The inspiring stories of soldiers wounded in Iraq.
Jul 30, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 43 • By MICHAEL FUMENTO
In the film Home of the Brave, a soldier who lost her hand in Iraq is asked if she underwent physical rehabilitation at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. "Yeah, Walter Reed," she says. "Talk about tough Americans." Tough Americans, indeed. When I visited that same ward, the first soldier I met was Sgt. Luke Shirley, who had stepped on an improvised explosive device (IED) blowing off his right side limbs and spraying him with shrapnel. "It kinda sucks not having an arm or leg," he told me, "but it hasn't bothered me like you'd think it would." I was dumbstruck. What kind of person is this?
That's why I visited Walter Reed's Orthopedic Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Ward in Washington, D.C., along with the surgical inpatient ward at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. (At Bethesda the men and women aren't yet ready to be sent on to Walter Reed or elsewhere for rehabilitation.) I wanted to meet these tough Americans and tell some of their stories. It was something I had long put off, because I go to war zones as an embedded reporter. I have no problem facing my own mortality for, as Ebenezer Scrooge's nephew Fred observed, we are all "fellow-travellers to the grave." But losing an arm or leg or eye--ah, that's another thing entirely. I believed I would come away from the wards feeling sick and more hesitant about upcoming embeds. Instead, each time I walked out it was with a feeling of elation at the attitudes I saw in Americans who not only refused to see themselves as victims but embraced their injuries as challenges.
Please note that at neither hospital was I allowed to pick interview subjects. For instance, while I asked for a female interview subject, and there were female patients, I couldn't talk to any. Further, there was an administrator with me at all times. Surely there were disgruntled patients in both wards at that or some other time. But the Walter Reed ward I visited was in no way implicated in the recent scandal, which concerned a completely different building, and I don't doubt the sincerity or veracity of those whom I did interview.
Sgt. Luke Shirley, U.S. Army
I got only a few minutes with Shirley before he had to leave. A member of the 10th Mountain Division (Light Infantry) from LaBelle, Florida, he was at 28 the oldest person I interviewed. He joined the Army in 1998 because "I got tired of having a normal job." A few days before Christmas last year he was on a foot patrol south of Baghdad. "We were looking for people who attacked our unit. I was lead and couldn't see much," he said. "Suddenly an IED threw me about 25 feet. I didn't know the extent of the damage until I got to the hospital. All I asked was 'Is my "stuff" still there?'"
By "stuff," the sergeant was referring to his privates. He'd lost his right leg above the knee and his right arm below the elbow, with lesser damage to his other limbs. But yes, his "stuff" was still there. And so is his spirit. I simply could not get him to keep a straight face when I took his photo. He was also enraptured with his wheelchair, called a LEVO combi. It is probably to any wheelchair you've ever seen what an F-22 Raptor is to a Sopwith Camel. "This thing rocks!" he exclaimed.
The goal at Walter Reed isn't to put people into wheelchairs but whenever possible to attach prosthetic limbs. These aren't the peg legs and single hooks of yesterday, either. Some of the leg prosthetics are purely mechanical and passive; others are motorized with rechargeable batteries; and yet others are bionic, meaning "a fusion of electronics, mechanics, and human physiology." Most of the limbs I saw had embedded microprocessors that can do such things as help maintain balance. None of these give wearers the powers of the Six Million Dollar Man, but they're impressive in their own right. Generally speaking, each amputee receives a set of three: one for walking, one for running, and one for swimming. They slide on easily over the limb and can be attached or removed in seconds. Each is adjusted to the individual's gait.
The amputees I met expressed surprise and delight with how technologically advanced their new limbs are. But what I found most compelling was the comment of Joe Miller, the chief of the Orthotics and Prosthetics Service at Walter Reed. He told me that while lower-limb amputees are sometimes given curved bands of carbon fiber called Flex-Sprint , bands designed for longer distances, called FlexRun , "are more commonly prescribed." He explained that his patients will "need to do a two-mile run for their physical fitness tests."
