T-shirt to clue them in – is that this chatty young woman, who likes to wear a little black dress to fancy parties as much as the next girl, is an Army sergeant whose arms were blown off as she dismantled a bomb in Iraq. She was awarded a Purple Heart.
In uniform, she’s often recognized as a wounded veteran and thanked for her service. Out of uniform, she pretends not to hear the careless whispers.
“At first, it kind of hurts, and then, it makes you sad,” she says.
Sad not for herself, but for those she sees wasting their youth and opportunities. “I’m 24, and I feel like I’ve lived a full, happy life already.”
It’s a life forever marred by an accident that has made even the simplest task a struggle, and rehabilitation is slow. But she’s eagerly looking beyond it, to the day she gets a sophisticated prosthetic arm and beyond that, to a time when she’s self-sufficient.
For all the talk of women on the warfront, soldiers like Dague remain extremely rare. Of the roughly 840 service members who have lost limbs since the start of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, only about 20 are women. The vast majority of those 21st century war amputees lost their legs or feet, often in roadside bombings. Only about one in five has lost upper extremities.
The job of a bomb technician, part of a team called in to detonate or dismantle explosive devices, is open to women because it’s considered a noncombat role, though few women enter the dangerous line of work. Armywide, 6 percent of bomb techs are women.
Dague didn’t plan on being a bomb tech when she enlisted. She was weary of waiting tables and working as a maid and just itching to get out of her tiny hometown of Superior in western Montana. She thought she might want to be a military policeman, since her dad is the undersheriff in Mineral County, but there were no slots for MPs.
She rolled her eyes when the recruiter suggested she become a “petroleum distribution engineer.” “I’m not going to pump gas for the Army, I’m sorry,” Dague said.
Explosive ordnance disposal. EOD. That was more like it.
“If I’m gonna do it, I’m gonna go all out,” she said.
Dague was talking about the Army, but she could have been talking about her life.
She married Jared Tillery in 2006 about 12 hours after they decided to date – including the time it took to find a skirt and blouse at Sears and to mobilize a friend ordained over the Internet.
Dague and Tillery had been friends in EOD school, where she was one of the few women.
Some people resented that, but Tillery, a lanky 23-year-old who grew up in Wisconsin, says he never thought much about it. The pair hung out together while in training and stayed friends even after she was stationed at Fort Lewis in Washington state and Tillery was assigned to a supply unit at Fort Hood in Texas.
During Tillery’s visit to Fort Lewis, their relationship moved from one that was platonic to romantic to, within hours, marriage. Both were deployed to Iraq with their units a few months after they married. They began life as a married couple in Iraq in early 2007.
Just weeks after Tillery had arrived in Iraq, his younger brother, 19-year-old Marine Lance Cpl. Jesse Tillery, was killed by an explosive device in Anbar province. After that, he was kept close to the base. “They wouldn’t let him go outside the wire,” Dague says.
Dague, on the other hand, was frequently out in dangerous territory with her teammate. They routinely blew up or dismantled explosive devices found by military patrols, trying to outsmart insurgents targeting American forces.
Nothing about Nov. 4, 2007, made her think the call they got that morning would be any different.
It shouldn’t have blown. It was just blasting cap, rubber and some wires sticking out, with a bit of explosive gunk stuck to it, not enough to do serious damage.
Dague and another EOD tech had already placed the plaster from the top of the device, most of the explosive material and the components in separate containers on the truck. All that was left was the 1 1/2-foot-wide cap.
Dague heaved it over to the truck by herself while the other guys made fun of her burly EOD teammate.
“You’re gonna let that little girl carry that big heavy thing?” they cackled.
“She can handle it,” he retorted, Dague remembers with a smile.
The cap teetered when she set it down, and instinctively, she put her hands out to steady it. “Boom! and I went flying,” she says.
Blood was everywhere. Other soldiers were frantically checking her wounds and applying tourniquets, shielding her eyes so she couldn’t see her arms, “but I already knew,” Dague says. A piece of shrapnel was wedged in her sunglasses.
She remembers someone saying he couldn’t tell where all the blood was coming from and needed to cut off her pants and boots. “Fine, do it,” she said, all the while asking whether everyone else was OK.
“I was trying to keep everyone from freaking out, and I wanted to keep myself from going into shock or falling asleep. I didn’t want to die,” she says.
A helicopter took her to a field hospital.
“Dude,” she said to the soldier standing next to her, “this sucks.”
Tillery had decided to skip lunch that day, so his office was nearly abandoned when about a dozen officers from his battalion walked in. “We’ve got some bad news,” they said.
A convoy took him to the hospital, where he waited as surgeons carefully removed shrapnel and treated the flash burns on his wife’s face to minimize scarring.
“I was just a complete wreck because you don’t know what you’re going to see,” Tillery says.
What was left of her arms was covered in bandages, a tube held her airway open, and “her face was so swollen, you could hardly recognize her,” he recalls.
They were taken to Germany, where Dague remembers the sedatives wearing thin enough for her to recognize something was wrong with her arms. Bandaged, they somehow seemed heavier than they ever had before.
“I just wanted to see home again,” she says.
They arrived a day later at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio’s Fort Sam Houston, one of the Army’s primary medical treatment complexes for war amputees. Dague recalls her first few days there, staring out the window of her room, seeing people going about their lives.
“They have no idea what you lose in here, do they?” she mused to a nurse.
To understand what Dague has lost, consider what it would be like to eat, dress, bathe and use a computer without the aid of your lower arms – to have to pick up a cup or open the refrigerator door with your elbows.
Most everything becomes a mammoth task or requires assistance.
“You don’t realize how much you need your fingers,” says Tillery, now a reservist. “If I see her trying something, the best thing is to walk away and let her try it.”
Otherwise, the urge to step in and help her becomes overpowering.
Dague uses her toes to work the TV remote control and the computer mouse, and a pair of hooks on the bedroom wall help pull clothes up and down. She clutches a glass between her upper arms to take a drink. She’s practiced holding a pen the same way.
“I have horrible hand writing,” she jokes, gesturing to the notebook paper on the fridge that reads “I (heart) Jared” in shaky red marker lines.
At the home she and Jared share in suburban San Antonio, she can feed herself, but in public it simply draws too much unwanted attention. So her husband helps her in restaurants.
Many cuts after her first try, Dague can now shave her legs by holding a razor with her toes – not a skill rehab workers have to teach most other amputee veterans.
She still needs practice with a hook arm before she can be fitted for a prosthetic arm and hand. That gives her hope of “a semi-normal life,” she says.
But ask her whether she has any regrets about volunteering to be a bomb tech, and there is no hesitation.
“I love that job,” she says, swaying her damaged arms. “I miss it. I miss it terribly.”
For now, with months of physical therapy ahead of her, she relies on her husband for many basic tasks. He brushes her teeth, and she has taught him to apply her makeup.
“She’s trying to describe to me the strokes. She says, ‘Just grab that mascara.’ What’s that? This?” he says, with mock exasperation. “I just keep telling her she owes me so many breakfasts in bed.”
All of it has sorely tested their young marriage.
“He’s become everything she can’t be right now, and that’s a big job,” says Mike Johnson, Dague’s father. “I love him dearly.”
The couple plans a formal wedding in June. She’s already found a dress.
“She’s got like eight of them picked out,” Tillery teases. “You have no idea.”