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From IVF to twins, a wounded vet and wife lean on each other

Two years ago, what this couple wanted most was to start a family, but daunting physical and financial challenges stood in their way. William Brangham revisits Jason and Rachel Hallett, who struggled with the aftereffects of a grievous war injury as well as a ban by the VA on health coverage for in vitro fertilization, to see how their long journey to parenthood was captured by a photographer.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, first, we return to a story we first told you about in 2015, about a young couple trying to overcome the scars of war.

    William Brangham brings us up to date.

  • William Brangham:

    Two years ago, we went to Colorado to tell the story of a badly-wounded young Marine veteran and his wife. They wanted to start a family.

    But, as you will see, the challenges facing them, both physical and financial, were daunting.

    Sure, all newlyweds face challenges, but Jason and Rachel Hallett have more than most. Jason is a triple amputee. Back in 2010, as a 19-year-old Marine, he lost two legs and one arm when he stepped on an IED in Afghanistan.

  • Jason Hallett:

    When 9/11 and everything happened, I was — I had a little bit of interest to join the military. But, as soon as that happened, it just became — everything was circling around me joining the military.

  • William Brangham: 

    After his injury, Jason had multiple surgeries at various U.S. military facilities. He hadn’t been in touch with Rachel since they dated back in the eighth grade, but, in the hospital, he looked her up on Facebook.

  • Rachel Hallett:

    He sends me this friend request a couple years after I had kind of given up. And when I saw what had happened, I just started crying. I messaged him right away and I was, like, well, we have got a lot to catch up on.

  • William Brangham:

    Facebook led to phone calls, which led to a visit, and then a wedding day.

    When we first met them, they were living in Windsor, Colorado. Jason was studying to be a certified financial planner. Rachel baby-sat local kids to make extra money, but her full-time job really was caring for Jason. She got a small stipend from the VA for that work.

    What the Halletts wanted most was to start a family, but there was a problem.

  • Rachel Hallett:

    There’s tons of shrapnel everywhere throughout his body.

  • William Brangham: 

    Still in your body today?

  • Jason Hallett:

    Yes. So, basically, one of the pieces had actually connected itself to one of my testicles. And so I now have to take testosterone injections basically to get me back to normal. And with that, one of the side effects is, it basically kills the sperm off.

  • William Brangham:

    In order to conceive a child, the Halletts’ only option was to try IVF, in vitro fertilization.

    IVF is expensive. It typically costs about $12,000 to $13,000 per try, and the first try often doesn’t work, so the bills can stack up. But unlike all the other medical treatment related to Jason’s war injuries, the VA doesn’t cover IVF for wounded vets, so the Halletts were paying for this themselves.

    In 1992, Congress passed a law that led to the VA banning IVF coverage. There were concerns over costs, which are estimated to be about $500 million over five years. There were also reports that anti-abortion groups who disapprove of IVF didn’t want it funded.

    What that meant was that, for the estimated 1, 800 veterans like Jason, they also have to spend tens of thousands of dollars of their own money to get pregnant and start a family.

    Democratic Senator Patty Murray wanted that to change. She authored a bill that would lift the IVF ban. But, for years, her efforts had been blocked.

  • Sen. Patty Murray, D- Wash.:

    To me, when someone goes off to fight a war for us, a man or a woman, we have an obligation as the country to make them whole again, as whole as we can.

  • Jason Hallett:

    It’s very angering. And it brings a lot of resentment towards my active service and stuff. I don’t regret joining the Marine Corps. But the simple fact is that they told us that we’d be taken care of us if we got injured.

    And I guarantee that, if it was a congressman’s kid or them themselves that wanted IVF, and they had to go through the same process and the same hoops, that they would be doing everything they can to make it happen.

  • Rachel Hallett:

    It’s hard to know that he would protect them and he would give up all of this for them, and they will not take just a little bit of time to try to fix this issue that we are having.

  • William Brangham:

    When we left, the Halletts had just begun the first of their costly fertility treatments.

    So, that was the end of 2015.

    Since then, Senator Murray’s bill still hasn’t come up for a vote, but last December, Congress did authorize the VA to pay for in vitro services for wounded vets for a two-year period. This fix didn’t occur in time to help Jason and Rachel Hallett.

    As you will see, soon after we left, a young photographer picked up their story and has been documenting their life ever since.

    Kirsten Leah Bitzer was taking intro to photography at college, and she had an idea for her class project. The idea came from her mom. She was a nurse at an IVF center, and she had told Kirsten about the tough time couples often go through when they’re trying to conceive a child.

  • Kirsten Leah Bitzer:

    I said, can you please find me a couple who might be interested in allowing me to tag along for their story?