President Bush more or less gave the government's imprimatur to retaining disabled service members when, in a December 2003 address at Walter Reed, he announced:
Both superior body armor and superior medical care have worked to convert the combat deaths of earlier wars into mild injuries or amputations. To date, the Army has treated nearly 600 soldiers who have lost legs, arms, hands, or feet at war, according to Lt. Col. Kevin Arata, a spokesman for the Army's Human Resources Command in Alexandria. As of late May 2007, he says, 31 have gone back to active duty, and no one who asked to remain in the service has been discharged.
A few have even returned to combat, including Army Major David Rozelle, who lost a foot in 2003 to a landmine while in a Humvee in Hit, near Ramadi, and went back to Iraq in 2004 as a Troop Commander conducting operations in Baghdad and Tal Afar. He's now working with amputees at Walter Reed. Seven other amputees have returned to combat in Iraq with another due to head back in November, according to Walter Reed public affairs officer Donald Vandrey.
Lance Corporal Robert Wilson, USMC
Bethesda Naval Hospital has no rehab unit. Injured personnel there, who are generally but not exclusively Marines and sailors, are still at an early stage of recovery. One I met who has since reported to his unit, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines, at Twentynine Palms, California, was 20-year-old Lance Cpl. Robert Wilson of Quincy, Michigan. When I met him he was sitting up in bed accompanied by his 19-year-old wife Brittney, who appeared to be attached to his hip. His mother, Dana, sat nearby. Wilson had a big piece of Styrofoam on his right arm that I remarked looked like a hunk of Swiss cheese, only to be told that, no, I wasn't just hungry, that's what it's nicknamed at the hospital. The large holes in the yellow material allow for ventilation and easy access.
Wilson decided to become a Marine long before he legally could, on that dark day in September six years ago. "After September 11, I sort of felt obligated to kick the shit out of the bastards who did it," he says. He enlisted in September 2005 right after his 18th birthday and married Brittney, his high school sweetheart, the following February. In the short time since he joined, he has made three trips to Iraq. Almost all Marines in Iraq are stationed in the Sunni Triangle province of Anbar, which has settled down recently but remains a rough and tumble area.
Wilson's third tour began January 31, 2007. His unit was stationed near the city of Habbaniya. "They call me the battering ram," he said proudly, notably still using the present tense. These are the guys who give residents about 30 seconds' warning and then kick in the doors before the bad guys can scramble for their weapons. Wilson carried a light machine gun called an M-249 5.56 millimeter Squad Automatic Weapon (SAW), similar to an M-16 but the ammunition is belt-fed and designed to accurately both kill and suppress the enemy. "Every day we got shot at, mortared, RPG'd [rocket-propelled grenades], everything else," he says. But Wilson was among the small number of troops hit by rifle fire.
Throughout history, soldiers have sought to fight from the high ground. In the cities of Iraq, that means rooftops. That's where Wilson was during a firefight in March. "We got into a 10-15 minute firefight," he said, "and my buddy called out 'Sniper! Get off the roof!'" he says. Too late. Wilson was already in the sights of a man with a powerful and accurate 7.62 millimeter Dragunov rifle. They only give them to guys who know how to use them. Wilson heard the shot before he felt it. Although it would seem to be the other way around, since the bullets travel faster than the speed of sound (in this case 800 meters a second), this is not an unusual phenomenon. Soldiers who might have been hit are told "Check yourself! Check yourself!" because they might not be aware of even serious wounds.
The round "ripped through my forearm, blew out some muscle and damaged nerve endings," Wilson told me. But the bullet wasn't through. It struck his SAW, spraying his arm with tiny bits of shrapnel from his own weapon. From there it traveled down and hit the side ceramic Small Arms Protective Insert or "SAPI" plate of his body armor, finally expending the bulk of its tremendous energy.
Wilson yelled for help and a Navy Corpsman tried to attend to him. (Marines don't have their own medics, using the Navy's instead.) But apparently the Corpsman panicked. "My buddy, Bjorn Hitch, applied a tourniquet to the arm," said Wilson. That's when the hurt kicked in. "It's a pain like no other," said Wilson. "They asked how bad it was on a scale of one to ten and I told them it was a 50." His one consolation at the time: They identified the sniper, who was operating from a car driven by another jihadist. "My buddies caught up to them [and dispatched them]; that's cool."
