War's newest generation of wounded veterans finds comfort among those who went before them.
By: Jeff Stoffer
Eddie Wright hoists his broad-shouldered, 6-foot-2 frame up from a mattress on Ward 57 of Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
He needs a cup of coffee, and getting one isn't as easy as it used to be. Through dim fluorescent light, he eyes his objective:
the little coffeemaker beside the steel sink. He hobbles into position and, in focused silence, he slowly wiggles the carafe
free, pours, stirs, jostles everything back into place and returns to the bed without spilling. The cup is lodged between
his forearms. "There," he says in a soft, contented voice. "I've been doing all right without my hands."
At this particular point in his recovery - mid-August 2004 - Wright has been back from Iraq about four months. Using a
plastic cuff device where once he had hands and fingers, he has by this time begun dialing the phone again. He can open a
sport-drink bottle. He can set his watch and hold a pencil. Bigger accomplishments await; he is soon to be fitted for prosthetic
hands with microsensors that will allow him to actually grip things, turn doorknobs and shake hands. His patience runs amazingly
thick. He fully understands rehabilitation will take years, probably the rest of his life - a fate he accepts in the same
matter-of-fact, happy-to-be-alive way he comprehends the ambush near Fallujah that put him in this hospital room in Washington.
"I've been able to keep a good attitude," says the former college student who entered the U.S. Marine Corps at 25,
looking to make a career of it. "It's just like when I was hit. You make a choice. You can be depressed and mope around.
But what the he** for? It doesn't do you any good."
On April 7, 2004, Cpl. James "Eddie" Wright was an assistant team leader on a not-so-simple 10-mile reconnaissance
mission, guiding a supply convoy through Iraq's Al-Anbar province. His team, in the front Humvee, was tasked with scanning
the landscape for signs of enemy presence, particularly wires or unusual objects that might indicate roadside bombs, the deadly
scourge of so many U.S. troops deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. There was an eerie stillness along the road
that day. "We knew something was going down because of the way the locals were acting," Wright remembers, gazing
over his cup. "Then we started taking fire from our right flank. They had machine-gun positions set up. We stopped and
started engaging...right in the middle of the kill zone. The vehicle was getting shredded. It was crazy. I could hear RPGs
going off, exploding. Our gunner got hit, and he was laid out on the roof. An RPG hit my weapon, and it exploded. Then there
was this boom. I can't really describe it, but it rocked my whole body. I knew I was hit and hit bad. I was waiting to see
where I was going to start hurting, and I came close to blacking out - just for a split second. I remember thinking, "Hey,
I wonder if I'm going to die..."
"I opened my eyes and looked at my hands. I saw that the left was blown off like three inches below the elbow, and
I could see the two bones sticking out. I looked over to my right. It was blown off. I looked at my left leg and saw that
it was blown open. My femur was fractured. I was bleeding out. I remember thinking, "How in the he** am I going to put
a tourniquet on? I don't have any hands."
Eddie Wright is one of approximately 20,000 U.S. military men and women since October 2001 whose war injuries or illnesses
were so severe they were taken out of theater. This new generation of combat survivors bears striking resemblances to their
predecessors of past wars. They seem too young to have endured such trauma. They are mature beyond their years. Most claim
their hearts are still with their units fighting overseas, and their steely determination to recover - even after multiple
amputations - reveals they want little more than to go back and rejoin the effort. Their wounds are fresh. Their long-term
plans are scrambled. Some suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, or will. And the war, long after it has faded from public
consciousness, will continue to run through their veins. The wounded who have come home may not realize it now, in youth and
with battles still raging, but as much as they need help healing today, they will need support on the home front in the years
and decades to come. As was the case with those who came home changed by America's past wars, today's disabled veterans also
return different in their own unique way, to a society that has likewise evolved in their absence.
