By Jason F. Wright
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 and when opportunity knocked, I'd be ready.
Last week on a train from D.C. to New York City, opportunity didn't exactly knock - it laughed.
I was on Amtrak's Acela making our 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.
Over the next three hours, I learned a lot about that young man. He was friendly, a comedian, and a veteran of the Iraqi 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.
In December 2005, Jason Ehrhart 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. He was just 19 years old and had been in Iraq less than three months.
The eager gunner was riding in a Humvee when an IED blast launched 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, for three months, Ehrhart slept in a dark coma that baffled doctors and his parents, Mike and Pam. He survived nearly 40 surgeries and skin grafts and 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 reentered the world the way he'd left it.
And he hasn't stopped laughing since.
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, 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?"
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 dosed 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. Bitterness can ruin you."
Mike also shared his family's mission to advocate for critical reforms at the 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 to raise awareness of veterans' needs.
When we arrived in the city, I said goodbye to Jason Ehrhart and his family, thanked him again 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.
Jason F. Wright is a New York Times best-selling author of 10 books, including "Christmas Jars," "The Wednesday Letters" and "The 13th Day of Christmas." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or jasonfwright.com.