13 August 2009

War story, love story

Via The Independent

Call it fate, God, the universe working in the mysterious way it does, but something cosmic was going on for Ferris Butler and Laura Sauriol. Something was going to bring these two together.

It is a love story that started with a war.

Butler, a Port Tobacco native and graduate of Maurice J. McDonough High School, was a first lieutenant. with the U.S. Army's 10th Mountain Division when he was deployed to Iraq in February 2006.

The Butler family has a long tradition of military service. Along with his older brother, Fenoy, a member of the U.S. Navy, Butler is the ninth generation to enlist in the military — although his father insisted that Butler earn his college degree before signing up.

That a war was raging made little difference in Butler's decision.

"It was a deciding factor," he said of enlisting in a wartime Army. "There was no way I wasn't going to do it."

He was stationed south of Baghdad, in Yusufiyah, one of the towns that made up the "triangle of death," an area that was heavy with combat and violence.

Meanwhile, on the home front, Mount St. Mary's University student Laura Sauriol was seeking volunteer opportunities.

The Damascus-raised accounting major read a newspaper article on Operation Second Chance, a nonprofit group started in 2004 by Cindy McGrew, a Montgomery County resident, to help wounded service men and women.

"Laura is my right hand," McGrew said. "She is more than I could ever ask for. She is always helpful, always cheerful."

Sauriol was assigned to Ward 57 of Walter Reed Medical Center. Basically, she was a gofer and she loved every minute of it.

"I was instantly hooked on the hospital visits," Sauriol said.

If a patient recovering from battle wounds needed or wanted for something — a stroller for a visiting child, shorts that were more accommodating for their wounds and new hardware, anything really — it was Sauriol who was running out to pick it up.

Still, for Walter Reed's Washington, D.C., location, Sauriol wasn't running into any Maryland soldiers. That changed in December 2006.

While on patrol driving a Humvee, infantry leader Butler's front tire detonated an improvised explosive device — better known in American vernacular as an IED.

"It came up through the floorboard," Butler remembered. "My legs from mid-calf down were just shredded. Destroyed."

A stay at Landstuhl, Germany, led to a transfer to Walter Reed and the beginning of a four-month stay to salvage what was left of his legs. His parents, Fenoy Sr. and Carole visited almost every day and Sauriol began popping in each week.

When they first met, Butler admits he wasn't at the top of his game. Not only had he suffered devastating injuries, he was on powerful painkillers.

A raven-haired beauty shows up at his bedside asking if there was anything she could do, offering to bring him food. Real food from a restaurant? He was smitten.

"Not only was I getting food from an actual restaurant, here's this cute girl," Butler said.

But she was all business and had an unofficial rule not to let herself develop romantic feelings for any of the soldiers she met.

"But to be fair, he was heavily medicated at the time," said Sauriol, who was still juggling school with volunteer work. She wished Butler luck and continued her routine visits around Ward 57 while finishing up school.

Butler, 31, would embark on a mission to save his legs. Sure, veterans with artificial limbs would stop by his hospital room telling him life wasn't over just because of his injury, but Butler was determined to salvage his legs.

"I came in with 10 toes," he said. But he would undergo surgeries that he said "whittled" away those digits.

Soon enough, it was decided to amputate to his mid-right foot. He was still fighting to keep the left foot and spent time in a wheelchair.

The youngest of three boys, Butler grew up spending time outdoors, fishing and doing all that guy stuff. He couldn't exactly go mountain climbing in a wheelchair.

He had fought to keep his useless left foot, undergoing 52 surgeries and for what?

"It was absolutely miserable. It wasn't a foot, we called them hoofs," he said. "I was getting out of that wheelchair. It was like seeing the light at the end of the road. My 53rd and 54th were, ironically, elective amputations.

"I gave it the old college try, but it was limiting me. I still wear a size 9, even though [the foot] is fake," said Butler, while Sauriol stifles a laugh. "I haven't looked back since."

His left foot and ankle were amputated in January 2008 and he began his recovery and physical therapy, staying on the medical center's campus.

He was hanging out on post one day in February when the cute girl breezed in from out of nowhere.

Seeing Butler's new amputations, Sauriol, 22, decided they had some catching up to do.

One March night, while picking up dinner at a restaurant (the selections were slim. It was a Friday during Lent) Sauriol called Butler and asked if she could bring him dinner too? (It was lobster ravoli from the Macaroni Grill.)

March Madness was raging at the time, so for the next two months Friday night basketball and dinner became a ritual.

Soon, Sauriol started seeing Butler in a new light.

"He was so funny, so sweet," she said.

They hugged at the end of each "date" but one night Sauriol got butterflies in her stomach and that was it.

They soon made an "official" date and things just started coming together. Sauriol landed a job with a federal agency in D.C.; Butler got a condo in Rockville, was promoted to the rank of Captain and interned for a while in Sen. John McCain's office.

He just had one more thing to do.

While still in a wheelchair and with the moral support of a few friends, Butler went to a jeweler and designed an engagement ring for the cute girl. Now, he needed a perfect place to propose. Why not the White House?

Getting permission from former First Lady Laura Bush, the couple took a private tour of the executive mansion during the Christmas season winding up in the Blue Room in front of the Christmas tree. No dummy, Sauriol knew something was up. The president's photographer was clicking away like mad and they were alone in the Blue Room.

She said "yes," by the way.

Searching for a venue to hold the quintessential Maryland wedding, the couple eventually landed at the Chesapeake Bay Beach Club in Stevensville. It was perfect. On the water, they could even have a crab feast at their reception if they wanted.

Touched by their story, management of the beach club opted to not only host the wedding, it will foot the bill and allow the couple to invite those who were with them each step of the way along the bumpy road that led to a bridal path.

Butler works with a nonprofit to further education about amputations and he and Sauriol have taken mentor training courses to better help the injured troops admitted to Walter Reed. Butler is now one of those guys coming into a newbie's room to tell him or her that life isn't over just because of an injury.

"So much of who I am today is because of those guys," he said. "It's that ‘Life's not over' mentality. All these things go through your head, ‘How am I ever going to love again?' ‘How is anyone going to ever love me again?'"

Day by day, little by little, Butler got his life back on track and it took him along a new route. He'll retire from the Army later this year and from there who knows what will happen? But Butler and Sauriol are in it together.

"Life is what you make it," he said, laughing at using a cliché before adding another. "With Laura, I have nothing but a positive outlook."

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