INDIANAPOLIS — Liza Biggers blinked back tears and gently patted her brother Ethan's hand as he lay in his hospital bed, finally wearing the Purple Heart he earned in Iraq.
Ethan's family had held off on the medal ceremony, hoping he would emerge from his year-long coma.
When that didn't happen, his 22-year-old twin, Matt, made a phone call to make sure he received the award before he died.
Last Sunday's private ceremony was a poignant moment in a tumultuous journey that began the day Army Spc. Ethan Biggers was critically wounded in Iraq.
Biggers' family stopped trying to keep him alive on Feb. 13. His feedings were halted and all that was left were the goodbyes.
On Saturday, about 1:35 a.m., Ethan died, with Matt holding his hand and Liza at his side.
Ethan's last days were spent at the Richard L. Roudebush Veterans Affairs Medical Center. As three or four inches of snow blanketed the region last weekend, eight of Ethan's buddies from Beavercreek High School piled into two cars for the trip to Indianapolis.
"We're all here for him," said Mark Passage, 22, a former Army specialist who spent a year in Afghanistan.
Passage was one of five close friends — Ethan and Matt Biggers, Mike Mays and Jimmy Williams — who went into the Army straight out of high school.
All five went off to war.
Four came back safe.
Last Sunday, an Army lieutenant the family credits with helping save his life read aloud the brief, standard wording as Nathan Loper, a former barracks roommate, pinned the Purple Heart on Ethan's hospital gown.
In the quiet room, Ethan — his eyes open — loudly exhaled a breath.
'It's a miracle he's gotten this far'
Ethan was five months into his second tour of Iraq when he and a group of soldiers from B company, 1-502, 101st Airborne Division out of Fort Campbell, Ky., were on a mission southwest of Baghdad. Ethan took a break from monitoring a radio and went up to a balcony to cool off and stretch his legs, his brother said.
The shot came out of nowhere.
"He was the only one hit," his father, Rand Biggers, said last spring as he kept vigil at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
The bullet entered above Ethan's left ear and exited above his right, leaving him with what the military calls a traumatic brain injury, or TBI.
The sniper's bullet did more than pierce his skull. It also struck Ethan's family thousands of miles away — squarely and without warning.
When Ethan was shot on March 5, 2006, his then-fiancee, Britni Fuller, was six months pregnant with their first child.
Matt, who already had done one tour of duty in Iraq, was stationed in Germany and hearing rumblings that his unit would soon be sent back to Iraq.
His father, a physicist at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, took leave from his job to be with his son. Devastated to see Ethan so gravely injured, he spent much of his time in a chapel at Walter Reed.
Ethan's sister, Liza, 25, would stand by her brother's bed for hours speaking quietly to him.
Many lives are touched when a soldier is wounded.
"It's not just the one person and the immediate family," said Charles An, Liza's husband. "It's so many people, and I never really even realized that before all this happened."
Brothers in arms
Growing up, Matt and Ethan — a fun-loving character tagged with nicknames like Bigg E and the Biggness — knew the military would be part of their futures.
Their father had flown C-130s for the Air Force during Vietnam and their grandfather was in the Navy in World War II.
Nobody was surprised when the twins enlisted in the Army the summer before their senior year at Beavercreek High School.
"The recruiter called up Ethan and Ethan said, 'Yeah, come over to our house, you can talk about it with us,' " Matt recalled. "When he came over, I just went with it. I always thought of it as an obligation."
Both brothers chose infantry.
Matt, a Bradley fighting vehicle driver, was in Iraq from February 2004 until February 2005.
His last five months were in Samara, north of Baghdad, which he called a hotbed. "But we had Bradleys and tanks. We were pretty lucky."
Ethan's light infantry unit was less protected, he said.
"The last time I talked to him, he'd lost nearly 20 percent of his company," Matt said shortly after Ethan was injured.
Despite the high casualty count, Ethan never filled out a living will — something Matt thinks he probably just ignored to avoid standing in a long line during Army pre-deployment.
"You're already there long enough, so people just blow it off," he said. "I didn't have a living will the first time I went."
Last spring, when Matt thought he might be sent back to Iraq, he decided to put down his requests on paper.
"I filled one out," he said, "but I knew about Ethan then."
'He's hanging in there'
Britni found out she was pregnant after Ethan left for Iraq.
