RONAN, Mont. (AP) — In a town of a little over 2,000 people, there’s no such thing as rush hour. At 4 in the afternoon, the only real traffic in Ronan remains on U.S. Highway 93, rolling to and from Polson, Missoula and Kalispell.
The residential streets don’t see much maintenance. In contrast to the cracks and holes pockmarking the grid of asphalt around Ronan’s homes, roads to the surrounding farms stay smooth.
Tomy Parker rolled down one of them, his arms pumping like pistons, gripping the wheels of his chair and hurling himself forward.
Nearing his third mile along Round Butte Road on an August afternoon, he kept his eyes straight ahead. A sweatband caught the perspiration that dripped from his head, but streams still made their way past and rolled down his chin.
The 29-year-old Marine veteran needed to make the 5-mile standard he set for himself, and he couldn’t do that on the scarred roads around the home that he shared with his girlfriend, Dara Rodda. With her cruising at his side on a bike, he made his way to a walking path on Round Butte Road that marked their turnaround.
A little more than a month before, Parker had finished the Missoula Half Marathon and planned on stepping up to a full marathon — all 26.2 miles — by December. To do that, he trained five days a week, progressively shaving the time it took to complete his loop through Ronan.
The distance racing is a metaphor of sorts for the grueling journey Parker has made since returning grievously wounded from Afghanistan in 2010.
Three years ago, he had a house and a truck, each specially made to function for a man with no legs and one hand. An addiction to heroin and methamphetamine cost him all of it, even his wheelchair.
The 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, with a legacy from Belleau Wood to Guadalcanal to Fallujah, suffered the most casualties of any Marine unit in Afghanistan.
Parker, a self-proclaimed "hellion" as a youth, enlisted in 2009 when he realized he'd never make it to the NFL, holding out for a slot in infantry assault.
“I wasn’t like other people who enlisted to fight for our freedom,” Parker said. “Here I was this 19-year-old Montana boy in California. It was pretty girls and shooting guns. I loved it!”
Members of the 3/5, Parker among them, went to Helmand province in October 2010. Not three months later, on Dec. 11, Parker came under fire while on patrol with 19 other Marines on a street in Sangin. A few steps later, a blast lifted him into the air and tore him apart.
After he landed, he shouted that he his legs were gone. A buried 20 pound-bomb had ripped away his legs and shredded his left hand. At a field hospital, doctors took his left leg up to his hip. Then, they cut the right one off just above his knee.
Three days later, he woke up in the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. His mother and uncle were waiting for him when he opened his eyes.
"Mom, Uncle Rick, you can't be in Afghanistan. It's not safe," Lisa Jennison-Corbett remembers him saying.
Parker returned as one of more than 52,000 troops since 2001 wounded fighting in the War on Terror. There wouldn’t be a year without a combat-related amputation until 2016.
When he arrived in Montana in February 2011 on a week's leave from the Naval Medical Center in San Diego, more than 200 people greeted him at Missoula International Airport.
Trucks from a half-dozen fire departments formed a caravan to Polson, where he stayed at the wheelchair-accessible KwaTaqNuk resort. "A True Hero's Welcome," the Lake County Leader headlined the story.
Missoulian reporter Vince Devlin and photographer Kurt Wilson were there, too, producing some of the more than two years' worth of stories that followed Parker from Bethesda to San Diego and back to Montana.
Parker's Facebook page shows post after post of friends, family and Marines reaching out to him.
“You will always be prayed for by me!!!!”
“I absolutely love your whole family. You are quite literally one of my heroes. I love you Tomy.”
“I ran up a hill and found you surrounded by war dogs. You were still smiling and we carried you to a truck and got you moving. Funniest thing that day was as I was closing the doors to that MRAP and you yelled at me … ‘Thumbs up all day bro!’ You’re the man Tommy.”
But Parker had already begun his downward spiral.
"I was high for most of that time," told the Missoulian.
Pills and lies
Parker's mother did her best to fend it off. One of their first conversations in Bethesda was about whether he could get addicted to the meds being pumped into him. When he began feeling phantom stabs of pain, he started on a painkiller that numbed his invisible limbs and shut down his metabolism.
When his mother accompanied him from Bethesda to San Diego, she kept his pills on the top floor of the condo they'd secured there.
"I had to keep track of them according to what, when, where and what time," she said of the painkillers Lyrica and Oxycodone that were among the medications prescribed for him.
Parker spent more than in a year in San Diego, still in the Marines as a lance corporal, his only mission being to recover. That meant hours of physical therapy and learning to walk on prosthetics. He had two sets: “shorties” that he trained in, and a pair that brought him back up to 6 feet, 1 inch.
“Using prosthetics is probably the most demanding thing I’ve had to do since my injury,” Parker said.
