On Tuesdays and Fridays, Eric Griego undergoes surgery to clean an open wound and change the vacuum-assisted closure dressing on his back and shoulder.

The injury is gruesome, and the procedure can be arduous. However, for the Mesa soldier who was seriously wounded in Afghanistan in October, it has become routine.

“It doesn’t even phase me anymore,” the 22-year-old said via telephone from Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, where he has been since January. “Twice I week, I go in. It’s not a big deal. That’s kind of sad to say.”

Still, Griego is in good spirits, and his rehabilitation continues despite a setback — an infection in his right chest cavity — that developed into a life-threatening emergency.

Griego, a private first class in the Army, was shot in the chest by Taliban fighters as his unit was attempting to secure a road on Oct. 19. Doctors removed his right lung and the top lobe of his left. He was scheduled to return to the Brooke Center on Jan. 28 for routine follow-up therapy, but on the flight he began coughing and vomiting blood. During emergency surgery, doctors removed a rib and a chunk of muscle behind the right shoulder — resulting in the wound, which may never be closed.

“He may have this open wound that he’ll be responsible for changing the rest of his life,” Griego’s mother, Brenda, said. “He is only 22, and that’s a lot to think about. We’re hoping and praying that won’t be the case.”

Griego said that, as long as he stays infection-free, doctors will try to close the wound in three weeks. He would remain in San Antonio for two weeks after that.

“My spirits are up, as always,” Griego said. “I’m relieved that the infection was found and that they got rid of it. We’re lucky that the infection didn’t move on to another internal organ. That would have been really, really bad.”

In the meantime, he will be energized by the presence of his 4-year-old daughter, Rylie, who will visit next week. Griego has delayed receiving his Purple Heart until after his unit returns from Afghanistan. He could not disclose that date for security reasons.

Her son’s experiences have motivated Brenda Griego — through involvement with military-support organizations and on her own — to increase awareness of the plight of wounded soldiers and their families.

Brenda and her husband, Peter, have been forced to miss much work since the injury and have fallen behind on bills. They hope to purchase a new house, one more accessible for Eric.

But the most gut-wrenching experience, Brenda Griego said, is her son’s fellow patients at the Brooke Center.

“You see soldiers come back in pieces,” Brenda Griego said. “We’ve had to prep Rylie for some of the things she’s going to see — people with no legs, open wounds, almost no faces. It’s the side of war that few people get to see, and we see it every day here. It’s difficult for me to see, much less a 4-year-old.”

CONTACT WRITER: (480) 898-6301 or dzeiger@evtrib.com

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