"We were planning to get married when he came back home," she said last spring.
The two wrote each other often and picked out furniture and other items for the baby via the Internet.
After he was wounded, Britni prepared the baby's nursery, tried to stay optimistic about Ethan's recovery and visited him at Walter Reed — needing a medical clearance because of her high-risk pregnancy. When she couldn't see him in person, she would record herself talking to him and mail the tapes to Liza to play for him.
"He's hanging in there so I'm hanging in there," she said at the time.
Before Ethan departed for his second tour, he pulled his father aside and told him he didn't think he was coming back.
Ethan had wanted to get married before he left, but Rand urged him to wait.
His father would soon regret that advice. With his son in a coma, Rand Biggers organized a marriage from a Pennsylvania-based firm that arranged a double-marriage by proxy, where neither party had to be present.
Last March, Britni and Ethan legally became husband and wife.
Three months later, their son was born.
'Little E has finally come into the world'
Liza broke the news in the online journal she set up through CaringBridge, a service that helps people create a free personal Web site to keep family and friends updated during significant life events.
"Little E has finally come into the world," she wrote on May 27.
The boy's name — Eben — is a combination between Ethan and that of his friend, Benjamin Britts, who was killed in Iraq in 2005.
After a difficult pregnancy, the family saw the birth of a healthy baby boy as a beacon of hope, a lifeline.
There were other promising developments that day, too.
As Liza was helping turn Ethan, trying to move his head in a certain direction, this happened:
"Out of nowhere BIGG E growls at us!! The nurses just stopped and looked at him," Liza wrote in the journal. "That's a great sign."
Days later, Britni called Ethan and had Eben scream in his ear while she wished him a happy Father's Day.
Over the last year, Liza put her life on hold to help Ethan through his recovery, following him from the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., to Walter Reed, on to a Veterans Affairs rehabilitation center in Tampa, back to Walter Reed and finally to the VA hospital in Indianapolis.
Each time he was transferred, Liza and her stepmother, Cheryl Alspaugh Biggers of Beavercreek, would take down the large photos the family had put up on the walls for Ethan to see if he ever woke up.
Then they would put them right back up again in his new room.
They are snapshots in time. A beaming Rand with his sons on his lap. Matt and Ethan after completing basic training. Britni and Eben.
Three stunning angels, sketched by Liza, a freelance artist in New York City, appeared to be watching over him from the wall behind his bed.
After Ethan was transferred to a VA center in Tampa, respiratory therapists said he was breathing through his mouth and nose.
In physical therapy, he was able to sit for nearly two hours, holding his head up on his own more often.
In a journal entry on July 18, Liza wrote that a radiologist who read Ethan's CAT scans was impressed at how much he had healed in the last month.
That same day, Britni flew in with 6-week-old Eben to meet his father for the first time.
"BIGG E has met Baby E!!" Liza wrote.
Still, the family's effort to get Ethan into Casa Colina, a private facility in California that specializes in TBIs, kept running into roadblocks.
"It's another fight and we're getting tired of fighting," Liza wrote. "However, we are sticking to our guns and getting BIGG E where he has the best chance at recovery and where we can be with him more easily."
Later that month, doctors from Casa Colina evaluated Ethan and decided to keep him at the Tampa VA.
"Until Ethan is following commands and able to make significant gains, we cannot go to Casa Colina," Liza wrote.
Ethan cried out with a grimace one day as he was being moved from the bed to a tilt table.
Liza was encouraged.
"Although we don't like to see Ethan hurting, it's a great sign that he let us know he is," she wrote. "We hope he continues this and soon (will) be able to say some words."
'When does it stop?'
Rand, his wife, Cheryl, and Liza watched Ethan around the clock. But with Ethan now sleeping through the night, they agreed to start taking two-week breaks.
Rand started the rotation by heading back to Beavercreek. It was his first time away from Ethan since April and he was anxious to welcome home Matt, who was coming in from Germany that week.
On Thursday, July 27, the 59-year-old Biggers was exiting Interstate 675 onto U.S. 35 when a car went out of control, traveled over an embankment, became airborne and collided with his Jeep.
The coroner broke the news to Liza over her cell phone.
Biggers and Doris "Dori" Naone, 51, of Riverside, the driver of the other car, both died in the crash.
"Words cannot express our devastation," Liza wrote in the journal the next day.