  • William Brangham:

    Jason and Rachel Hallett, who were just a few weeks into their IVF process at the same clinic, said yes.

  • Kirsten Leah Bitzer: 

    I was asking them to be involved in the most intimate — one of the most intimate things people can go through.

    And normal able-bodied couples who are dealing with infertility have enough insecurities and difficulties that they’re dealing with already, but when you’re dealing with a triple amputee as well and his caregiver, it’s a whole other level of sensitivity training, honestly.

  • William Brangham:

    Kirsten followed Jason and Rachel through the ups and downs of the whole in vitro process, and its many different medical procedures. She also went with them for many of Jason’s visits to various VA hospitals for his ongoing care.

  • Kirsten Leah Bitzer: 

    I had been to the prosthetic fittings with them.

    The meeting just before they left for the Marine Corps Ball, it was supposed to be a final thing, because he was insisting that he would stand all night long at the Marine Corps Ball. With his bone grown and everything, because he was still so young, his bones were still growing so much, his bones would poke through the skin and create these open wounds that were just rubbing against the prosthetics.

    The prosthetist was supposed to kind of mold it out in those spots for him to be able to stand and walk around all night. And it wasn’t. And so he had to use his old ones. And he still did it. And…

  • William Brangham:

     Even though that’s incredibly painful.

  • Kirsten Leah Bitzer:

    Yes. He was miserable. I mean, he was in excruciating pain.

  • William Brangham:

    This was the Marine Corps Ball. It’s the annual event to celebrate the founding of the Corps. This one was in California, and Jason was a guest of honor.

  • Kirsten Leah Bitzer:

    He was born to be a Marine. He would tell you that. He always knew he wanted to be a Marine.

    There’s this brotherhood. And it’s nothing that anybody else in civilization can provide for him. And so I wanted to witness that and try to document that.

  • William Brangham:

     After the ball, back home in Colorado, Jason started his new job as a financial adviser. And the two of them continued their efforts to finally get pregnant and grow their family.

    After rounds of different hormone shots and egg retrievals, two of their fertilized embryos were transferred into Rachel’s womb, hoping that at least one would take. IVF often takes multiple tries, but not this time.

  • Kirsten Leah Bitzer:

    The day that they got the news that they were pregnant, she played it on speakerphone in the car. I was lucky that I even got any photos in focus, because I couldn’t see. I was crying silently.

    I didn’t want to ruin the moment for them, but I was just like, oh, this is happening.

    Everything kind of settled down after she stopped playing it. And she looked back and me and was just like, you’re crying. And I said, I know. How can I not? I’m a human.

  • William Brangham:

    And it turned out that both embryos had implanted. Jason and Rachel were going to have twins.

    Kirsten says that, at first, she worried that for a young couple who already had challenges, suddenly doubling the size of their family could be too much.

  • Kirsten Leah Bitzer:

    Before I really knew them, I was thinking, this is a tall order for one woman, honestly. She’s the caregiver for Jason already.

  • William Brangham:

    To him, right.

  • Kirsten Leah Bitzer:

    I mean, you have to be a strong person to go into it knowing how much more difficult everything will be.

    I have every — every reason to be confident in their ability to just be capable, which is an interesting word to use for Jason, I guess, because you look at him and you think he’s handicapped. But, in this situation, it’s — they have everything they need.

  • William Brangham:

    On her due date, Rachel labored for nearly 17 grueling hours before doctors finally decided she needed a C-section.

  • Kirsten Leah Bitzer: 

    I mean, there were so many difficulties. They couldn’t get the epidural needle in between her vertebrae because she was so huge, she couldn’t bend forward. And she was screaming.

    And Jason was as calm and as strong as anybody could have possibly been. He was saying things like, this is everything we have wanted. This is everything we have wanted. You know that you’re strong enough to do this.

    The strength shown between the two of them in that situation was monumental. There’s always this, if you’re falling down, I will pick you up. If you need to lean on me, I will hold onto you, in a literal sense, in a metaphorical sense.

    And that’s what I took from the year-and-a-half of photographing them in so many situations.

  • William Brangham:

    After a short stint in the neonatal intensive care unit, Jason Jr. came home. Same with his twin sister, Marina. They’re both well and healthy and doing just fine.

  • Kirsten Leah Bitzer: 

    When I first started this project, I was thinking, so, it’s finished when they have the babies.

    I realized that their story is never over. I want to be there to take photos when the babies graduate from high school or college and when they get married. Luckily, they are open to that, and I have been invited to be a part of such an amazing story.

  • William Brangham:

    For the PBS NewsHour, in Windsor, Colorado, I’m William Brangham.

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