U.S. troops wounded today are twice as likely to survive combat injuries than were their brethren of past wars. Less than
10 percent of those injured in battle during Operation Iraqi Freedom die from their wounds, compared to 30 percent in World
War II, 25 percent in the Korean War, 24 percent in Vietnam and 24 percent in Desert Storm.
Various reasons are given for improved survivability in the 21st century, including tougher body armor, advances in battlefield
medicine and quicker medical evacuation(from a average of about 45 days in the Vietnam War to an average of about four days
in Iraqi Freedom, according to recent studies). Thousands of soldiers who would have bled or frozen to death in Korea or succumbed
to infection in Southeast Asia are surviving today - albeit often coming home with combinations of conditions that may include
multiple missing limbs, paralysis, blindness, burns, head injuries and/or severe psychological problems.
Recognizing this phenomenon, President Bush signed a law last November to spend $15 million for new VA research centers
that will focus on how to better understand and handle the inherent complexities faced by survivors of multiple combat injuries.
The centers will be set up at VA facilities that specialize in amputation rehabilitation, blindness treatment, spinal-cord
injury and brain damage.
In January 2004, VA released a statement outlining an enhanced commitment to the newest war veterans, including smoother
transition of medical records between DoD and VA, a two-year grace period during which any Iraq or Afghanistan veteran can
receive medical care without proving service-connected disability, along with increased VA staffing at military hospitals
to help the troops understand their benefits. "Our actions over the next few months will define our department for the
lifetime of the veterans who are now returning from Iraq and Afghanistan," then-Secretary of VA Anthony Principi said
as the new generation of veterans began entering the system.
The underlying reality of all this is that young, wounded soldiers grow into older disabled veterans whose unique needs
are the moral responsibility of a nation that made them so. As this 21st-century class of warriors distinguishes itself from
past veterans - if by higher survivability alone - then VA and DoD health-care systems, along with many programs of The American
Legion, are faced with refining the ways in which they provide meaningful assistance.
"The driver was stunned from the blast," Wright continues, sipping his coffee and reciting the circustances
for which he received the Bronze Star. "The team leader's right arm had a big chunk blown out of it; he'd shattered his
elbow and was trying to put a tourniquet on himself. The assistant radio operator, I had to calm him down. Him looking at
me was probably more shocking than me looking at myself. I knew that if I didn't stay calm - there were only two Marines who
were still able to function - I wouldn't get treatment for my wounds, and I would die. So I calmed him down, and we got a
tourniquet on my leg, and he started working on one of my arms. Then the fire picked up. I knew if we didn't get out of there,
someone was going to get shot in the face. Nobody in our vehicle was returning fire.
"The driver snapped out of it and stepped on the gas. We went about 300 or 400 meters and stopped. The Iraqis had
position and blocked off the intersection. You could see them running around with RPGs. They were going to finish us off.
I could have died there. My team leader got out and was using the driver's weapon to provide security. His right arm was useless.
He was holding the weapon with his left hand, trying to suppress enemy fire. Then he traded places with the driver, turned
the Humvee around and drove us back to the convoy. We started taking more fire, and I was showing my assistant radio operator
where the machine-gun positions were."
Survival at such times, Wright explains, depends on staying conscious. "The training we go through, you realize your
body can go through a lot. Shock will do you in. There were no choices. I knew I could die. I wasn't giving myself that option."
Battered and blood-drenched, the Humvee full of wounded Marines finally reached help. Behind them, 26 Iraqi insurgents
lay dead. Up to 60 are estimated to have been in on the attack.
Forty-five minutes had passed since Wright's hands were blown off. At a triage tent, they cut off his boots and put an
IV needle in his neck. They checked his tourniquets. "I wasn't sure how much longer I was going to hang on...The doctor
came up, and I said, "Hey doc, can you give me something for this pain? It's killing me." He hooked me up. He gave
me something. I don't know what it was. I woke up 11 days later in Bethesda, Md."
