The Magazine

Tough Americans

The inspiring stories of soldiers wounded in Iraq.

Jul 30, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 43 • By MICHAEL FUMENTO
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Americans would be surprised to learn that a grievous injury, such as the loss of a limb, no longer means forced discharge. In other words, the medical care is so good and the recovery process is so technologically advanced, that people are no longer forced out of the military. When we're talking about forced discharge, we're talking about another age and another army.

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.