“He’s my one,” Ashley Toppin tells me. “He’s my everything.”
She’s speaking of her husband Andy Toppin, an Army veteran from Dickinson, Texas. If you saw them walking down the street you’d look twice. Ashley is a petite blue eyed blonde with a smile that lights up a dark Texas night. Andy is tall dark and ruggedly handsome standing a foot taller than his beautiful wife on a prosthetic leg.
“A little boy asked Andy once what happened to his leg,” Ashley smiles. “Andy told him he lost it in Iraq. The boy asks, why did you leave it there? Andy told him, ‘Well I had a spare.’ .”
Ashley and Andy’s love story began in eighth grade. They became best friends before they reached High School and realized they had stronger feelings for each other. They both joined the Army until Ashley realized the Army wasn’t her path. Andy continued on his journey with the Army getting stationed in Korea after Basic and AIT. On a two week leave from overseas he asked Ashley to marry him, and she said yes. They went to the Justice of the Peace, the bride wore black and regrets not having any photos to remember one of the best days of her life.
Soon after Andy was transferred to Ft. Lewis in Washington. After such a long separation, Ashley living in Texas with her in-laws and Andy serving overseas, they were finally reunited in Washington. A few months later Ashley was expecting a baby and Andy had orders to Iraq. Like any military couple they made decisions concerning the deployment. Ashley decided to say at Ft. Lewis to be around other military wives who understood her need to wait by the phone for those precious phone calls, instead of going to the club every night to party. Washington had become home and the military had become her family.
On December 12th her father-in-law called her from Texas, waking her out of a dead sleep. “I remember he was really mad at me,” she says. “He wanted to know why I hadn’t been answering my phone.”
That day along a dirt road in Iraq, her husband Andy, her everything, was blown up by an Explosive Formed Penetrator, EFP similar to an IED.
Andy remembers seeing a Bongo truck on the median of the road they were traveling. He thought it was unusual but didn’t react until the driver smiled at him. “They smiled at me, cheeky bastards why are they smiling at me, then boom!”
Andy who was driving the lead vehicle in a convoy had the presence of mind to brake causing the EFP to detonate just under the driver side wheel well, keeping the vehicle and Andy from being cut in half. He had the presence of mind to turn into a swerve keeping the vehicle from tipping over which would have killed everyone including him. The explosion ripped through the vehicle, causing third degree burns on both arms and his face, as well as causing injuries so severe that his leg had to be amputated. Luckily the other passengers survived with minor injuries.
Because of a mix up in paperwork Andy’s mother was called by Casualty Assistance, who informed her of Andy’s condition. Ashley found herself explaining to her in-laws that it had to be a scam. Begging her father-in-law not to allow her mother-in-law to give out any information about Andy, because it had to be happening to someone else. When Ashley was finally contacted by the Army she got hourly updates on Andy’s condition. “They called every couple of hours. Finding out every couple of hours, oh, he has an infection here. Oh, he’s got a blood clot here. Oh, we have to take his leg.” she pauses as the tears well up in her blue eyes. “I kept thinking when is it going to stop, when are they going to say, it’s getting better. It didn’t stop.”
By December 15th Andy was finally stable enough to fly to Landstuhl, Germany. They later told Ashley and his family that he died and was resuscitated three times before arriving in Germany, his prognosis was grim. Ashley refused to cry. Instead she put on her game face and took care of business. Her daily schedule began at 6:00 a.m. and lasted until well past midnight when she would be forced to leave Andy’s side for some much needed sleep. She had one moment where she allowed herself to cry. “I got on my knees and I prayed, God you can’t take him from me, I can’t do this by myself. I need him. He’s my everything. He isn’t done here, he has to be a daddy. I can’t go to my daughter and tell her stories about him, she needs to know him.”
Andy was kept in a medically induced coma for a month. When he was finally lucid enough to comprehend what happened one of his first questions was about his baby. Using a board with letters to spell out his question, a tracheotomy tube making speech impossible, the word he spelled was “healthy” while pointing to Ashley’s growing belly. She assured him she was and had been kicking his hospital bed since she got there.
“It was hard for me,” Ashley explains. Andy was transferred from Landstuhl to Brook Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas where his recovery progressed until March of 2010 when he was released. In April his daughter Addison was born. Before her birth Ashley was taking care of him, pushing him around in his wheel chair while she was nine months pregnant. He was still in the Army so she had to drive him to formation every day then to doctors appointments after that. Addi was two weeks late and her doctor wanted to induce her. She kept putting it off thinking how was she going to take care of a baby and get Andy where he needed to go. Finally she went into labor. But because it wasn’t progressing they had to do an emergency C-section. Andy was parked in a corner, because he was still in a wheel chair. “So he couldn’t hold my hand or do anything. When she came out Andy was the first to hold her. It was really beautiful he was lost in her, couldn’t stop looking at her, it was amazing. I know he loves me, but I swear he survived because of her. He fought so hard because he wanted to be her daddy.”
“It was awesome to be there when it happened,” he smiles at the memory recalling the day of Addison’s birth. “And after everything that happened to be there, to see it, to hear her cry first and to see her when she first opened her eyes… it’s wonderful. Life is wonderful like that.”
Today Andy walks with a prosthetic leg and enjoys his life as Addison’s dad, retired from the Army. Things have changed, dreams have changed from definite to possible with a lot of hard work. Ashley is working full-time and going to school to become a physical therapist or a teacher, she hasn’t decided yet. At the age of 24 they feel like little kids in big boy britches, forced to grow up too soon. And this Valentine’s day as they celebrate a love that survived more than one lifetime can handle, they’re expecting a brother or a sister for Addison, who turns three this April.
“I know God left him here for a reason,” Ashley says. “Whether is was to be a father or a husband. He obviously has something left to do, something left to say. You’re never going to fully understand what happened to them, but be sympathetic. His physical appearance didn’t matter to me. I still love him, he is still everything to me. He’s missing a leg and he has a nub, it look disgusting, it smells sometimes, he’s burned, and his face is different and his smile is different. But he’s still Andy We know we can go through hell and back and still be… us.”