The Magazine

Tough Americans

The inspiring stories of soldiers wounded in Iraq.

Jul 30, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 43 • By MICHAEL FUMENTO
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.