There was little time for grief, however. Liza returned to Tampa with Matt, who was fresh out of the Army and had arrived home two days after his father was killed.
"I think we just forged on because he knew Ethan needed us," Liza said. "I've never asked myself why Ethan got shot. A car landed on top of my Dad ... I have to think it had to have happened for a reason. And even if it didn't, I can't spend my energy on 'why, why, why, why, why?' because it will never get you anywhere."
Loper, 33, the former barracks roommate who pinned the Purple Heart on Ethan, knew how much his friend idolized his father.
"When we heard what happened to Ethan's dad," he said, "it was just like, when does it stop?"
Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2:11 p.m. online journal entry:
During physical therapy, we got Ethan on the standing frame: a contraption that uses harnesses and pads to hold him up. The BIGGness held his head up by himself for quite a while!
He was doing very well using his trunk muscles and neck muscles to hold himself up. A BIGG improvement from two months ago.
That day, they celebrated Ethan and Matt's 22nd birthday with cake, cookies and strawberry rhubarb pie. A speech therapist helped Ethan taste the pie by dabbing a bit on his lips.
Through October, Ethan would squeeze family members' hands.
He could sit up on a mat and hold his head up for a few minutes.
And he started following commands, twitching his right hand when asked by his speech therapists.
One day, a physical therapist brought him to the gym in a wheelchair and placed a large orange ball in his lap.
"He did very well with his right hand, pushing and relaxing on command," Liza wrote. "It's a very encouraging sign."
'The worst kind of injury'
On Nov. 1, Ethan underwent surgery at Walter Reed to have his skull replaced. Doctors had earlier removed large portions of his skull to reduce swelling.
Matt's skull served as a template for his brother's. He went through CAT scans in Tampa so that surgeons at Walter Reed would have precise measurements to use. Liza announced the results in her journal that evening.
Ethan came through surgery great!! They managed to get both sides replaced, no problem! The neurosurgeons said the prosthetics fit like a glove (thanks Matt.) Ethan looks like Ethan! He responded fine to the fluid draining and as of right now, they don't believe he will need a shunt. The surgery itself took 5 1/2 hours. Whew!
...An hour after his surgery we all went to see him and he immediately opened his eyes at the sound of our voices. He's still really drugged though. We probably won't see any real changes, however, for at least a week. All is good right now.
But a neurologist told Matt the surgery was only cosmetic.
"It is the worst kind of injury you can suffer, a brain injury," Matt said. "A bullet going through the head ... you don't recover from that."
Searching for an answer
As Thanksgiving arrived, the family still didn't know where they could move Ethan.
"Tampa won't take him back unless he has some 'significant changes,' Liza wrote. "This would include tracking us with his eyes or following a command consistently. So if Ethan doesn't start doing this in the next week or so, we are to take him to a 'Level 2 Sub-acute VA' center. Cleveland was mentioned, but it's not so close to our home in Dayton."
Indianapolis was closer to home. And the VA center there had opened a renovated rehabilitation wing in August, equipped to handle TBI patients like Ethan.
Right before Christmas, he was flown on a private jet to Indiana, where Loper began visiting daily.
"Ethan is apparently squeezing his hand and tracking him around the room (by his voice)!," Liza wrote on Dec. 31. "To have new friends visit is absolutely critical stimuli for Ethan."
Liza is convinced Ethan could hear voices, and points to an experience in Indianapolis when a therapist put Matt on one side of Ethan and Liza on the other. Each was asked to call Ethan's name.
Each time, he turned to the right person.
Liza learned to read Ethan's body language, sensing when he was uncomfortable or didn't like something.
He was able to swallow applesauce and pureed foods.
"He loved coffee," she said, telling how she'd dip a little green sponge in coffee and put it in his mouth.
She'd put gummy Life Savers on a string so he could suck them without choking.
And she discovered he didn't care for blueberry-flavored Dum Dums. She knew because when she tried to give him one, he made a face.
In January, Cheryl put a spoon in her stepson's hand and helped him raise it. "He would open his mouth when it got there," she said. Amazed, she called in the nurse.
She was excited about his progress but then watched it stop.
"Those are only little tiny baby steps," Cheryl said last week. "Could Ethan have gotten better than that? We wouldn't know, but I know in the last few weeks Ethan was not trying."
