12/20/04 -- MIAMI
(KRT) - "When I saw the stumps, I thought,
`Damn, both of them?' Then I looked at my leg and I was trying to
figure how to put a tourniquet on it because I didn't have any
The rocket-propelled grenade that ripped off James Eddie
Wright's hands and tore into his left leg ended the war for him
and changed his life forever.
In a way, Wright, 29, personifies the new veteran coming home
from Iraq. Many hundreds are amputees and, according to The New
England Journal of Medicine, one in six suffers from a
stress-related disorder. More often than not, today's veteran has
that thousand-yard stare that soldiers have been carrying home for
years - a mask for the gnawing confusion and anguish that can blow
apart a smooth return to civilian life.
Unlike the young draftees of earlier wars, many of these men
and women are older, with families. For them, this morphing from a
fighting machine ducking bullets into a mommy or daddy packing
school lunches presents a special challenge. This time the
government tapped the National Guard and the Reserve to augment
regular forces. Some returnees - proportionately many more than in
Vietnam - have left limbs and slices of sanity on an urban
battlefield as strange as the Iraq war itself. Improved body armor
kept many troops out of body bags in Iraq after they were ravaged
by roadside bombs and shoulder-mounted rocket launchers.
A varied lot, these returnees. Among them: A freshly retired
soldier struggling with anger and guilt as she desperately tries
to fit back into the lives of her husband and three kids. An
ex-soldier who shuns humans in favor of his dogs. A star
basketball player who lost her shooting hand. A lifer from North
Miami who can't spit out the smell of death. A guy with a John
Wayne fantasy. A seven-year Marine fighting to keep his shattered
No prosthesis for me, says John Dale, 29, of Coconut Creek,
Fla. So far, his left arm is still his. He's had eight surgeries
to save it. The next one's due in three months.
"It felt like someone hit me with a baseball bat," he
recalls. It was April 4, 2003. His unit, the 2nd Tank Battalion,
assigned to the 1st Marine Division, was taking heavy fire on the
way to Baghdad on the first day of action during the invasion.
The battleground was surreal, like an arthouse war flick: oil
burning in roadside ditches, smoke blotting out the sun and
screening the enemy, the Marines moving forward in their Humvees.
The Iraqis would pop up and shoot. Dale would machine-gun their
hideout from his seagull view in the turret. Such a sweet target.
An AK-47 round shattered the humerus, the long bone of the upper
His arm was left dangling, blood seeping through his chemical
suit and flak jacket and racing down to his fingertips, forming
large claret pools on the Humvee floor. A corpsman lifted him into
an ambulance. But he had to give up his space to a Marine who had
been shot in the face.
"I had to crouch behind a tank until a Humvee drove by. I
hitched a ride with them," Dale says.
The firefight fanned out as he sank helplessly in the back of
the vehicle. He didn't panic and he didn't pray. Everything was
gonna be all right, he thought, but it would be an hour and a half
until a medevac chopper arrived. Dale counted three friends among
the severely wounded. Nearby, a corpsman was pushing to save a
tank commander. But the officer's body was already adapting to
Dale's arm is now held together by a metal plate that travels
from shoulder to elbow and is attached to the bone by 13 metal
He sleeps as if time is rationed. Nightmares mess with his
mind. The doctors call it post-combat trauma. He and two other
Iraq war veterans meet weekly at Dale's home with Patrick Murphy,
a team leader at the Vet Center, a government counseling service.
Three weeks in combat changed him forever, the sergeant says.
He no longer puts things off. Like furthering his education. The
South Broward High grad says he's going back to school. He likes
the medical field.
Valencia Knox-Davis' voice is soft but her delivery is halting.
Her eyes wander, never stopping on other eyes.
Knox-Davis, 46, had an eight-month stint in Afghanistan. Then,
after five months at home, she was shipped out to Iraq. She came
home in March to her husband, Jack Davis, 49, and their three kids
in Richmond Heights, a Miami-Dade neighborhood.
A Florida State University graduate, she's a social worker at
Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami. She joined the Army Reserve in
1983 as an administrative specialist and helped set up and run
In 2002, when she was in Bagram, Afghanistan, son Bryan, then
14, fired off questions: Why are you there? What's the war about?
