Posted on June 15, 2011
By Amber Woods
The thing about SGT. Jeremy Muncert is that he could be your brother.
At 26 years old, he’s got a slight build and he’s jovial and, at times, slightly sarcastic. When he says something wry, he leans into you a little bit and touches his shoulder to yours.
He also notices every pretty girl in a room, and usually finds something to talk to them about.
Dark glasses sit atop his nose, the frames lining up to a scar that wraps from one side of his head to the other, just above his ears.
“See these,” he says, leaning toward me and pointing to his glasses.
“I thought I needed these because they say Gucci,” he said, holding up a shaky hand to show me a thick gold ring set with rows of diamonds.
“So I bought these expensive glasses, this nice gold watch and these diamond rings because I thought it would distract girls away from how I look,” he says, pausing momentarily.
If I’ve learned one thing about Muncert, it’s that it’s hard to predict what he will say next. During conversations, sometimes he pauses a few seconds longer than you expect. A possible side effect from the traumatic brain injury he’s suffered.
When I ask him to tell me about the accident that has ended his career as an Army Military Police Officer, he takes a deep breath and tells me we better sit down. First, he says, it’s important that I know that he really doesn’t remember the accident. He’s pretty sure it happened in Iraq, and it involved a vehicle, but he can’t be sure. Then he hesitates. “You know, I’m sorry. You better ask my dad. I don’t mean to be rude, I just don’t remember.”
I tell him it’s OK and ask him if he can tell me about the injuries he sustained. We’re sitting at the edge of a fishing pond in Oswayo,Pennsylvania. Muncert and I are on a retreat at L.E.E.K. hunting and mountain preserve, a nonprofit program for wounded warriors which was established by Ed and Lew Fisher and their wives Kate and Elaine. [READ MORE]
Muncert tells me he has a hefty list of medical problems from the accident, and if he remembers them all, it goes something like this: he’s deaf in his left ear, his face is paralyzed completely on the left side (this is evident when he smiles and only one corner of his mouth turns upward.) His right leg is mostly made up of steel, a result of it getting shattered in 15 different places. Because of the severe trauma to his face, one eye is sunken several inches deeper than the other, and he is 75 percent blind in his right eye, and has no vision in his left eye. He also has no sense of smell or taste.
“It wouldn’t matter if I was eating a piece of paper or a piece of cake. It all tastes the same to me now,” he says, shrugging.
But perhaps the worst of his injuries can’t be seen. Not even when sitting beside him at the pond. From where I am, Muncert looks like many other injured veterans I’ve met. He has a wooden cane lying beside him, and he uses it to get up or sit down or to walk from here to there.
But the most serious of his injuries are from a piece of steel that was embedded in his skull, tearing through his frontal lobe and erasing what he estimates to be about 10 years of his life.
“When I woke up, I didn’t even know who my family was, I had to relearn my own family,” he says, peering at me over his glasses. But waking up was no easy feat.
Muncert was in a coma for 20 days, in a hospital inHawaii, close to where he was stationed when the accident took place.
When he tells me he was in aHawaiihospital, I quietly wonder why the military would fly an injured soldier fromIraqtoHawaiifor treatment.
Muncert continues his story, explaining how he underwent several brain surgeries, along with many reconstructive procedures which would reshape his face, leaving him somewhat recognizable to his family.
“When they first came to the hospital to see me, they didn’t think it was me because I was so disfigured. My mom had to see my tattoos to know it was me,” he says, glancing down at the tattoos which run up his forearms.
But despite the plastic surgeons best efforts, Muncert’s face doesn’t look very much like the man he was before the accident.
Where his facial bones used to be there is now metal, bolted together by more than 100 screws under the tissue of his face, he tells me.
He keeps a sense of humor about his injuries, telling me, “if you took all of the metal out, you could probably build the Iron Man suit.”
Grabbing my hand, he pulls it gently toward his face, pushing my fingertips along the outline of his eye left socket.
I pull back when I feel a hard knot, and then realize the pressure didn’t hurt him.
“Those are screws. It’s gross, right?” he asks me.
I shake my head. “No Jeremy, I don’t think it’s gross. I think it’s amazing you’re alive.”
He nods and a smile creeps along the edge of his mouth.
“You like the sexy little divits in my head too, don’t you?” he asks me coyly, running a hand over the indents on his shaved head, presumably places where his skull was reconstructed.
He’s probably told this story so many times that it’s like reading from a script now.
“I died three times. I know God kept me here for a reason,” he says, telling me he takes at least 17 medications three times each day. Some are for pain, some are nerve blockers. He can’t remember what the others do.
Muncert says he isn’t depressed or angry what has happened to him or why, instead he feels fortunate and blessed.
