It’s easy to see why someone would want to make a documentary about Nick Mendes and his wife, Wendy.
They make a cute couple — loving and playful. Devoted to each other.
He keeps her laughing with his sense of humor, including side-splitting profane remarks. He won’t let her feel down about anything. There’s no room for self pity or negative thinking with him around.
And what she does for him?
If his nose itches, she scratches it. If he wants a drag from his vape, she holds it to his mouth. She bathes, dresses and feeds him. When damaged nerves cause his arm to shake uncontrollably, she gently but firmly places her hand on his to steady his tremors.
Nick, whose family calls him by his middle name of Drew, is a quadriplegic, paralyzed from the neck down. Wendy is his 24/7 care provider.
He’s 27; she’s 43.
They live a quiet life off a bumpy dirt road in Murrieta, in a customized four-bedroom home built for them by a charity group in 2016. They share their house with his paternal grandmother and two of her three adult children from an earlier marriage. Oh, and six dogs and one cat — all but one of them rescues. His father, David Mendes, lives in Riverside and visits often.
Now the couple is in the spotlight as the subjects of a new documentary called “American Veteran” that screened this week at the American Documentary Film festival in Palm Springs and will be shown as a matinee April 23 at the Riverside International Film Fest. In May, the movie also will be part of the GI Film Festival in Washington, D.C.
The 75-minute movie is the work of New York-based filmmaker Julie Cohen, whose news pieces on military veterans have appeared on NBC and PBS. A teaser excerpt shared on Facebook has become a big hit, with more than 3 million views. It’s easy to see why.
Even in that short clip, Nick and Wendy Mendes show how love conquers the ravages of war.
Says Cohen: “I’d like people to come away from ‘American Veteran’ with a better sense of the challenges that confront severely disabled vets and their caregivers and hopefully a little bit of awe for how this one very cool couple has confronted and often overcome those challenges.”
There are moments in the documentary to prompt tears. But there’s also much joy.
As Wendy describes her husband in the film, “You can’t be in a bad mood when you’re around him.” He won’t let you.
And you can’t remain unmoved watching Wendy’s devotion to him.
“She brings a lot of happiness into my life,” he tells Cohen.
Cohen had been wanting to do a documentary on the young veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. She hoped to find a storyline from those two conflicts that was honest but not “brutally depressing.” Her research into a special all-terrain wheelchair for the disabled led her to Nick Mendes.
She also came across a 2011 story in the Orange County Register about the then-21-year-old Army sergeant who was injured in April of that year. Nick Mendes was on his second deployment — he had been to Iraq previously — when the blast from an improvised explosive device slammed his head into the roof of an armored vehicle a month after he arrived in Afghanistan. The impact broke several vertebrae.
His first-person newspaper account and photos taken of him at the veterans hospital in Long Beach — some of which are included in the documentary — were part of a series on 10 years of war in the post-9/11 era.
At the time of that interview, the young soldier talked about how he joined the Army in 2008 after dropping out of high school in Missouri and how he “didn’t know what war was going to be like” but wanted to prove he could do it. It was hard but worth the sacrifice, he said, and he learned to not take life for granted. He was certain he would recover his ability to walk and “be a regular person again.”
Hooked to a ventilator and fed by a tube in his stomach, he longed to eat real food and do other things he enjoyed.
“I want a Western Bacon Cheeseburger from Carl’s Jr.,” he said at the time. “I miss playing video games. I miss women!”
The woman who would help him enjoy all those things again — and more — walked into his life at the VA hospital.
The then-Wendy Eichler, an experienced in-home care provider, had come to see about being trained as part of a rotation to care for Nick Mendes. When he left the hospital, his primary caregiver would be David Mendes, who had dropped everything in his life in Visalia to be by his youngest boy’s side. They would live together for a year in military housing in San Pedro while out-patient care continued.
Wendy didn’t end up getting the job; the agency she worked for wasn’t on the military insurance provider’s approved list. But she asked if she could stop by for hospital visits.
“He only had his dad there. I felt I needed to go back just so he had a friend there.”
She was drawn by the way Nick Mendes remained so positive. Still is.
“Every time I went, I laughed more and I ended up in a better mood than when I got there,” she says, standing by her husband’s side in the den of their home.