And from Faith, 11: When are you coming home? James, 4, didn't
grasp what was going on. Her husband, who works for U.S. Precast,
a construction company, tried his best to pick up the slack. It
He's struck by the life-after-Iraq personality of a wife who,
in off moments, still hears the ever-closer thumps of distant
mortar rounds. She's got a precise way of doing things now,
constantly checking the time, and clinging to the family. Other
times, she doesn't want them around. She explains it in clinical
terms: the guilt of being gone so long; missing out on so much of
their lives; not being able to replace the time. "After I
came home from Iraq, I used to internalize my anger. And I had no
patience, no tolerance. I was curt with the kids and I was
Knox-Davis, who retired as a sergeant first class in September,
is being treated for post-traumatic stress at the Veterans
Administration in Miami. "They want you to talk, but it's
hard to open up because I mistrust people. The administration
tells you the war is over and when you get there it's not. Being
over there was just so stressful. And yet my mind still wanders
back to Iraq and I worry about the troops. I hope these issues
On Oct. 5, Marco Hernandez of Homestead, Fla., mourned his
oldest, Nellie Bablushuka. She was 15, a toy poodle. Now he dotes
on his two younger dogs, Charlie, a Lhasa apso, and Shortie
Hernandez, a Shih Tzu. "He lives for them," says Vet
Center team leader Patrick Murphy, who counsels Hernandez for
post-combat stress. "They give him a sense of being able to
count on something." They also are helping him glue himself
Before his deployment to the Middle East, Hernandez, 37, a
Guatemala native, lived a far different life. He had an
associate's degree in business administration, a wife and big
plans to go up the ladder in the U.S. Army.
Today he has no job, no wife, no plans, no social life. He
suffers from depression, mood swings, panic attacks, nightmares,
mind-blowing headaches and a welter of pains he attributes to a
truck accident in Kuwait.
In January 2003, Hernandez, a specialist 4th class with the
25th Aviation Regiment, was assigned to Camp Udairi, a barren
desert compound in Kuwait. He was there to repair radar on
helicopters. But there was little work, "no mail, no news,
either," he says. They were camped behind God's back.
Eventually, he went into Baghdad, riding through enemy wreckage
with limbs and flesh "like shredded paper" everywhere.
The detritus of the fall of Baghdad included shards of his mind.
His tour over, Hernandez eagerly flew home to his wife. She was
waiting for him - with divorce papers.
He can't even get a job - overqualified, they say. There are
nights when he dreams he picks up a rifle during a chat with
someone "and when I'm about to pull the trigger I wake
His "children" are his salvation. They "are
helping me get out of this feeling of emptiness. I am forcing
myself to walk with them. My feet, legs, hips, back and head hurt
all the time, plus the fact that I do not want to see anybody or
do anything, but because of my children I am pushing myself to go
back to an almost normal life.
"I walked them last night. It took about 95 minutes and I
was tired and in pain. But Shortie and Charlie were running and
jumping. That tells me that they are happy and I feel good about
Luis Robles, 27, of Pembroke Pines, Fla., stashed in his helmet
a line from the Bible: No weapon that is formed against thee he
wrote "me" shall prosper (Isaiah 54:17).
"You have your battle buddies, but you also need spiritual
upliftment," Robles says from his desk as a supply sergeant
at the National Guard armory in downtown Miami. "Every time I
went into battle, I became spiritually inspired."
If mom Irene Bustamante had known that, she might not have
fingered the worry beads when he called her home in Tijuana,
Mexico, around Mother's Day 2003 to say he was going into combat.
Born in San Diego and reared in Tijuana, Robles had enlisted in
the Army at 19 despite her objections. Now she's telling him, as
he's about to leave for Iraq with the 53rd Infantry Brigade:
"I can't believe you're fighting a war that's not
"I'm a soldier," he reminded her.
On Nov. 23, Robles was in charge of perimeter security at an
observation post in Ramadi when he and a buddy thought they heard
a car with a bad muffler. It was incoming mortars. Shrapnel
fractured his skull.
When he came to, he worried that someone would call his mom and
tell her. Someone had. His speech was so blurred that he had to
practice saying, "It's just a scratch, Mom."
He was at Walter Reed Medical Center for 2-1/2 months.
For a while, Robles had a short fuse. He still has migraines
and poor concentration. He continues to see a neurologist and the
combat stress is in remission. Just don't come by with any
firecrackers - or a bad muffler.
When he's off duty, Robles takes business administration
classes at Broward Community College.
That quotation from Isaiah has worked. He and God are real
In the desert, the heat's overpowering - especially if you pull
security duty on the roof of a police station in Baghdad.
Danielle Green, 27, of Chicago, remembers that heat as she lies
in a ward at Walter Reed. That sun. That rocket. That burning
It's May 25, 2004, five months after the 571st Military Police
Co. arrived at the Al-Sadoon police station to train Iraqi
volunteers. Green, a specialist 4th class, and a buddy are stuck
with rooftop guard duty in temperatures well above 100 degrees.
It's the buddy's turn to find a spot of shade. Green's alone.
Maybe it was a yen for adventure that made her quit her
teaching job and join the Army in January 2003. She had been an
ace basketball player at Notre Dame, where she earned a psychology
Now she's on the roof, surrounded by sandbags, unaware that her
post has become a target. The first rocket-propelled grenade hits
a nearby building. She grabs her rifle, but her body goes numb.
The second rocket has hit home. "I thought I was going to
die," she says. "I could see that my left thigh was
Green speed-dials God: "If you can get me out of this
situation, I'll change my ways."
Within seconds, Green, a lefty, realizes her left hand is
missing. The limb is found later - with her wedding band still
shining - under seven inches of sand.
The next day, she learns the leg can be saved, and calls her
husband, Willie Byrd, 59, a retired teacher in Chicago. "She
told me, `I need you to be strong. Don't cry,' " he recalls.
"So I knew something was wrong."
It's still wrong.
"There are more questions than answers" about the
future, she says bitterly. "It's tough on me mentally, so I'm
still trying to figure what's important. Maybe I'll attend grad
school and return to education. Maybe when kids tell me they can't
do it, I'd pull off my prosthetic arm and say, `If I can do it,
you can do it.' "
Last June, Green and 21 other Walter Reed amputees were invited
to the Disabled Sports USA clinic in Long Beach, Calif., where she
impressed Bryan Hoddle, head track and field coach of the 2004
U.S. Paralympian team.
"Danielle definitely has that drive and potential to be a
great Paralympian," Hoddle says.
"But I have to figure out how to juggle school, train and
also make money," she says brightly. "Maybe, at the 2008
Beijing Paralympics, the headline could read `Notre Dame
student-athlete, American hero, makes Paralympian team.'
The infantry is not a place for the ordinary Joe. It is where
heroes go beyond their pain, where character is ultimately
defined. Brian Wilhelm, 22, of Manchester, Iowa, found himself in
It was 2:30 in the afternoon on Oct. 7, 2003. When he awoke
that morning "stuff didn't seem right," he says now. The
kind of stuff that causes nerves to wobble. You get a vibe like
that, you'd better keep it to yourself. The Iraqis were playing it
close to the chest, too. They were about to ambush his mechanized
unit, a three-vehicle convoy from the 4th Infantry Division. His
unit was en route to RPG Alley (a rocket-propelled grenade
hellhole) on a beat-up road in Balad. A patrol was depending on
them for security and replenishments.
"They opened up with a volley of RPGs. I got hit in my
left calf. There was a big hole in my leg, but I wasn't feeling
Adrenaline, the Army sergeant says, sparked his next move.
"I got out of the truck and started firing. I'm in the middle
of the road and my gunner is on the truck backing me up on the
50-cal machine gun."
Wilhelm is in no man's land for 20 minutes, blood draining the
leg of color. He's firing clip after clip of ammo. Because there
was no initial pain, "I thought I was dead, so I figured I
better have some fun to keep my buddies alive," he says.
Eventually, the gunner got him back on the truck and applied a
Doctors at Walter Reed tried to save the leg. He waved them
away. "It was either that or a couple of years of
surgery," he says. "I wanted to get on with my
A prosthesis got him walking two weeks after the amputation.
Wilhelm now chauffeurs a general and helps with reenlistments
at Fort Carson, Colo.
After work, he goes home to his wife, Jennifer, an Army MP, and
their 14-month-old daughter, Alison, in Fountain, Colo.
Does the war intrude? Does he have psychological scars?
"None," he shoots back. "Losing a leg is no big
deal. People who feel sorry for themselves need to grow up."
He's counting on his new family, his own family back in Iowa,
and the counsel of Vietnam veterans to forestall post-combat
problems. He has been allowed to re-enlist.
JAMES EDDIE WRIGHT
It happened about midday on April 7 in Fallujah, where hatred
for Americans is stacked up like the rows of buildings that crowd
the streets and alleys. Enemy mortar and rocket teams blended into
the population, and that day the 1st Recon Battalion was trying to
ferret them out.