“I used to be jealous of people who could walk. Before, if I had met you, I would have been angry that you could see and walk and run and be normal,” he says.
Though he doesn’t remember much of his recovery, Muncert was in three different medical facilities following the accident, eventually landing him in Hunter Holmes McGuirePolytraumaCenterinRichmond,Va.
“It’s been a long, hard, stressful ride,” he says, explaining how he spent a year in a wheel chair and had to relearn simple motor skills like walking, talking and eating.
Muncert’s family has been by his side every step of the way, and he’s quick to acknowledge their love and support. He says he feels bad that his mom has had to quit her job to stay home and care for him, a task which requires constant supervision so he can be reminded to do simple things, like wash his hands after using the bathroom.
When Muncert and I are back at L.E.E.K.’s main camp and away from the pond, I find myself sitting next to his father Jeff, a broad-shouldered man with a dimpled smile. I ask him if can tell me the details of the accident that injured Jeremy. Jeff Muncert begins by saying God is the reason he and his wife Susan still have their middle child.
He recalls most of 2009 as a good year for his son, an athletic and popular soldier who had the world at his fingertips. He had been in the Army about four years when he completed the 13th annual Warfighter Competition, a string of both mental and physical challenges, as part of a three-man team.
After losing one of their team members to an injury at some point in the competition, Jeremy and his remaining teammate decided to complete the 3-day competition.
But during the last event of the competition, a 16-mile road march, Jeremy stumbled into a hole and broke his foot.
Instead of quitting, he paused long enough to wrap his injury and just kept marching on. His team placed 11th despite Jeremy’s injury, but were then disqualified because as the rules required, all three team members didn’t complete the challenge.
Even so, Jeremy was awarded a Sergent First Class Timothy Nien Award for his determination during the competition. It was just days after the event when Jeremy’s SUV, driven by his squad leader, Joseph Florez-Gonzalez smashed head-on into a utility pole inHawaii, near where the men were stationed.
Both men had been out drinking, and when emergency workers arrived, Gonzalez’s foot was still gunning the accelerator.
And then, after surviving a 15-month deployment inIraqwhere he says he spent much of his time in an area dubbed the “death triangle,” Jeremy lay mangled and barely alive with metal lodged in his head when medical crews arrived at the accident scene.
The passenger-side seat where Jeremy was seated had been catapulted to the back of the SUV. Jeremy died in the vehicle, and was revived by emergency responders. He would later flatline two more times in the hospital and be revived.
Gonzalez would be charged with a DUI and sentenced to less than a year in jail by a judge who said he thought the accident was a tragedy for both soldiers involved. Jeff Muncert recalls Gonzalez asking he and his wife if he could visit Jeremy in the hospital to apologize.
“Was that difficult for you and your wife?” I ask, waiting for a reaction.
Muncert purses his lips tightly, and then breathes in deeply, “It was, but you know, we did it. We let him come see Jeremy.” Gonzalez apologized to Jeremy, though Jeremy doesn’t remember. He doesn’t even remember who Gonzalez is the day we talk about it.
Jeremy says he thinks it’s probably best he has no recollection of the accident, or some of the recovery process.
“I think maybe my mind wanted to forget all of the bad things that happened,” he says. And that’s what the Muncert’s are trying to do too, now that Jeremy is living in North Carolina with his parents, and is down to only once-a-week trips to the hospital.
Jeremy says he’s turned his life over to God, and that’s what makes it worth living. “Before, I was a Christian but I wasn’t going to church. I was trying to meet girls. But God saved my life and now I’m in church as much as I can be,” he says. He also attends support groups through the military, sees a therapist and is active in a single mens connect group at his church. Both Jeremy and Jeff Muncert agree that it’s groups like those, and programs like this one at L.E.E.K., that keep young injured veterans like Jeremy from just giving up.
“This is just an amazing place,” Jeff Muncert says. We are standing at the edge of the sprawling rural grounds that make up the hunting and mountain preserve at L.E.E.K.
This is Muncert’s first trip to L.E.E.K. for what could be considered a therapeutic hunting trip, where both he and his dad can participate in outdoor activities and spend time with other wounded veterans, some who have gone through similar procedures and can relate to the trials of recovery.
In fact, Jeremy and another wounded veteran at L.E.E.K. recognized one another across the field when they arrived. They spent about a month together at the Hunter Holmes Polytrauma Unit more than two years ago. Back then, they would have never guessed they’d meet up in the woods ofPennsylvaniato hunt turkey.
“This is amazing. Words can’t even describe how great it is here,” Jeremy says of L.E.E.K., “It’s just a blessing to be able to come out here and feel normal again.”