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Political analysis and other daily rants on the state of the nation

Monday | July 21, 2003

Surviving Ward 57

By Steve Gilliard

Recovery from a war injury is slow, but possible, and even amputees may return to active duty.

A blast injury is like no other wound, a war unto itself. The tremendous force of a land mine shears soft tissue from bone, then reverberates through the skeleton with an energy that has nowhere to go but up. The brain bears the final insult, whiplashing inside the skull. Hitting the ground hard can also cause a blast victim's brain to swell, bleed or tear without any outward sign of a head wound. When a land mine or grenade or mortar detonates, the sound waves alone can cause concussion.

Danny Roberts, 26, is wheeling himself to the Traumatic Brain Injury unit, one gleaming hall down from his room on Ward 57. "There's nothing wrong with me," he fumes. The slight reservist from Green Bay, Wis., had just been getting his life on track, tending bar part-time and settling on a major -- education -- when his Army reserve unit, the 890th Transportation Division out of Hobart, Ind., was deployed. He went to war with paperback classics in his duffel bag, never fired his weapon, then was blown sky-high by a land mine while just standing around talking to his buddies one afternoon. His left foot is gone.

Now a neurologist will flip through a tablet of drawings: What's this, and this, and this? he asks. A bench, a tripod, a seahorse. Danny is usually so good-natured that nurses on Ward 57 drop by his room even on their breaks to chat. But today he's exasperated, his lips pressed tightly together. He is sure his nagging headaches are a side effect of his meds, that's all.

Deborah Warden and her associates patiently explain to Danny that concussions can be mild; he may not even realize he has any symptoms. They cover his eyes and ask him to identify smells: coffee, oranges. They break a cotton swab in half and tap his palm with the cotton, then the stick. Which is soft, Danny? Which is sharp?

A technician attaches electrodes to Danny's scalp. An electroencephalogram will chart any abnormal brain waves. Verbal and written tests will chart concentration and memory. Once that's done, doctors have promised discharge. Goodbye, Walter Reed, after 24 days.


The Veterans Administration is trying to determine what kind of vocational training would suit him, but Danny is convinced they screwed up the test results. "You have no reading comprehension," he remembers the VA lady telling him. He is still incredulous. "All I know how to do is read!" Does this mean they won't pay for him to get the English degree he wants? He sweet-talks the VA lady into retesting him, and plans to re-enroll in college this fall. He's applying for a discharge from the Army.

Maybe he won't teach, after all. Maybe he'll buy land in the Colorado Rockies. He knows a tiny town called Alma where they're always desperate to fill the lone policeman's job. He imagines himself the peacekeeper in that cool, quiet place.

When Garth Stewart was in Iraq, he would lie under camouflage netting and listen to the plastic leaves rattling in the wind. He'd close his eyes and imagine he was at home in the woods in Minnesota.

The two of them lie on a rock in the sun, Garth's silver prosthetic ankle glinting in the sun. Canoeists paddle by and birds fly overhead. "I came back here and people think the Iraqis just surrendered," Garth says. "The TV didn't show anything. I saw bodies. Melted bodies. Skulls. Bodies with the skin falling off. We got to Karbala and we started fighting the Republican Guard. Those guys don't want to take no for an answer."

His feelings about the war remain mixed. But there is no doubt surrounding his desire to be a soldier again.

Finally he gets the news he's been waiting for. Garth is told to report back to Fort Benning, Ga., home of the 3rd Infantry Division

Posted July 21, 2003 02:56 PM


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