The U.S. government has sometimes been criticized for rushing young soldiers to battle in the heat of the moment, only
to retreat in the cooler-headed light of federal budget negotiations. It is a huge commitment, servicing the debts of past
wars. The Department of Veterans Affairs is second only to Defense in federal spending, and the president has recommended
a $68 billion budget for VA in fiscal 2006, a slight increase from 2005. A little less than half is earmarked for VA health
care, nearly all of which is discretionary spending, meaning Congress can raise it or lower it regardless of veteran needs.
That is how funding often fails to keep up with VA patient demand. A 7-percent increase in funds does not cover a 20-percent
increase in patients.
The President's Task Force to Improve Health Care Delivery for our Nation's Veterans issued a report in 2003 that illuminated
a widening gap between funding for VA health care and the actual cost of providing it for qualified veterans. The task force
recommended full funding for VA helath care and showed that spending per patient had declined dramatically between 1992 and
2003, as demand rose. By January 2003, Principi capped new enrollment. A similar gap has opened in recent years between the
cost of college tuition in America and static GI Bill funding.
This is no new phenomenon. World War II had not yet concluded when noted Columbia University sociologist Willard Waller
wrote, "We know how to turn the civilian into a soldier...But we do not know how to turn the soldier into a civilian
again. This is the art that we must perfect."
Five years after Waller's work appeared in print, a federal commission proposed dismantling the Veterans Administration.
The recommendation called for dividing VA into a collection of smaller bureaucracies with intermingled services for veterans
and non-veterans alike - something akin to the dysfunctional system met by veterans of World War I. The Legion, which fought
for more than a decade to put veterans services under one federal umbrella, has repeatedly defeated attempts to decentralize
Va over the years, reiterating the point that veterans and their families deserve separate benefits. Some veterans say they
were recruited into the military on promises of benefits like lifetime health care, which they later discovered was no guarantee.
"Our traditional policy has been to neglect our veterans for a period of years after the end of a major war,"
Waller wrote. "During this period of neglect, uninjured veterans take up the broken threads of their lives as best they
can, struggle against discouragements to compete successfully, force their way into economic, social and political life, while
the injured, the mamed, gassed, turbercular and mentally unbalanced contrive to live by such little jobs as their conditions
permit, learn to beg on the streets...are forgotten together with their widows and dependents."
Waller's words in "The Veteran Comes Back" were penned more than 20 years before the Vietnam War was under way
in earnest, a development that would later produce an estimated 40 percent to America's homeless population.
Just past the nurses' station on Ward 57, 19-year-old Sean Carroll is, physically, about two-thirds of his former self.
He joined the Marine Corps out of high school in search of a career path. By March 2004, his choices were substantially narrowed.
One leg was gone. One arm drooped into a hand missing nearly half its digits. His skin was speckled red from fragments of
shrapnel expected to eventually work out. His gaze, weary and distant, is like that of a man twice his age. Tedium shows on
his face, five months into a stay at Walter Reed.
Carroll's relatives - on this day, it's his grandmother who sits quietly near the window - stay with him. They listen
to music, watch TV, go to rehab, maybe wheel outside for a cigarette. Celebrities drop by. Regis Philbin has been there. Dennis
Miller. Miss America. Professional wrestler Mick Foley. Rock star Ozzy Osbourne. Snapshots of them hang on the wall. Osbourne,
the heavy-metal rock icon known for having once bitten the head off a bat during a concert, was, according to Carroll's grandma,
"really nice. He was one who actually stayed and talked and played his guitar." Carroll, without expression, considers
her interpretation. Visits from big celebrities, his face reveals, can never match what he has already witnessed.
"We were in Ramadi, and we relieved the 82nd Airborne. My unit was at a combat outpost set up in the middle of the
city. March 23, we're on patrol. My XO was the first one to get hurt. We ran through a minefield to get to him, to help, and
we got ambushed. Most of what I know is just secondary knowledge. I only remember parts and pieces. We all got down. I ended
up getting shot in the right leg. I was the SAW gunner, so I put out my bi-pod and started firing. I got up to try to find
better cover, a berm or something, and got shot again. I didn't make it to the berm. But I was firing. They detonated a 155
round close enough to blow me about 25 feet in the air. Then, all of a sudden it got quiet."
