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March 01, 2007

A Distant Trumpet


Once again too many cups of coffee have flooded my veins with a heart-pounding rush of caffeine, the writer's heroin. Maybe this time, I'll be able to push past the bleakness. Somehow I can't manage to get the sneering words out of my brain:

...yawning hulk, combat-addled, lumbering, blue-eyed, big ox baby...

There is no dignity there, no grace for someone whose service should have incurred gratitude or at least some minimal respect in token of the debt we all owe him. Instead there is only a stunning disregard for someone who seems no longer useful; who can, therefore, be safely treated with casual contempt. I suppose the words were deliberately chosen to provoke anger. They succeeded, though perhaps not in the intended manner.

Interesting that in several days' worth of torrid exposes, the Post can't manage to find anything positive to say. Anything, as usual, that makes our men in uniform look like determined fighters instead of drug-addled losers. We don't want to minimize their pain, or the severity of their wounds, or the horrors of war.

We'd just like people to see how utterly magnificent they are, still, these men we call Marines. How worthy of admiration.

To do that does not glorify war. It merely recognizes the greatness of the human spirit:

Marines wounded by what the military calls improvised explosive devices often have a hard time telling a coherent story about their injuries. They remember driving away from a dusty combat outpost in Fallujah or Baghdad, then recall waking up in a hospital bed in Maryland or California or Texas.

That was the case for Lance Cpls. Josh Bleill and Eric Frazier, who last month sat beneath a scarlet Marine Corps flag at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and described their injuries.

But Cpl. Chad Watson, who sat with them, is an exception. He remembers exactly what happened about 9 a.m. Nov. 29 as he led a team of Marines in the streets of Fallujah. The team from the 1st Battalion of the 24th Marines had just searched the car and were starting to roll again.

"We didn't get more than 100 meters, and it was like I got punched in the face like 10,000 times," Watson said.

What pummeled Watson was a bomb, not a fist. The moment he looked down, he knew his life had changed forever.

"I looked at my right leg, and it was gone - completely gone," said Watson, 24, a college student from Mt. Zion, Ill. "There was a big hole under the driver's side; that's where it hit."

Watson's training took over. Despite his missing leg, the smashed bones in his left heel and ankle, a fractured vertebra, burns and shrapnel wounds to his face, arm and eye, he grabbed his weapon and struggled to get out of the Humvee to defend himself and his comrades. But he couldn't free his twisted left leg from what remained of the Humvee's floor. Marines from other vehicles came running to help.

"I remember them yelling, `Is anybody still alive?'" said Watson.

Finally, after his fellow Marines dragged him into a nearby courtyard, a Navy corpsman tied off his bleeding right leg with a tourniquet. The corpsman gently informed Watson that most of his right leg was gone.

"I was kind of like, `Yeah, no kidding, I saw that.'"

Through it all Watson - still the team leader, despite his grievous wounds - was shouting orders.

"I was actually yelling at the guys to get out of the courtyard ... because there were too many of them," and a large group was liable to draw the insurgents' fire, said Watson. "I was glad how I reacted. I acted good under pressure, and I was happy to hear that they told my parents that."

But then Marines take care of each other. And the three are still taking care of each other now:

Generally, Marines like to organize things by threes. Three Marines make a fire team, three fire teams make a squad, three squads make a company, and three line companies make a battalion.

So Watson, Frazier and Bleill have formed their own sort of rehabilitative fire team during their stay at Walter Reed. "We joke with each other, or say, `Hey, we gotta catch up with him,'" Watson said. "It makes us work that much harder."

When they're working painfully to build their upper body strength, they push each other to work even harder. When one is working on his balance on the parallel bars, the others are watching.

Marines have always taken a perverse pride in their grueling daily doses of group PT, or physical training. It binds them together. And the equation hasn't changed much just because they're wounded. Now, the initials "PT" stand for "physical therapy."

"It's the same thing, just a different setting," Watson said. "It's just a different group of guys you're with now."

Even for Marines like Schuring, who is getting rehabilitation through Beaumont Hospital near his home in Farmington Hills, Mich., thoughts of his fellow Marines in Iraq are never far away while he's sweating and groaning through painful physical therapy. Teamwork is something the former center on the Hope College football team in west Michigan has understood for a long time.

The ceramic plate in his body armor saved him from the shot to his back. His Kevlar helmet helped dissipate the shot to his head, which didn't penetrate his skull. And the bullet that hit his right thigh missed the bone.

But the one that hit his left thigh almost cost him his leg, shattering his thighbone in three up near his hip. An infection nearly did the rest until it was brought under control by antibiotics.

His doctors expect he'll make a full recovery - thanks to physical therapy sessions it would take a Marine to love.

None of the wounded men is willing to let his injuries define him. None expressed bitterness. All said they would rejoin their units tomorrow, if they could.

Schuring, whose mission was training Iraqi soldiers, was especially emphatic.

"We were doing good things there in Ramadi - I mean phenomenal things," Schuring said. "The Iraqi army, the soldiers, they're the Iraqi heroes. They're not the best soldiers in the world, but they're trying."

The wounded men have had time while convalescing to process their experiences. They've met cabinet members and generals and members of Congress. Some have gone to the Super Bowl, and Watson was personally introduced to his baseball heroes, the St. Louis Cardinals, by the president of the United States.

But that's all gravy. It's everyday life that's a gift to these survivors.

"This puts everything into perspective," Lockwood said. "You get blown up, and all of a sudden the type of rims you have on your car, that doesn't mean anything. Your family, your friends, that's the stuff that's important. That's what keeps you going."

Perspective can be difficult, on the other hand, when you get news like this:

Marine Corporal David Emery Jr. of the Battalion Landing Team of the 2nd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit was serving in Iraq. David, aka "DJ", graduated high school in 2003. He is married to the beautiful lass in the above photo, Leslie, and she is pregnant. DJ's unit was extended past their rotation date of January 1st and he was hoping to make it home in time for his child's birth.

On February 7th, 2007, DJ was at a checkpoint near a crowded place when a terrorist walked up to the Marines. DJ's Battalion Sergeant Major, Joseph Ellis (a recon Marine of 23 years), suspected that a bomber was approaching and put himself between the bomber and his Marines.

The bomber quickly detonated himself, instantly killing Sergeant Major Ellis. The Sergeant Major's sacrifice absorbed enough of the blast to barely keep DJ from being killed. DJ was hit hard in his abdomen - an artery was cut causing kidney failure - both legs and one arm were shattered, and, in fact, his wounds were so severe that doctors didn't think that he'd make it. They had him on a respirator, fighting infection, fever, kidney failure and other problems for a time before he stabilized enough (just barely) to make the flight to Germany where his parents and wife met him. While still unconscious, his family kept telling him to fight. Then, on the 18th, DJ was strong enough to make the trip from Germany to the US (Bethesda).

DJ had a tough surgery yesterday. His prognosis is hour to hour so prayers at anytime are needed.

As always, the military family is rallying around their own. Matt has more on how you can help Leslie and DJ. MaryAnn has lots more information on DJ and Sgt. Major Ellis, and Fuzzybear Lioness also has a beautiful post on the Sergeant Major:

[He] was always "healthy and alive," a perfectionist in what he did and who made anything seem possible. "I always thought he wouldn't be one of those people who wouldn't come home," Rachael Ellis, 20, said Monday. "In my eyes, he was superman."

...With additional education, Ellis could have moved up even further, Rachael said, but as an officer, he wouldn't have been as hands-on. She said all three of his tours of duty to Iraq weren't mandatory; he volunteered.

"He just wanted to make a difference," she said. "Anytime he was asked to go somewhere, even times when he didn't have to, he would. He wanted to be there for his troops."

DJ's father has the last word:

"I think of him as a hero," David Emery said of Ellis, a 40-year-old Marine from Ashland, Ohio. "He saw [the suicide bomber] pushing his way through the crowd. He moved to get this guy and probably saved my son's life."

As they handed that folded flag to Joe Ellis' wife, I wonder what was going through her mind?

There are so many things we fear, we who remain behind. Mostly, we manage to put those thoughts out of our minds and go on with our daily lives. But they are never far from us.

They hover in the back of our minds, circling slowly like fireflies on a summer evening until, unbidden, one alights every now and then in an unguarded moment in our consciousness. Perhaps when we're driving the car at sunset and our minds wander aimlessly, or when that sappy country song comes on the radio. Why do they continue to fight when so many in this country appear willing to have given up on everything we believe in?

What kind of nation plays foolish games with the lives of its soldiers, calling for war one moment and the next claiming they were deceived? One moment calling for troop withdrawals and the next saying we need to attack?

Where do these men, these Marines, get the strength to continue to defend such a people?

There are so many things I do not understand. But in the end, it does not matter that I understand them. It only matters to me that my husband understands them, and as long as he does that is enough for me. All I know is that, like so many others, hears a distant trumpet calling him to faraway places.

And all I know is what I hear echoing in my ears. I imagine every Marine wife hears something quite similar in the silent hours of the night. I imagine Joe Ellis' wife hears it still, and Leslie Emery.

How can we help but love such men?

I'll be yours until the sun doesn't shine
Till time stands still
Until the winds don't blow
When today is just a memory to me
I know
I'll still be loving
I'll still be loving you

I'll still be loving you...

Posted by Cassandra at March 1, 2007 07:05 AM

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There are some folks who should try a little harder to be worthy of such sacrifices.
I guess it's a good thing that these wonderful men and women don't get to choose who they protect and defend.

Posted by: Carrie at March 1, 2007 08:50 AM

I guess it's a good thing that these wonderful men and women don't get to choose who they protect and defend.


I think that often.

Posted by: Cassandra at March 1, 2007 09:56 AM

I can't get a song from WWII out of my head... "Bless 'em all."

I miss my Marines, because that kind of stupid, insane, utterly selfless sacrifice... you can believe they'd all do it, given a chance.

*looks at the top quote again* Addled? I know a lot of the grunts aren't that bright, but they're not addled-- and the recon guys tended to be pretty good at verbal sparring.

Posted by: Sailorette/Foxfier at March 1, 2007 10:28 AM

I think the reporter may have been referring to the fact that several of the soldiers covered in the story had traumatic brain injuries.

But the tone of the story really annoyed me. There was an implication, for instance, that it was somehow ludicrous to expect soldiers who are still drawing pay to show up for formation. Excuse me. I know it sucks. But self respect is still important. I'm sure they really hate it. But getting up every morning is probably a really big battle for a lot of these guys. Some may be wondering if they still have a purpose and a place. I would think the worst thing in the world would be to say, "Hey - you're no longer a soldier. Take it easy - we'll just pay you."

These people just do not really understand the military. Everybody hates formations. What a concept.

And I hate the implication, which the press are always quick with - that the military recruits idjuts who have no alternative to military service. Military recruits, on average, are smarter and better educated than their counterparts in the general population. But hey - don't let the facts get in the way of perfectly good rantfest.

Posted by: Cassandra at March 1, 2007 10:46 AM

I usually don't respond on these because one, I am not a Marine spouse and two, I bawl my eyes out.

But I think about them all the time; all those who wear the uniform of the United States military.

Somewhere along the line in the transition from recruit to active duty, front line duty, a change happened, for the better.

Even if they are wounded, they are still serving.
Their fight for survival is an example to us all to never give up.

I read these stories and it gives me the strength to go on because sometimes I just want to throw in the towel. I have marvelous support, but even though I was not injured on the field of battle,
I look on them as helping me; if they by hell can heal from crippling injuries facing the tender mercies of the press then so can I, Jane Q. Citizen.

I love them and bless them.

Posted by: Cricket at March 1, 2007 11:01 AM

We do it because that is what we do. Most of us in the Military are proud to put our lives on the line for our country constantly and we make it a career. I say most because there are that very few who don't. We do it because we care about our country and we understand more than most there are people and country's in this world who are evil and there are people and country who can't take care of themselves and need help in doing that. We do it because we believe in what we are doing is the right thing to do. Unfortunately, there are people in this country and the world who think we in the Military haven't a clue. We understand that, take the brunt of what they say and carry on with the mission regardless of what they think.
I grieve for SGTMAJ Ellis's famly's loss and am proud of his service. I wish those young Marines that he protected a speedy recovery.
I would gladly reenlist if the Military would have let.

Posted by: Richard Daugherty at March 1, 2007 03:12 PM

So a guy who is unconscious from the time he gets blown up until he comes around weeks later gets characterized as someone who "can't tell a coherent story"?

That's point one.

Point two, one of the two Marines so described in this story was fully capable of explaining what happened to him while he was still here in Germany.

If the people who write this shit think there are no first-hand witnesses to the actual facts of these stories they are sadly mistaken.

