When Sarah Verardo’s husband returned home from Afghanistan in 2010 severely wounded, she knew their lives were forever changed.
Michael Verardo lost his left leg and much of his left arm when an IED went off while he was serving as an Army infantryman in the 82nd Airborne division. The accident left Michael in an eight-day coma, and in addition to the loss of his limbs, he also experienced a traumatic injury to the brain, Sarah tells PEOPLE.
In the years that followed, Michael endured 100 surgeries and countless speech, visual and physical therapies, all while using a prosthetic leg and wheelchair to spend time with his three young daughters.
“My husband will never be able to walk into the ocean or run through the backyard with our children, and that’s okay,” Sarah, 33, tells PEOPLE. “There are other things he can do, they’re just done in a way that’s probably different for most families.”
And while it’s a new normal for the family, an encounter with her 3-year-old daughter Grace’s preschool classmate left Sarah realizing that not all children understand the Verardos’ reality.
Sarah tells PEOPLE that during a preschool event for Grace late last year, she overheard a child call Michael “gross” and “weird.” It wasn’t until Grace, herself, asked her mother about the comments, though, that Sarah was inspired to write a children’s book that details what life is like when a soldier comes home severely wounded.
“When I was putting her to bed, she said to me, ‘Someone said daddy’s gross, but he’s so handsome and he’s a hero,’ ” she says. “I realized that, for her to still be processing it two days later, meant that it really bothered her and I needed to give her the tools to deal with what I’ve been dealing with for many years.”
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Sarah — who is an executive director at the Independence Fund, a nonprofit that helps wounded veterans and their caregivers — wanted to create a story that illustrated her family.
“I thought, I needed to give my children and their peers’ tools to understand what life is like for families like ours,” Sarah says. “Many of my fellow spouses of severely wounded veterans have expressed similar concerns as our children reach school age. How do we explain what makes our families different and special, and how do we celebrate that?”
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Sarah released Hero at Home on April 18. The book features watercolor illustrations that tell her husband’s story — and, hopefully, the stories of countless other veterans who have returned home with catastrophic injuries, whether physical, mental, or both.
“I thought about how I’ve explained Mike’s injuries to other families and their children,” Sarah explains, “and I just wrote it in a way I felt was really age-appropriate and encompasses the multitude of injuries, both visible and invisible.”
For Sarah, one of the most important aspects of the book was explaining that Michael is still focused on his recovery.
“He is eight years post-injury, and he still has more surgery in his future,” Sarah says. “He’s still in intensive physical therapy. Life will probably never be medically stable, but we’re still grateful for every minute of it.”
The book is available on Amazon and through other retailers, and proceeds generated from sales will go to the Independence Fund.
Sarah hopes that Hero at Home will help others to better understand the journey of a military family.
“We’ve taken up the battle on the home front. For me, my husband’s war ended, and mine really began in taking care of him,” she tells PEOPLE. “I think it is important to remember when a veteran comes home with life-altering injuries, the entire family continues to serve. The families who serve after a veteran’s battle is over, they are the unsung heroes.”
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