Carroll's right leg was gone. His left was hamburger. "A Navy corpsman was operating on me in the field about two
hours before they could get an Army medevac in. I was laying there, getting worked on, in the middle of a firefight. They
saved the one leg. The artery was blown out, but the corpsman used a camelback tube so the blood would flow through to my
lower extremities. When I got to Germany, they said I had a 20 percent chance to live. They sent me home. When I got to Bethesda,
I was in ICU for 11 weeks, in and out of surgery."
He lives. Fitted for a computerized prosthetic leg adjusted to his body weight and gait, he can expect to walk again.
Other amputees tell Carroll he will get used to life with an artificial limb. His 5-speed Mustang will have to be traded in
for an automatic, he says. Beyond that, his plans are uncertain. He wants to go back to San Diego, rehab out of Balboa Navy
hospital - maybe hook into the UCLA medical school's program for treatment. Long-term, he's not sure.
"There's a lot of things I always wanted to do or try. Right now, I am thinking about taking a break for a while,
living with my mom, maybe be a bartender. Maybe with VA benefits and a couple hundred dollars a night, with tips...eventually
I will go to college for engineering or mechanics. That was what I wanted to do in the Marine Corps - work on machinery. Maybe
I'll open a mechanic shop, have my own garage or something."
Twenty-Four-year-old Jose Ramos squeezes a small button on a pump near his hip and feeds painkilling medicine down a tube,
through his skin and into his bloodstream. "That's my best friend, right there," he says with a glassy smile. The
pain goes away. His brow glistens with sweat. His shirt is off. His lips are chapped. His left arm is encased in a big foam-rubber
cube connected to a system of tubes all its own. Two weeks earlier, Ramos went into the basement of a building to escape the
blistering Iraqi heat and got nailed with a 152-mm rocket from an unseen location. "It was just a bad-time, bad-place
kind of deal," he says. "I'm walking downstairs, I hear a loud bang - everything turned black - and I smell flesh
burning. I looked and realized my arm was hanging by a little bit of shredded muscle. I knew I was going to lose my arm. They
tried to keep it, but there was too much damage."
Ramos, a Navy corpsman, is undaunted. And it's not just the drugs. The El Paso, Texas, man who grew up playing baseball,
basketball and soccer is quick to offer suggestions to the nurses who come and go in his room at the National Naval Medical
Center at Bethesda. "He keeps us in line," one of his nurses quips. His mom is there. His brother and sister are
there. This is the day he received the Purple Heart. "I am going to focus on one day at a time. Whatever happens, I am
not going to give up. I'm going to try my hardest. I am not afraid."
His thoughts invariably gravitate to his life ahead. "That's all I've been thinking about. When I went to boot camp,
I didn't even know what a corpsman was. Once I realized what my job was going to be, I liked it. I want to go back to school,
get my B.A. in biology, and from there, try to get back into the Navy, go through medical school, become a doctor, come back
and help people with this kind of injury. Let them know that, "Hey, I was once in your shoes."
Combat-injured soldiers find comfort in the company of veterans, particularly those who have been through similar circumstances.
Soon after they are admitted at Walter Reed, wounded troops meet Jim "The Milkshake Man" Mayer, who lost both his
legs after stepping on a landmine during the Vietnam War. He had 21 operations before he could walk with prosthetic legs and
devote his life to support for veterans. A VA employee and former lobbyist for Vietnam War veterans, he became well known
in 1991 when he began delivering milkshakes to patients on Ward 57.
