By Michelle Tan, Air Force Times
JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-FORT SAM HOUSTON, TEXAS - After six years of marriage, Army Staff Sgt. Ed Matayka and his wife, Sgt. Karen Matayka, were ready to start a family as soon as they returned from Afghanistan.
"We decided to put it off until this last deployment," Karen Matayka said. "I guess the joke's on us."
On July 2, 2010, four months into their tour, Ed Matayka's vehicle hit a roadside bomb.
The driver, Spc. Ryan Grady, was killed. Ed Matayka, who was sitting behind Grady, lost both of his legs above the knee, injured his spinal cord in two places and suffered a traumatic brain injury. He wasn't expected to survive.
But after countless surgeries, two strokes and months of rehabilitation, Ed Matayka reclaimed his life, with his wife and fellow soldier by his side.
This spring, their dream of becoming parents came true thanks to a relatively new Tricare benefit that covers in-vitro fertilization, a process that can cost up to $20,000, for service members who are severely wounded or ill.
The Mataykas, whose twins Ryan - who is named after Grady - and Alana, almost 5 months old, are the first military couple to use this benefit.
The assisted reproductive services benefit offered by Tricare went into effect April 3, 2012, said Maria Guerrero, chief of the customer service branch in the San Antonio Military Medical Center's department of clinical operations.
It must be approved on a case-by-case basis, and it covers sperm and embryo storage for up to three years, as well as medications, hormone shots, all of the associated tests and up to six implantations, Guerrero said.
Before this benefit, troops could use Tricare for infertility testing but not in-vitro fertilization, she said.
"We broke ground here with them," Guerrero said of the Mataykas.
The benefit is largely a product of the number of troops coming home from the battlefield with lower extremity wounds, Guerrero said.
"This type of benefit gives [troops] hope," she said. "It gives them marriage. It gives them family. It gives them a whole future. No matter what the injury is, this is a great benefit."
Ed and Karen Matayka are both medics with the Vermont National Guard. They met 14 years ago during advanced individual training here and were married in 2004.
'This isn't good'
They deployed in March 2010 to Afghanistan with the 86th Infantry Brigade Combat Team and were stationed at Bagram Air Base.
During their tour, the Mataykas were both assigned to the brigade's 1st Squadron, 172nd Cavalry Regiment.
"I figured if we both had full combat loads and didn't kill each other, we were meant to be together," said Karen Matayka, 33.
Ed Matayka was wounded at about 1 a.m. on July 2, 2010. The blast blew open three combat-locked doors on his truck, and the truck commander was thrown from the vehicle.
When her platoon sergeant knocked on her door, Karen Matayka said she knew her 35-year-old husband was hurt.
"I just knew," she said. "I got to the [intensive care unit] and I saw the chaplain, the brigade sergeant major and the brigade surgeon, and I thought, 'This isn't good.'"
Ed Matayka was in a coma for six weeks. In addition to losing his legs, the TBI and spinal cord injury, he suffered two strokes during his recovery and is partially paralyzed in his left arm.
He was flown to what was then the Walter Reed Army Military Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and later moved to the medical center in Bethesda, Md. There, doctors discovered he had a carotid dissection, in which the layers of an artery wall separate, disrupting blood flow to the brain.
The Mataykas spent three months at Bethesda before they were moved to Hunter Holmes McGuire Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Richmond, Va. They spent five months there before they moved to the VA facility in Boston for more rehab.
After six months, "we were told we could go home because there was nothing more they could do for him," Karen Matayka said.
Unhappy with that prognosis, the couple moved to the San Antonio Military Medical Center in August 2011.
A fight for children
Through all of the moves and facilities, the couple met with various fertility experts, but nothing worked. Ed Matayka's spinal cord injury prevented the couple from having children naturally.
"We wanted our own kids, if possible," Karen Matayka said, adding that they explored all of their options, including adoption.
In January 2012, the couple met with the fertility experts at the medical center. They knew they would need in-vitro fertilization.
"At the time, Tricare didn't cover IVF," Ed Matayka said. "We were part of the fight to get that corrected."
Because they were the first to use the new benefit, it took six months for the Mataykas' case to be approved, Guerrero said.
Karen Matayka got pregnant on Sept. 22, 2012.
On March 21, at 28 weeks, she suffered a placental abruption. Her placenta had peeled away from the inner wall of her uterus, a dangerous complication. She drove herself to the hospital, calling her husband, who was at the Center for the Intrepid for physical therapy.
The twins were born almost three months early, each weighing just over 2 pounds. They spent 72 days in the neonatal intensive care unit.
Today, Ryan is a healthy boy who weighs almost 13 pounds, while his sister is not far behind at 10 pounds.
Ed Matayka will be medically retired this fall, and Karen Matayka will separate from the Guard in December.
The couple plan to stay in the San Antonio area and maybe someday try for more kids.
Before Ed Matayka's life-changing wounds, the couple had decided it was time to start a family and for one of them to stay home with their kids.
"Obviously, life can't have you do everything the right way," Ed Matayka said. "But you can either complain about it or change it."