Nick Mendes sits in the wheelchair he propels by sipping and puffing on a tube; he steers it with movements of his head, hitting pads to the left or the right. At 5 feet, his wife is barely a head taller than his seated 6’1″ frame. Before settling in to talk about their life together, she ran to put on makeup and decorate her hair with a floral head piece — something he couldn’t resist remarking on with a tease.
“She won’t let me wear makeup,” he says. “How one-sided is that?”
As for his initial attraction to her, Nick Mendes repeats what he says in the film: “I thought she was hot from the first time I saw her. But I’d just been blown up so I wasn’t looking for a relationship like that.”
But friendship and then love developed over time and when Nick left the hospital, Wendy continued visiting at the base housing. With their feelings deepening, Wendy says she gave intense thought to the commitment she would need to make, something beyond what’s required of anyone in a serious relationship.
She would be his constant caregiver; she had to think about what that would mean years down the road. What if the relationship didn’t work out?
“I couldn’t turn my back and walk away,” she says. “I had to be willing to be there for the long haul. I had to consider that pretty much from the beginning.”
In 2012, Nick Mendes retired from the Army. They moved together in 2013 to a rented house in Corona. That’s where Cohen did much of her filming. That house was not as accessible for someone in a wheelchair as their current home, crafted to their needs by the Massachusetts-based group Homes for Our Troops. The organization has built a number of homes in southwest Riverside County for other injured veterans and their families, several of whom form a tight circle of friends with Nick and Wendy Mendes.
Giving Nick a shower, which Cohen shows in the film, is now so much easier for Wendy because their home is outfitted with a track for a mechanical hoist to travel along the ceiling that runs from their bedroom into their bathroom and branches off over the wide open shower area where Wendy can lower Nick into a special chair in the sling that also lifts and lowers him in and out of bed.
Advances in adaptive living have helped the couple to meet some of the challenges they face. For their oceanfront wedding in September 2014 on the U.S. Navy base at Coronado Beach, Nick rolled up in his dress blues aboard an all-terrain wheelchair known as a Tank Chair. They travel in a black Chevy Silverado truck that the VA outfitted with a hydraulic lift that draws “Transformer” comparisons from observers. Last year they made a month-long road trip to Indiana, visiting family.
But mostly what sustains them is their outlook on life.
“I can’t just be bitter about it,” Nick Mendes says of his paralysis. “Because I would just be bitter for the rest of my life.”
His dad, who was divorced from Nick’s mom when Nick was a toddler, says his third son was always “a pocket of love” and that “I always knew of all my boys, he wouldn’t be the one to leave me.” That’s why he was so dedicated to taking care of him until Wendy was there.
“She’s amazing,” says David Mendes, 52, who runs a coffee shop in downtown Riverside with his boyfriend. “I’m pretty sure he was glad to get me off the nursing part of it.
“Because of Wendy, he’s happier.”
It’s still questionable whether Nick will ever regain any use of his hands or legs. But there’s a chance. His spinal cord was severely bruised, not severed. He’s undergone stem cell treatments; after the latest injection, directly into his spine, he’s started to sweat more and feel an achy pain.
“People are like, ‘That’s good.’ I’m like, no, it (expletive) hurts.”
His nerve pain has lessened, however, and where he once took 65 pills a day, his medications are about one-third of that now. He plays video games on his phone wielding a stylus between his teeth, handles all their bills and finances, and watches YouTube. He’d be happy being able to use his hands again.
“It means I’d be able to do something for myself, gain some independence back.”
Like scratch his own nose or take a sip of water in the middle of the night.
Wendy, a deep sleeper, says with a smile: “He wouldn’t have to yell at me at night to wake me up.”
“Yeah,” Nick replies, not missing a beat, “I could just push her off the bed.”
They both laugh.
This is the spirit that Cohen captured in making “American Veteran,” an experience she calls her favorite as a journalist and filmmaker.
“People tend to think of injured vets in one of two ways: as mega-heroes or as damaged and broken. Maybe I thought that way too,” she says. “Spending so much time with Nick gave me the chance to get to know him as a three-dimensional person who fits neither of those stereotypes.”
“It was a really meaningful experience, and also a lot of fun.”