On any given day at Bethesda or Walter Reed, patients can expect visits from Legionnaires. Maryland Post 295 Commander
Bob Ouellette, an Army retiree, is a regular caller at both facilities, heading up a program called Operation Provide Comfort
that delivers personal supplies and coordinates recreational activities for recovering troops. His post has joined with four
others in Virginia and Maryland, along with other organizations, in the Adopt-a-Soldier program that raises funds, buys items
and assists hospitalized troops. Dozens, if not hundreds, of other Legion programs are designed to ease the soldier-to-civilian
transition, throughout the country. "The way I feel about it," says Joe Dudley, past commander of Post 74 in Charlottesville,
Va., "who can work with these veterans better than we can? No one. We know their needs."
Post 25 in New Jersey, which assembles hundreds of "We Care" packages for wounded troops, delivers notes of
gratitude with the packages that offer "any assistance we may be able to provide in easing your transition... We are
truly grateful and would like to welcome you home."
Last summer, Ouellette helped take a group from Walter Reed to a Major League Baseball game in New York City. Equally
important, he says, are the more routine gestures. "You just have to go in and say hello," Ouellette says. "See
how they are doing and if there is anything they need. Let them know you are here to help." Such contact, he explains,
has familiarized many new veterans with the Legion. Many, like Eddie Wright, have joined.
The American Legion - at all levels since its 1919 founding - provides numerous support programs for troops and those
transitioning out. Legion service officers are available across the country to help veterans process claims and apply for
benefits. The Legion's Family Support Network offers help to families of troops who are deployed, hurt or incapacitated due
to their military service. Across the country, posts prepare gift packages, raise money, buy TVs, coordinate activities, even
help build houses for new veterans. It's all part of "the art," Waller noted, that must be perfected.
"I went through the biggest majority of this last year working with these kids who have never been through this,
being in a hospital this long," says Legionnaire Dave Bowers, a 24-year Navy veteran.
Parents aren't used to seeing their kids laying there in bed, all messed up. People don't know what a toll it takes on
the parents. I keep close contact with patients and the families."
Donnie Garwood, 23, serves guests at Fran O'Brien's Steakhouse in Washington, where every Friday night recovering troops
from Walter Reed arrive for free dinners. Garwood has a quarter-size hole in his lung from a bullet he took while serving
with the 101st Airborne near Mosul in 2003. The dinners, also attended by veterans and often Pentagon officials, do more than
create a break from hospital food. "It's great for the recovery process," Garwood says. "We are all able to
share similar stories. If I had just met one of these older veterans on the street, they might just say, "Oh, there's
some kid." But now, they come up and thank us. We really share something. We relate. Age doesn't make a difference."
Some wounded troops take their survival as a message. Twenty-six-year-old Marine First Lt. David Lewis - waiting at Bethesda
to learn if an RPG attack in Najaf will take his eyesight - had this to say: "I have a great appreciation for being alive.
There is absolutely no explanation for why my head is still on my body. That tells me that there's smomething more, something
specific, for me to do."
In time, the men and women of U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan will become the core of The American Legion.
They will remember, in later years, who was there for them when they came home. And it will be that generation's responsibility
to keep up the fight for adequate VA health-care funding, to make sure new veterans have employment and education opportunities,
and to prove to tomorrow's soldiers that age really doesn't matter, that there were Eddie Wrights in World War I who became
Legionnaires and ushered VA into existence, that career-minded military men like Jose Ramos came home without limbs and fought
to give future veterans the GI Bill and decades of prosperity that followed. Moreover, today's soldiers will remember the
bond they share with their fellow veterans, who were there to welcome them home.
Said Ramos: "You don't realize how important friendship is until you are in a situation like this."
SOLDIERS 4 SOLDIERS
Spent inkjet cartridges and old cell phones can be recycled to raise funds for American Legion programs that support troops
and veterans alike.
Cell phones raise $3 each, and cartridges $1. To learn about Soldiers 4 Soldiers, see legion.org.
TROOP SUPPORT SERVICES
The American Legion recently produced a new pocket resource guide listing dozens of programs for troops to support them
while deployed and ease their transition to civilian life.