Wounds of war
October 17, 2006
WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Oct. 17, 2006) - When Spc. Jay Erwin used to hear reporters speak of "wounded" Soldiers on the evening news, he envisioned troops with minor scrapes and bruises who medics could quickly patch up and send back into the fight after a day or two.
Today, as Erwin sits in a wheelchair on the second floor lobby of Walter Reed Army Medical Center, he sees things much differently.
"Hearing about our guys who were wounded didn't really affect me," he said. "I was just glad that guys I was fighting with were still alive. It didn't occur to me that there's a lot more mental and physical pain involved with being wounded, and I'm learning that now."
Like many Soldiers who have received injuries in battle, Erwin is learning that matter-of-fact statements regarding casualties don't begin to describe the long road to recovery combat-wounded Soldiers face.
An indirect fire infantryman team leader with Headquarters, Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment, Erwin was severely injured when his position was mortared while on a mission South of Baghdad. Shrapnel shattered his left tibia, fibula and ankle; landed in his femoral artery; and lodged just a quarter of an inch from his jugular vein, requiring doctors to perform emergency surgery.
"I was in a high state of pain," Erwin said. "I saw smoke bombs going off, people yelling and I was bleeding through my pants. When I started to see all the blood spurt I put on a pressure dressing thinking, 'I have to get something done or I can't help out.' I was trying to stay in the fight, but save my life as well."
Erwin was medevaced to Germany's Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, and after being stabilized, returned to the United States. Only then did he come to grips - physically and emotionally - with the extent of his wounds. Though not life threatening, Erwin's injuries force him to rely on others.
"I have to take baby steps now. Everyday I face challenges to get through my pain and recover. I'm working hard to learn ways to compensate for my injuries," he said.
The WRAMC staff guides Soldiers like Erwin through obstacles on the long road to recovery.
"The goal is to have a complete recovery, or exhaust as much occupational or physical therapy as we can to get these guys functional and even retainable in the Army if possible," said Sgt 1st Class Maurice Grant, 18th Airborne Corps Casualty Assistance Liaison.
Grant said that once they complete an overall assessment of their wounds, most Soldiers he is assigned to are prepared for the challenges they will face while recovering.
"After a soldier gets over the initial shock of what has happened, and what they will have to face due to their injuries, and physically sees their wounds, they come to grips fast," Grant said.
Never the same again
The Army's policy of moving family members close to the hospitals where their loved ones are recovering helps Soldiers get better faster, according to Grant.
"Moving the family here helps expedite the recovery process. It lets the Soldier know he or she is not going through it alone. It's like a, 'we're here with you every step of the way' process," he said.
While family members are more than happy to provide love and support by moving to the areas where their Soldiers are recovering, Sue Erwin, Erwin's mother, said the upheaval involved with relocating to a strange place, combined with seeing the extent of her son's injuries, was almost more than she could bear.
"This was catastrophic for me, life altering," said Sue. "I have a house, a job, a life in Kansas. I would walk on fire for my son and my family, but this is the last place I ever wanted to be. I've lost 20 pounds since this has happened. People don't understand that this is life altering forever; we will never be the same because of this."
Sarah McNees, who is staying in Washington D.C. while her husband, Staff Sgt. Bryan McNees, recovers from his combat injuries at Walter Reed, said that once the wave of relief that her husband was alive had passed, a new wave of anxiety took hold of her.
"It's hard to figure out how to make it work ... we have a whole lot ahead of us," she said. 'I'm so thankful that he's still here, but at the same time it's daunting."
Sarah said that she never realized the danger her husband and other Soldiers faced while performing their duties in support of the global war on terror.
"I've been dealing with the shock," she said. "At first I was like 'I can't believe that this has happened.' As an American I can't believe that this is what Soldiers are facing, I just think about what my husband was going through the day that it happened. Our whole lives kind of got blown up that day, too."
McNees, HHC, 1st Bn., 325th AIR, mortar platoon section sergeant, was wounded during the same attack that injured his Soldier, Erwin.
Erwin said that he remembered McNees emerging from a cover position with his hair and arm on fire.
What the future holds
McNees suffered a long list of wounds. His leg was blown open causing a compound fracture of his tibia. He suffered a fractured jaw and broken ear drum. Shrapnel pierced flesh throughout his body, severing a nerve in his left hand and breaking his right, and all of the tendons in his right foot were ripped apart.
Although the list of McNees' physical injuries is rather long, he said his biggest challenge is focusing on the present and suppressing his concerns about his and his family's future.
"Right now I'm healing," McNees said. "There's only so much that I can do. I want to stay in the Army, but what will I be able to do' Right now I push it to the side, I don't dwell on it all day, but my biggest worry is the future."
A concern for what the future holds is particularly haunting for 1st Lt. Ivan Castro. A scout platoon leader with HHC, 1st Bn., 325th AIR, Castro suffered multiple debilitating wounds, including the loss of his eyesight when a mortar hit his position while he was providing support by fire from a rooftop in Iraq.
A former special forces Soldier with 17 years of military service, Castro described what he has dealt with emotionally.
"You have short-term goals and long-term goals," Castro said after recovering from an operation to remove a brain aneurism. "People who are proactive and driven want to succeed. So when you think about all that, and then suffer a major loss, everything changes.
"I'm trying to remember the last time I looked at my wife, what she was wearing. I'm thinking about if we have kids, when I hold them I won't be able to see them," he said. "If you lose an arm or a leg you can put prosthetics on, but when you lose your eyesight, there's no cure for that."
Castro's wife, Evelyn, hopes the future holds a cure for her husband's blindness. She said her biggest challenge will be researching treatment therapies and technology to help her husband regain his eyesight. Cross-checking medical books and Web sites has been frustrating for Evelyn, but she said she believes her work will pay off in the end.
"I know that this is something we may have to do on our own. It may be an initial out-of-pocket expense, but I will be glad to do anything I have to as long as we get the results we want," she said. "We grieve over the extent of these injuries and what this will do to hamper our dreams."
No cause for special status
Military leaders understand that Soldiers and their loved ones can become despondent during recovery. On Oct. 14, 82nd Airborne Division Commander Maj. Gen. David Rodriguez visited Soldiers at Walter Reed and Bethesda medical centers to talk with them and their families, and to present Purple Heart medals.
"How are you feeling' How about your family'" Rodriguez asked as he leaned over McNees' bedside. "Is there anything you can think of that we can do better to help' Hopefully, we'll get you patched up quickly and ready to go."
Rodriguez went on to commend his Soldiers for their service and wish them and their families his best.
McNees said he appreciated Rodriguez taking time to speak with him and award the Purple Heart personally, but he does not consider the wounds he suffered a cause for special status.
"I think everyone deserves to feel appreciated for what they're doing for their country, not only those who got blown up," said McNees. "The only difference is that I got blown up that day. There are lots of Soldiers who do their jobs everyday in combat and don't get blown up."
As Soldiers continue fighting the war on terror, more will receive combat wounds. Soldiers and family members will continue leaning on each other for support while recovering. And, the realization of what Soldiers face when receiving "wounds" will grow increasingly, painfully clearer.
"The verbiage just has to change," said Sue. "'Wounded' sounds like someone fell down and got a band-aid. These are catastrophic injuries. Someone needs to propel and explode a mortar every night on TV so people can see what it does to a human body."