Despite the incredible pain, Wilson was looking out for Number One. But Number One in the Corps isn't yourself. "I told the LT (his platoon commander, a lieutenant), 'I don't want to leave.' You have an obligation to your buddies," he told me. "But later the LT told me that not only was I leaving, I wouldn't be coming back."
Wilson was medevacked to the closest military hospital at Al Taqaddum Air Base (TQ). From there he went to Baghdad, Balad, and Landstuhl, Germany--the largest U.S. medical center outside the United States--before ending up in Bethesda. He's not only endured numerous operations but says he will continue to do so indefinitely because the bone in his forearm will keep overgrowing and require paring back. Also, he says, "They can't open my hand here," meaning so far they've been unable to get it to fully open, although whether surgery plus rehab will fix that remains unknown.
Wilson knows his fighting days are over and says he will miss it. "You have so much respect for the guy next to you," he says. "But I've done my shift." Moreover, he has something new to live for. Last Christmas Day Brittney presented him with a special gift. I saw his daughter Neveah in his mother's arms. "I do plan to reenlist," he told me. "I want to be an aircraft mechanic at Quantico," he said, referring to the Marine Corps base in Virginia.
Meanwhile, he had to admit he was enjoying the attention at Bethesda in terms of greeting cards, gifts, emails, and the like. "People are here to thank you," he says. "It's kind of like you're a star in Hollywood. Everybody wants to talk to Hollywood stars."
Corporal Kenny Lyon, USMC
Kenny Lyon's work ethic almost killed him. During his second tour in Anbar, on May 6, 2006, the Marion Station, Maryland, 21-year-old and his buddy were fixing LAVs. These are light armored vehicles used only by the Marines because of their amphibious capability. The rest of the unit, from the 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, was at lunch. The unit was stationed in a rudimentary fortification called Camp Hut in Karma, which lies just northeast of Falluja. While Lyon's platoon never saw combat, they took mortar fire twice a day. (Karma, as it happens, is the first place I was ever mortared; see "Back to Falluja," THE WEEKLY STANDARD, May 8, 2006.) Generally, the enemy just drops in a couple of rounds and scoots before the counter-batteries can get a fix on them. In any case, after a shell or two you've had a chance to take cover. The first two rounds are what get you. It's what got Lyon.
"Apparently a round landed about nine feet behind me," says the three-year veteran. Even the smallest mortar shell in the enemy inventory, at 60 millimeters, ought to shred a man to ribbons at that distance. But Lyon's luck was not all bad. Said Lyon, "I remained conscious and I looked at my buddy," who was slightly injured. "He was looking back at me in horror."
The blast smashed Lyon's left leg from the knee down, ripped off the lower right side of his jaw, and blasted a silver-dollar-sized chunk of skull away above his right eye. His left hand took shrapnel and has permanent nerve damage. Echoing Shirley's comment he said, "The only pain I remember was when they applied the tourniquet." In Balad his leg was amputated just above the knee. A piece of titanium holds the lower jaw together. Broken bones in an arm severed an artery; he had numerous shrapnel wounds to the head and neck and both arms. Oh, and a piece of his tongue is gone as well although he speaks quite normally.
It took a long time before Lyon fully comprehended that life would forever be changed. "It didn't impact me until I got out of the VA hospital in Richmond," Virginia, he said. "I was sitting in my wheelchair, and I realized I had a lot of work to do to get back to being independent. And I had joined the Marine Corps to establish independence."
Told he might never be able to use his left hand again, Lyon had other ideas. After four months of therapy he regained some use of it. He still can't raise his wrist or move his fingers at the first knuckle, but he will undergo surgery to have tendons reattached. That's more important in his case than it might be with others because he plans to remain a mechanic. "I want to go to vocational school to work on cars," he said. "I love mechanics."
