She wrote a children's book defending her husband's dignity - the 'handsome hero' who lost 2 limbs in Afghanistan
Grace Verardo, 3, came home one day from preschool and told her mother: "Someone said Daddy is gross."
Sarah Verardo spun into action. Her husband's war injuries were having a broader effect on her children than she had realized. Mike Verardo is a double amputee, but Grace had always known him simply as a "handsome hero."
"I realized I needed to give them the tools to deal with what I've already been dealing with for years - the stares, the questions," Sarah Verardo, 33, said about her three daughters, who are 3 years old, 2 years old and 9 months old.
So she wrote and self-published a children's book, "Hero at Home," about a veteran who has a prosthetic leg, a wounded arm and a brain injury that sometimes causes him to put his "keys in the fridge and milk in the closet."
Her audience, she said, was her children, their classmates and people around the world who want to better understand veterans with severe war injuries.
"I'm his caregiver and case manager, but the most important thing I do is keep his dignity and my children's dignity. That was being challenged," she said. "I wanted to explain to people: This is what it's like to live with war."
Mike Verardo, 33, was an Army infantryman with the 82nd Airborne Division when he was hit by an improvised explosive device in southern Afghanistan in 2010. He was knocked unconscious and badly bruised, but his injuries were mostly to his head.
A few days later, feeling fit for duty, he decided to return to his unit rather than go home to recuperate. Two weeks after that, he was struck by another explosive device. This time, it took off his left leg and arm and burned 30 percent of his body.
The injuries to his body and brain were so extensive that he was not expected to live.
The attack occurred April 24, 2010, making Tuesday his eighth "Alive Day," a day that some veterans celebrate to mark surviving an attack that almost killed them. The Verardos were in Washington today for a celebration at the U.S. Capitol with Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs; Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif.; and others.
At the time of that April 2010 attack, Sarah and Mike Verardo were dating. They got married three years later. The following year, Grace was born. Shortly after, their other two daughters came along. Sarah Verardo said their lives are not easy, but "our blessings far outweigh our burdens." They live outside Charlotte, North Carolina.
Proceeds from the book go to the Independence Fund, a nonprofit that helps severely wounded veterans and their families. The fund helps fill unmet veterans' needs through caregiver and advocacy programs, said Sarah Verardo, who is the group's executive director.
At the beginning of her book, illustrated by Inna Eckman, readers are introduced to Grace, her father and the war that left him wounded.
"This is Grace's dad . . . He was sent to Afghanistan to protect America and was wounded in action while fighting for our country . . . He wears a special leg that looks like it belongs on a robot. His arms were rebuilt with lots of tools," it reads.
Then it shows a drawing of Grace on her dad's shoulders as he walks with a prosthetic leg and a red cape. There's also a scene of him on an all-terrain wheelchair at the beach with Grace's sisters on his lap.
The next page is a critical one, because it says something that Sarah Verardo said many people don't understand: "Grace's dad is still working hard to get better."
Mike Verardo has had more than 100 surgeries, with more in his future. Since December, he hasn't been able to wear his prosthetic leg because he had a surgery and his wound is still healing. His left arm was reconstructed for aesthetics but is paralyzed. His traumatic brain injuries prevent him from functioning fully in daily life and holding a job.
The idea of ongoing recovery is something Sarah Verardo said she is constantly explaining to people.
"People will say, 'Did the VA not buy you a leg?' or 'I know an amputee who ran a marathon,' " she said. "Mike has a very complicated medical case and a severe traumatic brain injury. He's one of the most severely wounded veterans from the war. This is something we will deal with for the rest of his life."
She said her husband, who has a shy personality and turns from the spotlight, is happy with the book and its empowering message. One page shows him at Arlington National Cemetery saluting the headstones for three close friends killed in Afghanistan.
While the Verardos' lives are not easy, they feel lucky that he came home from the war alive, even if his body is different.
"Grace's daddy tells her that sometimes people get hurt and their bodies change," reads the book. "But they still have the same heart."
Sarah Verardo said her kids love the book, as well. When Grace first saw it, her mother recounts, she said, "This is the book about me and Daddy!" And she wants to show it to all her friends.
"She proudly tells everybody her daddy fought the bad guys and he won," Verardo said.
Author information: Allison Klein has been a reporter at The Washington Post since 2004, with a hiatus from 2013 to 2017.