He still can't recall the word "Afghanistan," but he does know he's at the Bethesda naval hospital. Answering the therapist's rapid-fire questions, Warren demonstrates that he also knows that the door is closed, that the light is on, that paper burns, that he's not wearing red pajamas. But soon his concentration fades, and he slips.
"Do you eat a banana before you peel it?" she asks.
Then the therapist shows him a rose and asks what it is.
"This would be a telephone," he says.
It hurts his family to see him like this, but they're mainly happy he's alive. When she first got word that Robert had been wounded, Brittanie, then eight months pregnant, collapsed. Her father took the phone and was told that the only thing they knew about Robert was that they didn't know whether he would live.
Now, amazingly, Warren, speaking with his same Arkansas drawl, shows flashes of his old self. When Brittanie tells him he's "full of it," he smiles, tickles the top of her head and says, "Yeah, full of Southern pride."
Warren, who dropped out of school and worked at Jiffy Lube and a poultry plant, finally got his GED diploma so he could enlist in the Arkansas National Guard.
Brittanie got pregnant, they married, and then an insurgent's blast sent several fragments, at least one as big as a pencil eraser, into his head.
When Warren holds his daughter for the first time at the naval hospital, his father-in-law asks what it feels like to be a dad. It's a simple question, but given the situation, a loaded one: Will Robert be able to care for the bundle in his arms? What will life be like when there are no more nurses and doctors tending to him around the clock?
"I don't know yet," he responds.
Everyday life as therapy
"How was your day?" John Barnes's mother asks as he walks in the door.
"Pretty good," he says, dropping his camouflage backpack in the foyer of their home in Tampa.
And it was. He woke up and showered. Shaved. Took his meds. Then he spent the day with his "life skills" coach, who was proud of his behavior except for a few off-color comments.
But Valerie Wallace is worried. Not just because she found a bowl of half-eaten egg noodles that her son left behind this morning in the shower - such surprises are normal when you live with someone as brain-damaged as Barnes - but because she also found a Benadryl in his shorts pocket and another one on the floor of his room.
A couple of years ago, a few loose pills would not have bothered her. Her son had made an amazing recovery from a 12-day coma after a piece of shrapnel pierced his brain near Baghdad in 2006. He vowed he would be walking again by the time his unit returned from Iraq, and he was, even though that meant ditching the wheelchair and dragging himself down the hospital hallway using the handrail.
After intensive therapy, he got so much better that when he was discharged from the hospital, VA doctors said he was well enough to live on his own. His mother imagined that he would have something of a normal life again. It seemed like total victory.
But once he got home, the problems really started. Barnes started drinking, then smoking pot and then inhaling gas from compressed-air canisters. He crashed his car four times.
Once he gets going, he can't stop, which is why his mother is so worried about the Benadryl, the only drug he can easily get his hands on now. One pill turns to two, then 12. Wallace, a labor and delivery nurse, wishes her son could realize that his actions have consequences; that driving under the influence leads to car crashes; that saying the first hateful thing that comes to mind alienates people, at best.
But Barnes can't think about consequences. The mortar round sent shrapnel tearing through his frontal lobe, the region in charge of decision making, reason and morality. As a result, Barnes is impulsive, always in the moment, like an especially reckless 13-year-old. He's 26 but needs round-the-clock supervision.
Finally, after Barnes had nearly killed himself several times with his reckless behavior, Wallace heard about Williamson's unit in Bethesda and had her son admitted. After a series of stays on 7 East, he emerged clean and sober, with new medications. Barnes went home with a plan that started with the basics: shower and shave every day, no illegal drugs, do your physical therapy, take your meds, go to all your appointments.
At home, each task Barnes completes earns him a check mark on a dry-erase board that Wallace has posted in the kitchen. The more check marks, the better his score. The better his score, the more allowance she gives him. Today, she's worried about the no-illicit-substances column, but for the moment lets it pass, asking again about his day.
He beat his life skills coach in bowling, 96-71, Barnes says proudly. But that wasn't his best moment - at least not in the eyes of Josh Shannon, the VA contractor who has worked with Barnes three days a week since he came home from Bethesda three months ago.
The best moment came as Barnes was checking out video games at Wal-Mart. Just then, an overweight African American woman walked by. And Barnes, who is white, said nothing. None of the impulsive, loud comments about her behind or her race that have gotten him in trouble since his injury. Just a once-up-and-down glance and a smirk. Then, only after she was out of earshot, he uttered one quick comment: "Two sacks of potatoes. No, 2.75 sacks."
Shannon celebrated Barnes's success: "Did you see that?" he said proudly.
Barnes had adhered to the 10-foot rule Shannon had been drilling into him - waiting until a person is out of earshot before saying anything derogatory. And Barnes had used their code word: One sack of potatoes is someone who is "merely overweight," Barnes explained. "Two point seven five and you have an ass like a . . ." "John!" Shannon snapped. "Inappropriate!"
The life skills coach is a human prosthetic, a replacement not for a missing arm or leg but for a damaged frontal lobe. In his constant nitpicking - Barnes can't so much as toss a cigarette butt in Shannon's presence without a reprimand - Shannon does what Barnes's brain used to do. He corrects socially unacceptable behavior and mutes Barnes's impulses. Over time, Shannon thinks, Barnes's brain can be retrained so that he more closely resembles the person he used to be.
Before he was injured, Barnes led a fairly successful life. He had enlisted and been promoted to sergeant in the 101st Airborne. He was a husband and a father. But since the injury, his marriage dissolved; his wife now lives in Indiana with their 5-year-old son. And he developed a very bad habit of saying despicable things about people. In public. Loudly.
That's why Shannon takes him out into what he calls the "G.P." - the general public. It's everyday life as therapy. A few times a week, mostly in a diverse area north of Tampa, they circulate at the Wal-Mart, the bowling alley, among all sorts of people who used to trigger his derogatory and sometimes racist remarks. Wallace says her son was not a racist before the injury - something Shannon finds hard to believe.
Four years after his injury, Barnes is making progress. Still, without constant supervision, Wallace says, her son would "be dead within three months." With it, there are still signs of trouble. Like the Benadryl.
He had a stash hidden in the well of his luggage where the retractable handle rests. But does he have more pills stashed elsewhere? She has other worries, too, about his impulsiveness, his erratic behavior and the fact that he always seems one bad decision from yet another crash.
He needs more help than one person can provide. Wallace has accepted that the burden is hers; she must care for her son for the rest of her life. But that leads to her scariest thought of all:
"What will happen to him if something happens to me?"
'The real test'
One month after getting hit, Warren remembers the word "Afghanistan." He remembers Kandahar. He remembers the moments before the rocket blew up his truck.
"I've seen tremendous improvement," his mother, Susan Bryant, tells Williamson during a meeting at the hospital.
"You really are doing very well," Williamson agrees.
But memory, language and the ability to think clearly - up to now the focus of his rehab - are not the only problems Warren might encounter. "There's one other area that's on my radar," Williamson tells Warren and his family. The area of the brain that's injured "is also involved in emotional regulation."
"In severe cases, we have some patients who get manic-depressive mood swings or they get profound depression or they have temper outbursts," the doctor warns.
In other words, Warren could start acting like John Barnes, requiring round-the-clock supervision. There's no way to tell. Some erratic behaviors might not show up for months or years, Williamson says. Warren and his family must wait and see how he does at home, where he'll face everyday challenges: getting a job, soothing a crying baby, remembering appointments, managing money.
"The real test," Williamson says, "is real life."
This article is part of year-long series on the impact of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars back home. A blog with firsthand accounts is at voices.washingtonpost. com/impact-of-war.