Lyon has also gone on a skiing trip with seven other injured Marines and soldiers, which is all the more remarkable in that he never skied when he had both legs. He also grabbed that promised 15 minutes of fame when 60 Minutes interviewed him last year for a segment called "A Fighting Chance."
As did other GIs and Marines with whom I spoke, Lyon credited his family's support for helping him make it. "My mom was here every day," he says. "I couldn't have made it without my mom, my sister, and my stepdad."
Although the armed services are much more accommodating of wounded men and women these days, as evidenced by those prostheses that allow two-mile runs, Lyon's injuries are just too extensive. "I'd have thought of reenlisting if I could have," he said. "But this is a whole new world that's opened up to me that I never knew existed. I'm thankful for what I can do because I'm very active. I want to be able to run to know I can. This is the beginning of a new life and I'm going to make the most of it."
So ended our interview because Lyon had to get ready to go home to work on his car.
Corporal Dylan Gray, USMC
Cpl. Dylan Gray, 23, was on the other side of a sniper rifle as part of a Marine scout sniper team, although the Marines have a specific sniper specialty and Gray was trained as a basic rifleman. As a member of 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines, he went to Anbar three times after he enlisted in February of 2003. His second tour came as a surprise, starting just five months after the first rather than the standard seven. It also began a very untimely four days before he was scheduled to marry. So he tied the knot with Kelly, now 24, in a civil ceremony and spent what was supposed to be his honeymoon time in the very unromantic city of Falluja.
In Falluja, he took part in the abortive first battle in the city, Operation Vigilant Resolve, in April 2004. At the time it was compared to the Battle of Stalingrad because soldiers scampering among the rubble made it a sniper's paradise. Marines were racking up kills at almost unprecedented rates. Gray referred to it with the usual euphemism, "a target-rich environment." Said Gray, "The rules of engagement [specifically for those they could shoot] were less strict because everyone left was bad guys."
Gray, whose hometown is Genola, Utah, did right by Kelly in a church ceremony when he returned, then all too soon headed out to meet his destiny in the city of Qaim. Located about a mile from the Syrian border, it's an entry point for foreigners coming to kill Americans, Iraqi defense forces, and Iraqi civilians. The way they got Gray was the way they get most U.S. troops, not with small arms but big hidden bombs.
It was February 16, 2007. Gray was driving men from his squad back from a recon control in a Humvee. They were the fourth vehicle in a convoy. "We were driving really slowly, carefully watching out for signs of IEDs, when the radio crackled and told us a Cobra [Marine helicopter gunship] saw a suspicious truck. They gave us the grid [location on a map], and that forced us to make a decision. 'Do we speed up to try to catch these guys?' We figured that since no one had ever struck an IED on that road it was safe enough to hit the accelerator."
But there's always a first. It was the luck of the draw that Gray's Humvee hit the bomb, which is called a "pressure-plate IED" since it's not remotely detonated but rather set off by weight, like a typical landmine. It was also the luck of the draw that Gray personally drove right over it. "It blew out the tire and mangled my feet," he said simply.
Nobody else in the vehicle was injured. I asked if he ever had mixed feelings about that. One man in the vehicle, one vehicle in the convoy, and it turned out to be him. "I'm just glad nobody else was hurt," he replied.
When Gray awoke, he was in Landstuhl. "I don't know where they operated on me, but the first thing I saw was a Corpsman who told me 'You're in Germany and both your legs were amputated below the knee.'"
Said Gray, "I had like a dozen surgeries. The first five or six were to clean things out because IEDs leave a lot of debris," including pieces of tire in this case. "There was a surgery every other day." His brother-in-law informed Kelly, who was with him when I was at Bethesda. "I just wanted to hear from him," she said. "I was getting mixed stories. Then they flew me up here to meet him."
But it's not just his wife that Gray quickly found giving him support. "When I arrived there were 31 packages," he said, "including a portable DVD player and a bunch of other nice things. I don't even know who sent them." Several groups were behind the generosity, he says, "and I haven't stopped getting support from anyone." He continued, "I had a roommate from [Pennsylvania], and suddenly I started to get cards and letters from there. I was answering people from a state I don't even know. All the support is just amazing." He also praised the official support. "We have Marine liaisons, and everything we need they get."