Jennison-Corbett woke early every day to cook breakfast and accompanied Parker to all of his appointments. In the evenings, she made dinner and watched TV while he played Call of Duty: Black Ops. A year into his recovery, he started swimming and had been completely weaned off prescription painkillers.
For 18 months, Jennison-Corbett had been "in his face, in his life." She wanted to give her 23-year-old son a chance to live his life alone as his own man. So she left her son in San Diego and returned home to Ronan to join her husband and three other children.
When her husband, Tim Corbett took her home to Ronan, she said she cried for the first 50 miles.
To give her son independence, she let him take control of his medication. When she did that, she let herself be convinced that he could control himself.
“For years, I believed Tomy’s lies,” she said.
A new injury
While still in San Diego, Parker had a custom-made Dodge pickup to get himself to his appointments. He drove the truck through a system built into the steering wheel that allowed him to brake and accelerate with his hands. He also stayed active through swimming, hand cycling and occasionally surfing. During a game of seated volleyball, however, he took a dive.
“He wanted so badly to prove to everyone that he could do anything, and he ended up getting hurt,” his mother said.
A month after his mom left, his leap for the ball during the volleyball game resulted in a deep tissue wound to his left side. With no other way of treating him, doctors put Parker back on pain meds.
He was on them when he returned to Montana for good, on them in 2015 when he moved out of an addition on his mother's house into a custom-made single-story home provided by the nonprofit Homes for Our Troops.
The day he moved into his new home in Polson, 15 miles north of Ronan, Parker raised and saluted the flag on a pole in his new front yard with his then-fiancé.
The 2,650-square-foot house had hallways, cupboards and a stove all built for Parker to access from his wheelchair. The organization also assigned Parker a financial adviser. Despite having no mortgage to pay, the adviser would walk him through paying bills and insurance.
“We don’t just hand them the keys and wish them well. We stick with them,” Bill Ivey, executive director of Homes of Our Troops, told the Missoulian in 2015.
Within two years, the house would be repossessed, and Parker's name removed from the list of recipients on the Homes for Our Troops website.
“I feel bad for the people who went through a lot of time and effort to get me the house, but I didn’t feel like I deserved it. To be given such an incredible home for one wrong step. … I didn’t feel was adequate," he said of the house.
Parker’s relationship with his mother became strained, his visits with her less frequent, as she started to confront him directly about abusing his prescriptions. Before he left the addition built for him in her home, Lisa caught signs that Parker might be in danger: hollowed-out pens and other paraphernalia, along with stories from friends of spotting Parker’s red Dodge parked at houses with a reputation.
She banned him from her home. He fed his addiction for methamphetamine at his house in Polson. His habit kept him up for days at a time, exhausting his body into a heavy sleep that reminded him of his days in the Marines.
“I like feeling exhausted, and that’s what I enjoyed about meth. You’d be up for days, and then sleep like a baby,” he said.
His mother reached out to the members of his former platoon. They came, some from as far as Hawaii, charging through the Montana winter on a new mission.
They met Parker on Dec. 11, 2016, the morning marking his sixth "Alive Day," the anniversary of his surviving the blast in Helmand Province. It was a "cold, cold day," his mother recalled. Outside, police waited to conduct a sweep of the house.
Inside, his friends tried to reach him. It didn't work. He'd keep using for another 14 months. But one message stuck.
“Tomy, you’re a piece of shit. In my eyes you’ll forever be a piece of shit. If your name gets brought up, I’ll make sure everyone knows you’re a piece of shit,” a Marine told him.
In jail, but alive
Even though they rarely spoke, Lisa watched over her son the only way she could: listening to a police scanner app on her phone and checking arrests in Lake County posted online.
In March 2017, the sheriff’s office called to let her know that Parker was in jail following at raid on his house in Polson. In jail, but alive. After a search of his home, police charged Parker with heroin and meth possession.
Because his wheelchair could be potentially used as a weapon, he spent his first few days at Lake County Jail in solitary confinement. He wanted out.
Lisa told him she’d get him out, but on the strictest terms: He had to go to rehab. Within hours of his release, Lisa took him from Ronan to Missoula International Airport.
They boarded a plane for Lafayette, Louisiana, where Parker entered rehab at Vermilion Behavioral Health Systems. He spent 45 days as an inpatient and 60 days an outpatient before coming back to Ronan. Although the program was designed to break an addiction, he continued to use.
After Vermilion, Parker would go through seven other treatment programs over the next 18 months. In between treatment, he surfed couches around Polson, Ronan and Missoula. In between couch surfing, he went to jail for violating his parole.
His treatment, according to the conditions of his parole, allowed for his release. Following his sixth violation, his probation officer wrote in a document submitted to the Lake County Courthouse in Ronan that “simply incarcerating him may be more effective.”
A chance encounter
Parker spent most of 2018 in and out of handcuffs, violating his parole a final time by getting caught with methamphetamine. For most the year, his mother thought she’d bury the oldest of her four children before she saw him sober again. She prayed for God to either help him quit or take him.
