The Rhode Island Blue Star Moms is a military support group specially dedicated to supporting the troops and assisting the mothers and families who have children who volunteered to serve in the U.S. Armed Forces.
Try to think about Michael Verardo for a while today, maybe right up to game time and beyond. It’s important. Think about this guy from Lincoln stepping over that low wall south of Kandahar, the wall that seven other guys from the 82nd Airborne had stepped over in front of him. Think about how it all blew up when he brought his foot down, how he remembers incredible pain and then being dragged and then nothing until he woke up in Walter Reed Army Hospital with his left leg gone and his left arm all messed up.
And think about Michael’s mother, Holly Verardo, who used up all her family leave time and lost two jobs because she has insisted on being with her son as he tries to rebuild his life around the prosthesis that has replaced his leg and the nerve transplants that have brought partial function back to his left arm.
Michael is left-handed.
They’re part of us, Michael and his mother. They are part of what we are, part of the price we pay for our wars. But we don’t see them. They move on the military side of the divide where the anonymous brutality of the land mine and the IED takes its vicious daily toll on soldiers and Marines and families.
We had two conversations by phone, so it was difficult to get to know them as I would have liked. But no bitterness came across the line and certainly no self-pity. They deal with the harsh forced changes in their lives and accept the high price that sometimes has to be paid.
They are in Texas now, at the Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. They have been there since leaving Walter Reed in August. And they had been at Walter Reed since April of last year when Michael woke up to find his left leg gone.
“I think it took me a couple of hours to realize it,” he says. “I guess I wasn’t surprised. A lot of guys lose limbs. It’s a very real possibility.”
He wanted to be a soldier. He knew the job description.
I learned about the Verardos from Mary Kay Salamone who continues to do her great work with Operation Support Our Troops out of her home in North Kingstown. Salamone says not enough people know their story.
So think about it. Think about Michael, who spends his days as a soldier trying to make his body, with its state of the art left leg and the nerve transplant in his arm, work again. Think about how he stepped up when so few do.
“He’s still in the Army,” says Holly. “He still has to report in to his squad leader every morning at 5 a.m.”
They are living at Fisher House, a wonderful place where military families can live rent free while traveling the hard road back. It is a place where people understand. And it is within walking distance of the Medical Center where Michael goes for the therapy that has become his daily military duty.
“You learn to do things with whatever injuries you have,” he says. “I have to adopt to walking on a pros thetic leg. There’s agility training. There’s a little obstacle course. There’s different surfaces — gravel, sand. There are small hurdles. I do it all day long.”
There are breaks because there have to be. He caught an Ozzy Osbourne concert in San Antonio. Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, brought 200 wounded soldiers to a game in Dallas. There was the opportunity to work on cars at a car shop.
But there are still months of therapy to go, maybe more surgery. He thinks he could be in Texas for most of this year.
And when it’s over, when everything that can possibly be done has been done?
He wants to stay in the Army.
It might seem impossible from the outside looking in, but he says he’s been told of other soldiers who have lost limbs and found their way back to active duty.
And the Army has worked for him where other things haven’t. He went to college after graduating from St. Andrew’s in Barrington in 2003. College didn’t work.
He can’t really explain this thing about the Army, why he chose it when most of his generation opted for safety.
“It’s just something I always wanted to do,” he says.
Holly Verardo hopes her son can stay in the Army.
“The military is really what made Michael,” she says.
He served in Korea in his first year, but he knew he had a shooting war in his future and he wanted to be with the best, with the 82nd Airborne.
And so Afghanistan.
“There was a lot of walking around — jumping over walls, across canals. There were a lot of IEDs, land mines. That was a very big point during training.”
On April 24 of last year, he stepped over one of those walls and put a foot down maybe inches from where others in his unit had stepped. And he became one of the stories of this longest war, where the enemy is often invisible and most people back home know nothing of the battles fought before and after the bombs explode.
Holly Verardo, who is divorced, says there was never a question that she would do what she has done. She had to be there. But she realizes that the time to head back to Rhode Island might be close.
“I’m trying to figure out when it’s time,” she says. “He doesn’t want his mother living with him forever. It’s up to Michael.”
Before Michael was wounded, Holly was working 70 hours a week between jobs at the Deaconess Home in Fall River and Herb Chambers Lexus in Sharon, Mass. She says both her employers were great about giving her time to be with Michael, but she went through her family leave time and is officially unemployed. She says she’ll probably reapply for her jobs and maybe put her real estate license to work.
And she’ll get back to Texas for sure where Michael soldiers on.
This week Michael Verardo will receive his second Purple Heart. He had been wounded a couple of weeks before the explosion in which he lost his leg.
And on Feb. 16, he’ll turn 26. If you want to send him a birthday card, send it to: