WASHINGTON—Cpl. Patrick Tiderman, a Marine Corps sniper from Chicago, was staked out on a warehouse roof in Iraq on April 8 when a fiberglass panel gave way and sent him falling 50 feet onto a concrete floor.
As he fell, his head struck an air-conditioning unit that split his Kevlar combat helmet in two.
"I broke both my arms and a leg. I have a compound fracture of my femur (thigh bone). I broke my knee bone. Broke all the bones in my wrists. I have a compound fracture in my humerus (upper arm). I broke several bones in both elbows, and I've got a hairline fracture above my left eye," Tiderman, 21, said at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., where he's recuperating.
Doctors expect him to make a full recovery.
"By all rights, I should be dead," Tiderman said. "From what I understand, if I fell a few feet off to the side, I would have been impaled by something. So I'm very lucky. And I thank God that I will recover."
So does Tiderman's stepfather, John Stephens, who was visiting him on a recent day from Chicago.
"My main fear was that he would be mortally wounded, or wouldn't be the same, brain damage, paralysis or something," Stephens said. "He's pretty banged up, but you have to put it in perspective and think of the parents whose sons or daughters didn't make it back."
That relief tempered by empathy for fallen comrades is widely shared by military patients and their families at the Naval Medical Center and nearby Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.
The two hospitals have treated more than 300 injured and wounded service members from the war in Iraq. President Bush and stars Jennifer Love Hewitt, Sheryl Crow, Kelsey Grammer, Michael Jordan, Bo Derek and others have come to visit.
The military hospitals also are the places where many of the patients returning form the war first see their families. For some, the reunions aren't the rowdy, gleeful celebrations that many other returning service members have experienced. Families and patients in many cases must learn to live with the physical and emotional scars of war.
To date, 138 U.S. service members have been killed in the war in Iraq, and 495 have been wounded in action.
About 80 percent of war injuries are to limbs and about 20 percent of those require amputations, said Dr. David Polly, an Army colonel and chief of the Department of Orthopedic Rehabilitation at Walter Reed. He wouldn't give exact numbers, but said Walter Reed surgeons had performed "more than 10, but under 50" amputations since the Iraqi invasion began.
The bulk of injuries have been far less severe, but many will require months of tough physical therapy and emotional counseling.
"These men and women coming back with injuries have incredible spirit and drive," Polly said. "These are people who were essentially professional athletes prior to their injuries. And that's the level of function we're shooting to get them back to."
The process begins with an evaluation of their physical and emotional status. Many returning vets feel guilty for having survived after seeing comrades die. Some suffer from nightmares of combat. Some need counseling about adjusting to civilian life, including family life.
A big advantage for service members is that they tend to be independent and inclined to work hard when faced with a challenge such as recuperation, Polly said.
Doctors at the Naval Medical Center expect 22-year-old Marine Corps Cpl. Chad Taylor of Kalispell, Mont., to recover from his leg injuries in about a year. Taylor will undergo six operations, several skin grafts and months of rehabilitation to close two tennis ball-sized holes in his left thigh and replace skin ripped from his left calf by grenade blasts.
While traveling to Tikrit for a raid the morning of April 12, Taylor's amphibious assault vehicle was hit with three rocket-propelled grenades. "I looked in front of me and I saw my legs were bleeding and my pants were all ripped up," he said.
As Taylor tried to escape from the vehicle, another grenade hit, thrusting him into a wall. Unable to find a first aid kit, Taylor fashioned makeshift tourniquets from cargo straps, wrapped them around both thighs and ran into a nearby building. There, a medic treated his wounds and Taylor was quickly taken by helicopter to a nearby hospital under heavy enemy fire.
"I knew if I was gonna die, they wouldn't have wasted so much time on me," he said. "They wouldn't have let me suffer, but they wouldn't have wasted all their supplies trying to keep me from bleeding."
Taylor had just arrived at the Naval Medical Center and reunited with his mother, Rhonda Taylor. As he sat in a wheelchair and talked, she held his hand tightly with eyes closed, head bowed and tears streaming down her face.
"If that grenade had hit elsewhere, it would've split him in half," she said. "So you gotta do the `what ifs.' "
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-HEALING