Marine Cpl. James Eddie Wright, 29, of Seattle, rode point in a
Humvee with four buddies. When he saw skittish motorists ahead of
them spinning around and going the other way, he smelled an
ambush. Gunfire raked the convoy, followed by mortars and rockets.
It felt like a knockout punch screaming off his jaw when a
rocket-propelled grenade slammed into Wright's M-16 rifle. It blew
off his helmet and goggles. His arms were cut down to smoldering
stumps and his left foot had a gaping wound. "When I saw the
stumps, I thought, `Damn, both of them?' I looked at my leg and
wondered how I could apply a tourniquet because now I don't have
He almost died three times on the trip back home. They gave him
39 units of blood and doctors saved the leg. He's still in rehab
at Walter Reed. "The experience has taught me to be thankful
for what I have," he says. "My life, my family, my
fiancee and support from patriotic Americans."
He plans to resume his education, but wedding bells are first.
He and Donette Mathison, an Air Force staff sergeant, are to marry
Hubert Louizaire of North Miami tasted the exhilaration of
victory on his first tour in Iraq in 1991. Now, after another war,
the lingering smell of death is stronger - "like meat burning
on a barbecue with no kind of spice at all."
Born in Haiti 48 years ago, he relocated to Brooklyn, N.Y., at
age 15. He enlisted in the Army in 1980 and stayed on active duty
for 12 years, then became a reservist. He joined the Veterans
Administration police in Miami and was called back to Iraq in
March 2003 with the Fort Lauderdale-based 724th MP Battalion.
Back in Desert Storm, he was a gun chief with the 31st Field
Artillery, blowing up Iraqi tanks, 55 in all, burning many of the
crewmen to death.
"He loves Army life," says his wife, Eveline, 47, a
VA file clerk. Army life dragged him away from her and their two
daughters twice, heaping an extra load on her.
Last year when she had to get the roof fixed and the house
painted, "they contractors took advantage of me,"
Eveline says. "And they took their sweet time."
Meanwhile, Louizaire was supervising 7,000 POWs, including 300
generals, at a camp in Um Quasar. "The prisoners were treated
so well, they ate better than us," he says. "We
eventually released the generals, but they came back to thank us
for the way we handled the whole prison population."
But the camp had a problem with escape artists and criminals.
The battalion would shuttle the criminals to the overcrowded Abu
Ghraib prison, where many were killed during Iraqi mortar attacks
on the prison. He learned of the abuse there later. "Maybe
that's why prisoners would beg us to take them back to Um
In all of this, he's never taken a bullet or been bogged down
by bad memories.
"If you think about what you did, it'll affect you,"
he says. "But if you don't think, it won't be on your
Rob Sarra grew up on war movies in Chicago. He dropped out of
college after two years and followed a fantasy to Iraq in March
2003. His armored unit, Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 4th Marines,
had its first contact with the enemy in An Nasiriyah, running and
gunning through the city in 15 minutes. It was exciting. Running
the gauntlet, as the Marines call it, each Amtrac sheltering 18
Marines and gobbling up killing fields, town after town, four in a
Lethal air strikes, the gift of artillery, the choppers darting
in and out of view, all the true sounds of combat that Hollywood
has yet to perfect. "He," Marine Sgt. Rob Sarra,
"not" John Wayne, was the hero now.
Things soured when 32-year-old Sarra and his buddies, on patrol
in Ash Shatra, shot at civilians.
"I fired on a woman coming out of a building," he
says. "She kept coming. She wouldn't stop."
The woman in black, her face covered, slumped to the ground.
Sarra walked up to her. She was clutching a white flag. That
moment, that death, upended Sarra's life, and turned him against
He was discharged in April 2004 and joined the
Philadelphia-based Iraq Veterans Against the War. Lifers in the
military likely would say that Sarra has kidnapped and twisted
patriotism. Sarra wouldn't care.
These days you can catch his drift on college campuses like
Ithaca, Notre Dame, the University of Illinois, anywhere the
public, students mostly, is willing to listen to his revelations
about, in his words, "the occupation."
Sarra and all Iraq war veterans are defined by the unique
theater in which they served - as are all veterans of all U.S.
However, they are all connected by the personal war that
follows all wars.
© 2004, The Miami Herald.
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