WASHINGTON—Gunfire in Iraq shattered Army Spc. Chris Carlson's leg and left him with a limp and some shrapnel, but no Purple Heart.
The Army rebuilt Carlson's leg with titanium, but nearly four months after he was shot while guarding a convoy north of Baghdad, it still hasn't awarded the 25-year-old Modesto, Calif., resident the medal that's given to soldiers who are wounded in combat.
"I thought, `That freakin' sucks,'" Carlson said in a telephone interview. "I was shot in Iraq, and it was definitely not training."
As of July 31, the Army had awarded 13,944 Purple Hearts to soldiers wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan. Carlson, however, was hit by friendly fire, and whether that renders him eligible for the Purple Heart can be a tricky question, a judgment call.
The rules require Purple Heart recipients to be wounded in combat or the equivalent. Noncombat injuries don't count. Since 1993, victims of friendly fire have been eligible if they were wounded "while directly engaged in armed conflict."
Shooting a toe while cleaning a gun won't suffice; neither will breaking a leg while rolling a Humvee.
Carlson's left kneecap was turned to powder by a .50-caliber machine gun fired by an alarmed young paratrooper sometime around midnight on Sept. 7. Now recuperating at a Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Georgia, Carlson thinks he deserves the Purple Heart. So does his father-in-law, who's been hip-deep in the controversy ever since he heard about what happened.
"I was outraged," said Will Gault, a business consultant in Modesto. "The individual who did the shooting thought that he was shooting at the enemy."
Gault has taken his son-in-law's case to Rep. George Radanovich, R-Calif., who he hopes can lean on the Pentagon. Carlson, whose sense of humor remains intact, might not have taken it that far. He does, however, feel his own outrage, starting with the guy who shot him, a private first class from the 82nd Airborne Division.
"The only punishment he got was retraining," Carlson said. "I think he should go to freakin' jail."
Carlson's superiors couldn't be reached for comment, and he hasn't been told that he won't get a Purple Heart.
Carlson's Army buddies fear that he'll be shut out because it's already been several months since he was shot, but the Purple Heart is exempt from the Army regulation requiring that medals be awarded within three years of an incident, and getting it can take time. Two Nevada National Guard military policemen who were wounded in June 2003 didn't receive their Purple Hearts until March 2005.
Some 1.7 million Purple Hearts have been awarded since 1932. Eligibility has been expanded periodically, though Pentagon officials and wounded veterans insist on strict criteria.
"We want to maintain the integrity of the medal," said Ray Funderburk, a spokesman for the Military Order of the Purple Heart, a charitable organization. "We won't want to do anything to weaken it."
Funderburk said that myriad wounds and injuries for which medals became problematic occurred in every war. In Iraq, for instance, five Mississippi National Guard troops were denied Purple Hearts in late 2003 after their injuries from a roadside bomb were classified as noncombat. A congressman complained, and the medals were awarded.
Carlson's path to war started in the peacetime Army after high school.
Honorably discharged in 2003 after three years, he went to Modesto with his wife, Stacy. He began working for Costco, then was recalled to active duty.
Last March, attached to the 117th Cavalry Regiment of the New Jersey National Guard, Carlson shipped out for Iraq. He reached Camp Anaconda, about two and a half hours from Baghdad. He guarded the gates there before he was dispatched on the Sept. 7 convoy duty.
Carlson was the lead vehicle gunner. It was pitch black when he first saw green laser lights. His truck slowed. The laser reappeared. Then the machine gun opened up from about 200 yards away, stitching Carlson's truck with steel.
"I was standing," Carlson said, "and then, boom, I couldn't stand anymore."
He was lucky, after a fashion. If one of the 5-and-a-half-inch-long bullets had hit him directly, his leg might simply have vanished. Instead, the bullet banged shrapnel into him. If the shrapnel hadn't knocked him down, he might have started firing back. Then, outgunned, he would have died for sure.
As his medal quest unfolds, he can count the plates and screws that hold his leg together. It's still swollen, though it's getting better.
"It's important," Gault said of the Purple Heart, "because it speaks to what his ordeal is."
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.