Said Parker: “I’ve been to church, the battlefield, the trap house and jail. I didn’t see God in any of those places."
In between arrests, treatment and couch surfing, Parker had seen a familiar face at a gas station in November 2018. He said hello.
Dara Rodda grew up with Parker. They met in first grade at K. William Harvey Elementary, and she managed the high school wrestling team in which Parker competed. His invitation for coffee began a correspondence between the two that continued over phone while he served part of his sentence into 2019.
The start of this year also marked the first time that Parker appeared before Standing Master Brenda Desmond in Veterans Treatment Court in Missoula. His entry in the program allowed him to avoid any more jail time in exchange for agreeing to an agenda over the next year and a half established by himself, a mentor through the court, counselors at the VA, prosecutors and his defense attorney.
(After being a part of Veterans Treatment Court in Missoula into October, Parker said he received permission to leave the program. Although grateful for their efforts, he lives in Ronan, and that’s where he wants to stay.)
The correspondence between Parker and Dara turned into support, and that support turned into friendship, and then more. In February 2019, after his last arrest for violating his parole, and with the trust between him and the rest of his family in cinders, Rodda opened her home to Parker.
He moved into her one-story house in Ronan in March, helping to cook and clean, and settling into a routine of checking in with his parole officers and the Veterans Treatment Court. He also rolled his first half-marathon.
Leaving 'illicit life'
Parker calls those previous years his "illicit life," the life that he says ended on Feb. 21, 2019, after three weeks in the Lake County Jail. That day in August, when Parker rolled down a country road with Rodda pedaling beside him, that former life was not even six months behind him.
A cruiser whipped in front of Parker. He and Rodda stopped. The officer took his ID, then told Parker he needed to either stick to the bike lane or find another way to train. He threatened Parker with a ticket for impeding traffic before leaving.
“We have a history,” Parker said of the officer. Their acquaintance is another reminder of that time. He keeps descriptions of it to one-word adjectives that let the mind fill the gaps. “Unsavory” is a typical one.
The Veteran Suicide Awareness and Prevention Walk, ruck and half-marathon, held in April in Missoula. Parker heard about it through court meetings. Convinced that it would probably take him more than four hours to finish, he still took his spot on the track at Fort Missoula Regional Park.
His ungloved hands bled, and he had to forget that he had arms to keep from crying, but Parker heaved himself over the partially paved track. He also managed to finish ahead of Judge Desmond, an avid runner.
“Pushing past that, I had my first moment of mental clarity in a very long time,” Parker said. “Before that though, when I hit the gravel, inside I was shouting ‘Who the f--- built this road?!’”
When asked what motivates him to train, stay sober and pick up a little bit of practice on Dara’s piano, the answer shot out with such conviction that it may as well be one of the laws of physics.
Photos from the early years after his return from Afghanistan show an increasingly heavy Parker, weight gain due in part to a drug prescribed after his amputations, with a side effect of slowing the metabolism. He credits part of his subsequent weight loss to his meth habit. His workout regimen in jail probably helped. Balancing on his hands from the floor of his cell in a pushup position, he lifted his body up into the air before lowering himself down to the ground. Then he did it 499 more times.
“I wasn’t afraid of going to jail. It was easy, and it made me better,” Parker said. “To put it in a different context, as a boxer the first time you step into a ring against somebody, you have this overwhelming fear of ‘Can I take his punches, can I handle whatever he’s going to give me?’ The first time you get hit by the judicial system, you realize either you can handle it or you can’t.”
On top of those modified burpees, he read, ate and worked. When he left jail for the last time, he earned the nicknames “King Kong” and “Olympian” from the other inmates.
Along with finding a safe and drug-free residence, the court required Parker to attend a final session of treatment at the Cincinnati VA Medical Center, this time focused on his diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder.
He left for Cincinnati on May 13 and returned June 28. That weekend, he was at the starting line for the Missoula Half Marathon.
On the day of the race, he started his morning with his usual cocktail of pre-workout mixtures, powders that amp his caffeine intake to what he estimates to be 1,000 mgs of caffeine a day. Although it gave him the surge of energy that pumped him through his workouts, it had a bit of a side effect that morning. Before making his way to the starting line, he needed to find a bathroom.
He found one at a nearby gas station, but when he entered, he had still another problem. Not one stall had the handicap steel to fit his wheelchair and lift himself onto the seat. Without hesitating, he “King Kong” crawled across the bathroom floor.
Bubble guts be damned, Parker rolled over the Clark Fork River to finish the half-marathon in an hour and 52 minutes. A photo caught him mid-spin, wearing a Nike headband, black gloves — and the same bright-orange pants issued to him at Lake County Jail.
Information from: Missoulian, http://www.missoulian.com