Wounds of war reunite estranged brothers

WOODLYN, Pa. — For years, brothers Pisey and Dara Tan barely spoke to each other as they had gone their separate ways — Pisey into the Army, Dara off to college.

Today they share a home and are as close as two brothers can be, reunited by a roadside bombing in Iraq in 2004 that reduced Pisey’s legs to bandaged stubs.

It’s been a long, agonizing three years. Dara, now 22, has carried, pushed, picked up, encouraged and sometimes fought with his brother, who has learned to walk with ease on prosthetic legs.

“He thinks I’m a psychopath maniac sometimes, and I think he’s a stubborn hardheaded dude sometimes,” says Pisey, four years older than Dara. “It’s brotherly love, though.”

Their reconnection started while Pisey was still recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Dara had gone to Penn State University’s Abington campus while Pisey had joined the Army at age 21, but Dara didn’t think twice about dropping out of school and moving into Walter Reed for nearly a year to help his brother.

“He’s family,” Dara says. “It’s a given.”

He was there even before Pisey regained consciousness, starting to cry each time he walked into his brother’s hospital room.

Pisey wondered how he could tell his mother he had lost his legs. She was a war refugee from Cambodia who had come to the United States as a teenager, and he didn’t want to upset her.

“I thought I was just going to keep it low-key and just disappear off the radar, don’t even mention it to my mother,” he says.

His younger brother had already stepped in, translating the news for their mother in a conference call with an Army official.

Pisey then had an even bigger worry, about his own future.

“We heard about how the people treated the people that went to Vietnam … All that stuff went through my head and I was like what am I going to do now? How am I going to live? Who is going to take care of me?”

Again, Dara stepped up, even though their separate paths in life meant the brothers had hardly spoken in years and kept in touch mostly through their mother. “He had to get to know me fast,” Pisey says.

It helped that Dara — his brother affectionately calls him a “freak” — is a very big guy at 6-foot-4, 340 pounds. He had no problem lifting Pisey, who is 100 pounds lighter.

Pisey says he became the envy of other patients at Walter Reed.

“That was the fastest way I could get things done. My brother pushing me around in my wheelchair,” Pisey says. “My brother was like the biggest key when I was there because he would have to go do some of the things that I couldn’t do, like run to buildings, getting papers signed and stuff like that.”

Dara also would hit the streets of Washington at 3 a.m. to satisfy his brother’s craving for McDonald’s.

Accepting the help wasn’t always easy.

“I felt pretty low and always like sad … having to depend on my brother,” Pisey says. “There were days I felt embarrassed.”

When the two moved in with their mother in North Philadelphia, there were new challenges. The two-story row house could not handle Pisey’s wheelchair and he was still learning to use his prosthetic legs.

Many nights, Dara carried his brother piggyback-style up the stairs to his bedroom.

One day when Pisey suffered sharp kidney pain, Dara carried him to an ambulance.

When Pisey fell learning to walk Philadelphia’s uneven streets with his prosthetic legs, or on one occasion, trying to get a bus, Dara picked him up.

Without Dara, “I would have been screwed, basically,” Pisey says.

But while Dara would help when he had to, he would not baby his brother as Pisey learned to walk, drive a car with hand controls and relearn other tasks.

“My brother knows what I can and cannot do,” Pisey says.

Last December, life got easier. Pisey was given a custom-built, two-story home in a Philadelphia’s suburb by a nonprofit group, Homes for Our Troops, which had teamed with a builder, The McKee Group.

With its wide doorways and wheelchair-accessible shower, Pisey no longer needs Dara at his side, but he wanted his brother to stay close, so Dara moved in upstairs.

“He’s there for me and I’m always there for him,” Pisey says. “It’s the least I can do after everything that he’s done for me.”

They spend their days hanging out, playing video games, working on their cars, heading to the neighborhood Italian deli for sandwiches.

Pisey, who is still receiving regular therapy, hopes to go to college to study to be a high school history teacher. Dara plans to train to be a mechanic.

Dara is glad to be around and happy to help.

“I don’t think of it as time wasted or anything,” he says. “Everything turned out pretty good for him.”

For now, they are enjoying being brothers again.

“We’re a bunch of old young kids,” Pisey says.

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