The War They Still Fight

Tim O’Brien, PARADE Magazine

“My Mission Is To Get Well”

Major Jason Waggoner waits for me in the lobby of the Center for the Intrepid, a state-of-the-art rehabilitation facility in San Antonio, Tex. Waggoner, 39, of Puyallup, Wash., has the squared shoulders and clean-cut good looks of a man from a U.S. Army recruiting posterĀ­?every inch a soldier. After we shake hands and sit down, he taps his prosthetic leg and recounts the instant last December when he stepped on a booby-trapped mortar round in southwest Baghdad.

?The explosion,? he says, ?blew me up in the air, and I landed inside the crater. I just lay there thinking, ?What happened to me?? I didn?t want to look at my legs. It felt like a baseball bat hit me.?

He blacked out while being evacuated and woke up at Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas, having lost his left leg in an amputation. Waggoner describes this in the articulate, relentlessly upbeat tones of a U.S. Army public-affairs officer, which in fact he is. There is no hint of regret in his voice or demeanor. Plainly, he seeks no one?s pity.

?I wanted to be a soldier since I was a little boy,? he says, and then shrugs as if to acknowledge that he had accepted the risks from day one.

After five weeks, Waggoner was discharged from the hospital and began rehab. ?For a while, it was tough keeping my balance,? he says, ?but I got rid of the crutches after the first day.? With the support of his wife, Brianna, and 22-month-old son, Nathan, Waggoner made swift progress. Just four months later, he completed 18 holes of golf. He flashes me a quick, delighted smile. ?I used a cart, but even so…18 holes.?

Asked about the war to which he has sacrificed a leg, Waggoner gazes down at the red, white, and blue carpet. ?I didn?t lose my leg to this war,? he says slowly. ?I lost it in support of the soldiers on my left and right. I?d do it a hundred times over.?

Waggoner?s conversation is peppered with military jargon such as ?getting the mission accomplished? and ?tactical objectives.? It strikes me that nothing in his voice betrays any misgivings?no talk about weapons of mass destruction that didn?t exist, about civilian casualties, about what victory might mean, or about losing his leg in a country fractured by religious and tribal allegiances.

He hopes to rejoin his unit, which is still in Iraq. ?My mission right now,? he says, ?is to get well.?

Outside the center, a dozen young soldiers cruise by in wheelchairs. Others make their way on prosthetic legs, some inching along with the aid of attendants, a few moving with the grace of Olympians. Nearby, a crowd has gathered to watch a basketball tournament?played in wheelchairs.

Built entirely from donations and then turned over to the U.S. government, the Center for the Intrepid is a $50 million, 65,000-square-foot rehabilitation facility that opened in January 2007. (New York real-estate developer Arnold Fisher spearheaded the project.) The center treats veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?primarily amputees, burn patients, and those with damaged limbs?with some of the most cutting-edge technology in the world. At any one time, about 150 severely injured young men and women spend grueling hours in the center learning to walk, drive, and cope with the most basic elements of daily living.

In February 2007 in central Iraq, Staff Sgt. Shilo Harris? vehicle rolled over an improvised explosive device. ?The fireball was like a tornado,? says Harris, 33, of Coleman, Tex. ?I looked down and saw my body smoking.?

As Harris speaks, I can?t help but study his face, which is a mottled blend of purples and reds. His ears are gone. His nose is disfigured. Several fingers are missing. I?m reminded of casualties I saw as a soldier in Vietnam, most of them Vietnamese who had been charred by napalm and white phosphorus.

?Lying on the ground, looking up,? Harris says, ?I could see the sheer horror on my roommate?s face. I knew from his eyes I was pretty messed up.?

Three men in the vehicle were killed. Harris suffered burns over 30 percent of his body. Even after multiple surgeries and more than a year as an outpatient at the center, he still may need at least one more operation for the burns to his face. ?For a long time,? Harris says, ?I couldn?t feed myself, couldn?t blow my nose, couldn?t go to the bathroom alone. My wife, Kathreyn, had to help me do almost everything.? Harris pauses briefly and then looks straight at me. ?My wife is my hero.?

Three days a week, he engages in a rehab regimen that includes swimming, lifting weights, massage therapy, and hand therapy. ?But you can?t just rely on your regular therapy,? he says. ?I work on my own all day long, every day?stretching my lips, stretching my eyelids, stretching my hands and arms.?

Like Waggoner, Harris expresses no ambiguity over serving in a confusing and increasingly unpopular war. ?I was trying to get the job done,? he says. Harris goes silent for a moment. ?I?m determined,? he says quietly. ?I might want to stay a soldier.?

According to Col. Jennifer Menetrez, an Army physician and the center?s director, such resolve is not uncommon. ?These are driven, athletic risk takers,? she says, ?and we try to expose them to new challenges.? She gestures in the direction of the facility?s swimming pool, which includes elaborate wave-riding equipment. In other rooms are a climbing tower, a vehicle simulator, and a firearms-training simulator.

Most impressively, the center has its own in-house prosthetics lab, where new ?legs? are custom-made. The lab has the acrid, half-fleshy smell of heated plastic and looks like a body shop for humans. Scattered about are molds, metallic joints, heating ovens, and shoes that will never contain feet. Jered Mikol, a former Marine who works there, says patients occasionally request special graphics on their prostheses: the name of a fallen comrade, perhaps, or a branch of service. ?It?s not much to ask,? he says, ?and we try to oblige.?

Not only are bodies rebuilt, but so too are psyches?and often the psyches of other family members. ?We try to be supportive,? says Menetrez, ?but of course their child isn?t the same, physically or emotionally.?

One such family member is Scott McCoy of Reading, Pa., who quit his job in February and came here to be with his son, Staff Sgt. Nick McCoy, 24. On patrol in central Iraq in December 2006, Nick had his life changed forever by an explosive device. ?There was a ball of light,? he says, ?and I was flung about 40 feet.? After being evacuated, he was put into an induced coma??one long dream,? he says?and woke up six weeks later in San Antonio. Both legs had been amputated below the knee.

Nick has been going through rehab for over a year and lives with his father in a specially designed residence located steps away from the center. Rehab went slowly at first, but his progress has now improved. ?You heal quicker with family around,? says Scott. He is clearly proud of his son and yet, like everyone I?ve met, he speaks with no hand-wringing or dramatics. ?Nick and I do pretty much everything together.?

Not quite everything. Nick has begun dating again. ?I was nervous at first,? he says, ?and self-conscious about my injuries. She?s gorgeous. I?m missing my legs and have all these battle scars. What?s she doing with me??

Even so, he grins and says, ?We?re going out again tomorrow.?

Although Nick plans to leave the military, he hopes someday to work as an advocate for veterans. ?Maybe I?ll go into politics,? he says. ?Basically, I just want to help others in my situation.?

In my time at the center, what repeatedly strikes me is that these terribly maimed soldiers are all volunteers. They seem more wholly in the military and more wholly of the military than those I remember. They talk about ?getting the job done? with an unambiguous, no-shades-of-gray certitude that differs from my own combat experience.

Yet Nick McCoy touches on one constant. ?Our country has mixed feelings about the war,? he says, ?but regardless of your opinion, if you see a wounded soldier, we appreciate it when you say, ?Thank you.? ?

As I get up to leave, I ask Nick about his upcoming date. He confesses again to being nervous but says that he thinks it will go just fine.

His father Scott chuckles. ?Look at the handsome face,? he tells me. ?Nick won?t have any trouble. None at all.?

Posted on June 8 2008 in News

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