Hard Luck, Hard Time

Donald Thweatt was once ready to fight for his country. Now he's fighting for his freedom.

"He went back to the billet and went to bed," the father says. "Even though he had a headache or whatever, he wasn't too concerned about it. He woke up sometime during the night and opened the nightstand drawer and vomited in it and complained about hurting. Whoever was on watch there that night said they kept an eye on him." Soldiers who found Thweatt unconscious in a hallway at 5:30 a.m. roused him, put him back to bed and periodically checked on him. By 10 a.m., they couldn't wake him, so he was taken to Scranton Community Medical Center.

The diagnosis was epidural hematoma, or bleeding on the brain. Surgeons saved his life with an emergency operation and listed him in guarded condition. "They told us he wasn't going to live," his mother, Ethel, says. "He was bleeding, and they couldn't stop it." Thweatt lay in a coma for a month and required a second operation to relieve pressure on his brain. His parents flew to Pennsylvania and sat by his bed for hours, reading the Bible aloud. But the damage was done.

Thweatt says he momentarily regained consciousness just as a helicopter crew prepared to take him from Scranton to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. "I believe the rotors are what woke me up," he recalls. "Just as they set me to the floor of that chopper, I was able to see. My eyes opened, and I saw my wife in the cockpit of the chopper, sitting in the co-pilot's seat -- that broad was sitting in the co-pilot's seat. I took a glance at her for a couple of seconds. I went unconscious before the gurney hit the floor."

With his son, before the accident
With his son, before the accident
St. Louis Public Administrator Gerard Nester, Thweatt's legal guardian, says the former soldier is his toughest case: "I've got probably somewhere around 450 people I'm guardian for, and Don is the worst. I hate to say that about him, a living, breathing soul."
Jennifer Silverberg
St. Louis Public Administrator Gerard Nester, Thweatt's legal guardian, says the former soldier is his toughest case: "I've got probably somewhere around 450 people I'm guardian for, and Don is the worst. I hate to say that about him, a living, breathing soul."

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Doctors at Walter Reed concluded Thweatt was 100 percent disabled, so he was honorably discharged and shipped home. Thweatt says he has no memory of the Washington hospital. He remembers waking up on an airplane en route to Scott Air Force Base. "I was lying horizontal," he says. "They had me placed face-first to a window. And I remember waking up in flight and seeing clouds going by a window of an airplane. I didn't believe it. I thought I must be dreaming -- there's no reason in the world why I would be in a flight somewhere, lying down, looking out a window. So I slipped back into unconsciousness and stayed that way even upon landing at Scott."

A doctor at Jefferson Barracks was frank: Thweatt needed to be institutionalized for the rest of his life. "We didn't believe him," Norman Thweatt says. "He said, 'All of his problems are going to fall on your doorstep.' He also told us Don would have to find himself alone in the gutter before he'd bounce back."

When Thweatt was well enough to be released from the VA hospital in late 1990, he was sent to a head-injury-rehab program at Bethesda Hospital, near St. Louis University. He lasted less than two weeks before checking himself out. His parents picked him up as he walked down Grand Boulevard and took him to their house. He couldn't care for himself. His mother cleaned him after he went to the bathroom. He couldn't control his bladder. He wouldn't sleep alone. "He would take his mattress off the bed at night and he'd drag it into our bedroom, right alongside our bed," his father said. "He was afraid -- that was always his reason." But he never said what he feared. Thweatt also insisted that his parents watch late-night television with him until he fell asleep. "We'd have to take turns," his father says. "We'd take the mattress off the hide-a-bed and put it on the floor, because of his incontinence, and we wound up sleeping with him."

Thweatt also gained weight. At 5-foot-8, he now weighs about 400 pounds and says he's been as heavy as 630 pounds. Though county-jail records show he asks for seconds, Thweatt blames his obesity on a malfunctioning pituitary gland, damaged in the accident. "I'm not a glutton," he says.

Obesity, fear and incontinence paled in comparison with Thweatt's newly acquired temper. The former lieutenant no longer followed orders -- if he didn't want to do something, he just didn't do it. At the same time, he had no trouble demanding things from others. And things could get ugly in a hurry if Thweatt didn't get his way.

"When you come face-to-face and he's angry, it's terrible," his father says. "He just acts out so badly, people don't want to deal with him." One of the more frightening episodes came during a drive with his father in the Kimmswick area.

"He likes to ride around in a car," Norman Thweatt says. "I'll drive him around all day long if that's what it takes to keep him at peace. We were driving one Sunday, down Lemay Ferry Road. I didn't want to drive anymore, so I told him I was going to turn around and come home. He didn't want that. He wanted to ride some more. I made a U-turn and started to head back to St. Louis. Just as I did, he grabbed the steering wheel, and I wound up over in a parking lot. I said, 'Don, if you're going to act like that, I'm getting out right here. I'll call someone to come and get me.' He said, 'Go ahead. I ain't ready to go home.' So I got out. Well, this parking lot had a big sign out front and a stone base around it so cars don't hit it. He kept trying to hit me with the van, wanting me to get back in and drive some more. I got up on this stone base under the sign so he couldn't get me. He kept driving around in circles." Eventually Thweatt had to stop and back up, giving his father a chance to run across the road and take shelter between parked semi trailers, which offered better protection. He watched as his son drove to a nearby pay phone and made a call. "Well, he just kept sitting there," Norman Thweatt says. "Pretty soon, the police showed up. He told them some kind of story, and the fellow came over and grabbed me by the arm -- I thought he was going to handcuff me. He said, 'Is that your son over there?' I said, 'Yes, it is.' He said, 'You're trying to kill him?'" After speaking to a bystander who'd seen the whole thing, the police left -- Norman Thweatt wouldn't press charges against his son.

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