Liza noticed it, too, and attributes the sudden change to when she began asking Ethan to give her a sign if he wanted more time to get better or wanted to die.
Her brother also searched for an answer.
"Matt had talked about seeing him in his dreams a lot, trying to get Ethan to tell him what he wanted. Matt felt that Ethan would want to go," Liza said. "When I told Ethan that, I really saw him start to pull out more and more. The therapists noticed it and the nurses noticed it that he was less alert and not as interested in rehab anymore."
Matt said he didn't want his brother to suffer any longer.
"You can't fix what's not there," he said. "He'd never be the same and he'd never live a full life."
After Rand died, Ethan's medical guardianship was transferred to Britni. But while Britni, too, wanted to end Ethan's suffering, Matt said she told him she couldn't bring herself to do it.
She turned over guardianship to him.
"I hope Ethan doesn't hate me for leaving him alive so long," Matt said.
Monday, Feb. 12, 11:49 a.m. journal entry:
I don't really know how to even write this. Cheryl and I just don't know what to say. So I'm going to go ahead and put my thoughts up here. I don't presume to represent anyone else's personal opinion. This is how I view the events.
After a family discussion, and by family I mean Matt, Cheryl, and I (Liza), the decision has been made to remove Ethan's feeding tube beginning March 5. This is something Matt feels very strongly about, and I believe for unselfish reasons. Cheryl in no way agrees with this decision, but has agreed to disagree with Matt. If it were my decision, I would probably grant a little more time. Regardless, I will continue to support Matt. In the end it is his decision as he has medical guardianship of Ethan.
The decision to stop Ethan's feedings was made by Matt. He came to the decision earlier because of Ethan's 104 degree temperature and other declining health issues.
His mother, Millie Biggers of Fairborn, didn't agree with it.
"I don't think Matt gave Ethan enough time," said Biggers, Rand's ex-wife and the mother of their four children.
She had visited Ethan in Indianapolis four times. Because of health reasons, she was driven there on Saturdays by the Miami Valley chapter of Blue Star Moms, a group made up of mothers who have or have had children in the military.
She believes Ethan could have recovered if the family had followed through on a plan to move him back to Dayton and into hospice care next month.
"I believe in miracles. I believe in the power of prayer and I believe in the right to life," she said Thursday.
Her oldest daughter, Amanda Watkins of Enon, however, seemed to sum up the sentiment of the rest of the family.
"I feel, out of everyone in the family, Matt knew him the best," she said. "Whatever decision he felt Ethan would have wanted, I would support."
Through the CaringBridge journal, Ethan's story has reached far beyond the Biggers family.
Since Liza began her updates, the site has had more than 25,000 visits and 420 posted messages. Some are to the family, like one from a woman in New Mexico who said she knew how hard the decision was because she's been there.
"I know my words will never be enough to help you all through this but I know that Ethan is a hero and fighter and will be forever in our hearts," she wrote.
Other messages are to Ethan directly. One simply reads, "Thank you for my freedom."
Gerard Simon, Rand's best friend, used to check the site every week or two for an update. When he learned Ethan was dying, he drove from Dayton to Indianapolis last week to pay his respects.
The ordeal has split the family, in many ways torn it apart. But at the same time, there is a closeness that wasn't there before.
An inner strength.
"I feel like if God didn't give us a miracle, he gave us strength," Liza said. Doctors initially told family members that Ethan could live anywhere from seven to 10 days. He died 11 days after his feedings were stopped.
Liza is convinced everyone did everything they could for Ethan, including the soldiers who bandaged his head and had him flown to Balad, where surgeons worked to save his life.
She's thankful they did.
"A lot of the argument is, 'Are we saving guys that shouldn't be saved?' " she said recently. "At least he got to come home. His loved ones got to say goodbye and he gets to die with his family instead of dying out in the desert. But, at the same time, it's a perpetual state of grief."
In her journal entry on Tuesday, Feb. 13, 8:16 p.m., she wrote:
Please keep Ethan in your thoughts and prayers for a safe and comfortable passage on. Matt and I are here by his side 24/7 until the time he passes on ... Dad can take him from there."
On Saturday, as she and Matt watched Ethan take his final breath, they saw him smile.
Each viewed it as another sign.
"That he's OK," Liza said.
And to Matt: "That he saw Dad."From the Daily News
Related Link:Ethan Biggers passes away peacefully after 1 year in coma