Richard, I admire your ability to carry on regardless of what they think. But then again, I admire an awful lot about you guys.

Posted by: MaryAnn at March 1, 2007 03:41 PM

I guess it's a good thing that these wonderful men and women don't get to choose who they protect and defend.

It's an even better thing that their moms don't get to choose.

Just sayin'.

Posted by: Deb at March 1, 2007 04:07 PM

Great post, Cassandra. So much woven in... both public and personal.

And great comments, too.

Yeah, that opening quote haunts me. Absolutely vile. It's a huge part of what set me off on that rant I wrote about that story (I entitled it "The Wounded are Combat-Addled Druggies. Heh). I think many people were so horrified by the condition described that they missed the tone entirely.

Posted by: FbL at March 1, 2007 09:46 PM

This strikes close to home.

Through an entirely non-military event, I too suffered from a Traumatic Brain Injury. (The event itself was reconstructed for me by others; there is still a vacant space in my memory for the evening of the event and some of the two weeks of hospitalization that followed.)

Yet calling such a person "addled" is...inaccurate. Insensitive. Almost cruel.

The strange thing about TBI's are the selectiveness of the injury. Parts of the mind will be entirely unaltered, while other parts of the mind will require significant rebuilding.

(Think of discovering a software project in which 5% of the source code has been written over by random data. The missing data could be vital; it could be inconsequential; the software could even work 90% of the time...but there are problems that will have to be discovered and solved.)

Recovery support is absolutely vital to a TBI victim. He can get incredibly expensive therapy, but if he has no support team, the therapy will have little effect. The examples given in the quoted section of the second article are good. Fellow therapy sufferers, family, and friends are vital in recovery.

It's also the kind of injury in which recovery is hard to define clearly. If a person shows signs of absent-mindedness, is it a result of the injury? Or is he tired? Is it a combination of both?

In a culture in which many forms of disability (and personal weakness) are glossed over, understood, mitigated, forgiven, and sometimes celebrated, I am surprised to see that soldiers suffering from Traumatic Brain Injuries got that treatment from the WaPo.

This is a scar which can't be pointed to with pride, but will still be carried for a long time. The least that could be done is to not treat the scar-bearers as if they are powerless victims of the evil forces of War.

Posted by: karrde at March 2, 2007 12:33 AM

I was discussing this with my husband when the articles came out. It is a shame, Fbl, because for me, though I was able to recognize that there was a serious point to the article, my irritation at the sensationalistic and over the top presentation of the first one really got in the way. The entire first few pages consisted of a series of essentially trivial and meretricious bitching about things like the fact that a soldier's mom wasn't allowed to occupy a hospital bed. Having spent some time in hospitals over the past two years, I was rolling my eyes at some of the 'litany of horror'.

My sister in law just spent two YEARS sleeping on a fricking folding chair in one of the best hospitals in the country attending her son. When my son was in the hospital I wasn't allowed to sleep with him either. I have never heard of such a thing.

Or... sacre bleu! the hospital doesn't provide free interpreters! Oh, it *does* has a list, but PEOPLE DON'T USE THEM! AND DAMMITALL THEY FAILED TO TELL SOMEONE ABOUT THE FREE SHUTTLE BUS!

What a hell hole.

When I read crap like that it makes me so angry that I'm not terribly receptive to what comes after, sad to say. I'm listening, but not terribly receptive.

And you nailed it, karrde. I was still pretty under the weather yesterday, so I didn't really get the words right. But it's not as though your whole brain is wiped out. And every injury is different too.

Posted by: Cassandra at March 2, 2007 05:31 AM

I had to stay with my son overnight in a base hospital once. The chair unfolded to a bed.
Not a comfortable one, but part of the reason why hospitals don't have a lot of 'extra' bed space is the primary care of the patient and the time it takes to get equipment moved in and out of a room, or the bed itself.

I got me a coupla pillows, a favorite blankie or two and I was fine. I was 'not' the patient. I was the support and for me, creature comforts were not the issue. My whole focus was his well being.

Now Germany...well socialized hospitals have nothing. I spent 18 hours a day for ten days
when my first born was in intensive care
in a German hospital and all I had was a backless chair. I went home for my five hours of sleep a night and was right back at the hospital the next morning, bright and early.

Posted by: Cricket at March 2, 2007 09:59 AM

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