A voice on the other end of the line told her there had been an explosion and one casualty. The sparse details left Jaida LaDuke, 23, of Winona riddled with fear as she waited to hear what had happened to her husband, who was serving in Iraq with the U.S. Army.
“It was really confusing at first,” Jaida said.
Her phone rang constantly throughout the day as bits and pieces of information streamed in from military personnel.
“I’d get an update from someone,” she said, “and then someone else would call who hadn’t gotten the update yet.”
In the early hours of Jan. 18, 2009, Jared LaDuke, 28, along with two other men, embarked on a routine mission in Iraq. They came across a barricaded road and decided to take a detour. Shortly after, an electronic fire projectile hit their vehicle. The blast killed one man and injured Jared and the other. “I didn’t even know what happened at first,” Jared said. “I knew we’d been hit, but I wasn’t putting it all together.”
With just more than a month left in his 12-month tour of duty, he’d nearly lost his leg.
“I remembered looking down and seeing blood,” he said, “but I didn’t know how bad it was.”
The two surviving men tried to call for help, but all modes of communication had been destroyed in the blast, Jared said.
“There was nothing there,” he said.
So they waited.
Help eventually arrived, and Jared was transported to a medical facility in Iraq, where he was able to make a hurried phone call.
Finally, the young mother heard from her husband.
He was severely injured – but he was alive.
Jared and Jaida, both graduates of Cochrane-Fountain City High School in Fountain City, Wis., married Feb. 4, 2008. Not long after, they found out Jared would be deployed in March to Iraq – less than a month after they’d said their vows and six months before the birth of their first child, Talon, now 2.
“I didn’t know it was possible it could happen that quick,” he said. “I’d just finished basic training.”
A whirlwind month after his wedding, Jared said goodbye and boarded a plane.
Ten months later, he was flown to Germany and finally flown back to a hospital in San Antonio, Texas.
Jaida and Talon met Jared at the Texas hospital the same day he arrived.
For several months, the two traveled back and forth between their Winona home and Jared in San Antonio. They decided to pack their bags for good and move to the Lone Star state in March 2009, Jaida said.
“It was really hard,” she said. “I didn’t know anybody.”
They left Winona not even knowing where’d they would live, Jaida said. A room was located for them at the Fisher House, a home for families of soldiers receiving medical care, where she and Talon lived for a portion of Jared’s ongoing recovery.
The explosion blew away three inches of Jared’s tibia, all of the muscle in the front of his leg and shattered his knee, Jaida said. He has had numerous skin grafts and more than 20 surgeries since the explosion.
The prognosis that he’d be able to use his leg again was slim.
“It’s just a long, difficult process,” Jared said. “The first year was basically like being a zombie.”
Doctors heavily medicated him the first year of his injury. Large doses of morphine, methadone and oxycodone were among a handful of medications prescribed to him, he said.
“Just having the willpower to get out of bed to accomplish something was one of the most strenuous tasks in the world,” Jared said.
But with the support of others, Jared made progress.
“I had some good people around that helped keep me motivated,” he said.
About a month after that, he was able to leave the hospital and move into the Fisher House with Jaida and Talon. The small hotel-like room housed the family for several months, but the lack of space made it difficult for Jared to get around.
Enter Operation Homefront, an organization that provides emergency financial and other assistance to service members and their families.
While the LaDukes acclimated to their challenging new lifestyle, the organization assisted them with rent and utility expenses, as well as costs related to Jared’s recovery. With Homefront’s help, the family moved out of the Fisher House and into a larger apartment provided by the organization. They were also able to start saving money to use in the transition from military to civilian life, Jaida said.
“It was a total blessing” Jared said.
The housing provided by Operation Homefront is temporary, and those who receive assistance know the day will come when they’ll have to find a place of their own, Jaida said.
The LaDukes were recently able to move out – but not without one more surprise from Operation Homefront.
The family was asked by the organization to participate in an interview in February about their experience. However, when the three arrived at their apartment for the interview, instead of meeting a reporter, they found country musician Tim McGraw and a completely furnished apartment.
Operation Homefront, along with Outback Steakhouse and Tim McGraw, provided the LaDukes with everything that they’d need to start life in a new apartment.
“It was amazing,” Jaida said. “We were going to have to buy everything.”
Since Operation Homefront and Tim McGraw’s surprise visit, the family has been adjusting to life in their newly furnished apartment.
Jared continues to attend therapy and work with a psychologist, social worker and case manager, among others, he said.
“He goes to physical therapy every single day,” Jaida said.
But thanks to assistance from Operation Homefront, recovery for the whole family has been a little easier, Jared and Jaida agreed.
“It saved our life completely,” the veteran said.