Amputated limbs atrophy; there's no avoiding that. One of the saddest things I heard was about how the plastic sheath on the top of the prosthetic--the part that cups over the amputated limb--must be made continually smaller and smaller. "I do a lot of upper body PT [physical training], such as arm bicycling," Gray says. "They stretch my legs a lot, and I'm told that in a few weeks they'll start putting on prosthetics." He was clearly looking forward to that after months of being bed- and wheelchair-bound.
Having just finished his first four-year hitch, Gray reenlisted at Bethesda to be a drill instructor at the School of Infantry West at Camp Pendleton in southern California. It's one of the most prestigious jobs in the Corps, notwithstanding R. Lee Ermey's grotesque portrayal in Full Metal Jacket. "Still, I have a lot of things to think about for my future," he says. "I may stay in the Corps, go to college, or both." He has something else in his future, too. Within weeks of his injury, Kelly gave birth to their son Conner.
Sergeant Christopher Rutter, U.S. Army
An IED felled Sgt. Christopher Rutter, 22, also while he was driving a Humvee. Rutter joined the Army as an infantryman in January 2003, a few days before his 18th birthday. He chose the 502nd Infantry Regiment of the elite 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault). While the 101st is no longer actually airborne, Rutter wrangled a jump school slot at Fort Benning (not easy for an enlisted man to do) and earned the coveted Silver Wings. It takes guts to throw yourself from a perfectly good airplane, but not the guts he demonstrated in southern Baghdad that day in May 2006.
Rutter's unit was responsible for various jobs, ranging from traffic control to "snatch and grabs." He was driving squad members to arrest a suspect. "I turned onto a dirt road," he said, "and there was an explosion on my side of the vehicle. I made a decision to go towards a wall rather than towards a canal, where the vehicle might flip." Turning was no problem. Braking was. "My platoon leader kept shouting at me to stop but I found all I could do was put the vehicle in neutral and ended up bouncing off the wall. It took about 15-20 seconds to realize my legs were blown off." The explosion had come up through the floor and through the door, neatly slicing off his right leg just below the hip socket and the left leg below the knee. "Nobody else received a scratch," he said. Fortunately, "We had an outstanding medic. And my buddies, they're the reason I stayed calm."
Rutter's first surgery was in Baghdad, with later ones in Landstuhl. When I caught up to him at Walter Reed, his prosthetic limbs were being adjusted, a rather painstaking task done with simple tools. His wife of three years, Amber, was with him. She recalled being notified. "The military called me at 6:14 A.M.; I punched a hole in the wall. Later when I spoke to [Christopher] he told me it was just a scratch and would be returning to his company."
A white lie, to be sure, but it's amazing what he has accomplished. He ran the New York City Marathon in November and has also gone skydiving. The first time he went home, much of his hometown of Clinton, Missouri, turned out to welcome him. They're now helping to build him a house. And he has big plans. "I'm thinking about running for state representative," he said.
"I was mad at first because here I was without my legs," Christopher said, in what was presumably an understatement. But as his physical activities have shown, he's decided that what you and I might consider an irreconcilable tragedy is to him going to be nothing more than a speed bump. "You do have to have a different attitude and take a different approach," he says, "but ultimately it doesn't prevent you from doing anything."
Rutter was my last interview subject. I folded up my notebook, put away my camera, thanked him, and thanked my guide at Walter Reed. As I walked out the door of the building I remember thinking I still wouldn't want to endure even having the tip of a pinkie blown off. I don't know how I would react in the situations these people had faced. But somehow, as I walked out of those wards of permanently mutilated young men and women, I felt good. These tough Americans have all served their country twice. The first was in war. The second was in demonstrating what is so aptly called the indomitable human spirit.
Michael Fumento, a former paratrooper, has been embedded three times in Iraq and once in Afghanistan and was a patient at Landstuhl, Germany, after a non-hostile injury in Falluja.