BAGHDAD — Staff Sgt. Luis Falcon, 38, was patrolling the streets of Baqouba, north of Baghdad, when he saw Shahad Abbas. The 11-year-old girl was in a large decrepit wheelchair, and the stumps of her legs where her calves should have been were crusted with dried blood.
Falcon couldn't just walk on, so he stopped to talk. He came back the next day and the day after that, then every day for six months, bringing her toys, gauze for her legs, a new wheelchair. Anything she asked for he would bring.
In a war that Falcon no longer really understood, Shahad became his mission. So when she asked for legs, that became his mission, too.
On Friday his dream and hers came true, just three weeks before he's scheduled to leave Iraq. Shahad was fitted with prosthetic limbs in a U.S. military-funded clinic in Baghdad that normally provides artificial limbs for wounded members of the Iraqi security forces.
"We created a bond, and I didn't need a translator to interpret the bond we had," Falcon said.
With no little girls of his own, he thought of Shahad as his daughter and carried a picture of her smiling in the shoulder pocket of his uniform.
Iraq has one of the largest populations of amputees in the world, though a precise count isn't available. There are the tens of thousands of people who lost their limbs in the 1980s, during the eight-year war with Iran. Thousands more were injured in the first Gulf War. And then there's the current conflict, which has cost many people their legs and arms in bomb blasts.
Shahad lost her legs as she was walking to school when a roadside bomb exploded nearby. Two pieces of shrapnel are still lodged in her back to remind her of that day. Her little brother, Ali, was killed.
One day, Falcon, a New Yorker from 1st battalion, 38th Infantry Regiment, 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, asked her what she wanted. He expected her to ask for a toy. "I'll get you anything you want," he recalled saying.
"I want legs so I can walk to school," she told him. One day she planned to be a doctor. School was important to her.
It was a daunting request. The family was too poor to pay for expensive prostheses. The travel alone to an equipped clinic would be too expensive. Her father is unemployed and ill.
So Falcon, who admits he wasn't sure about the Iraq war, wasn't sure he was making a difference, decided he'd get Shahad her legs.
He went to his commander, to his chaplain, to anyone who would listen. The quest was frustrating and took months of pleas. He threatened to walk away from the Army if he couldn't give Shahad legs.
"Sometimes I couldn't figure out what made sense about being here. ... Are we making a difference are we not?" he said. "But I looked at her, right there, and it all made sense."
In one plea for Shahad's legs, he wrote: "Since I have been in Iraq, seeing her has given me every reason I need to justify our presence here. If nothing made sense, Shahad did."
Jeffrey Gardner, the public health officer in the American Provincial Reconstruction Team in Diyala, the province where Baqouba is the capital, saw the plea and knew he could help. He made calls to the Iraqi army's surgeon general, Army Brig. Gen. Samir Abdullah Hassan.
Eventually, he was able to win permission for Shahad to be treated at the clinic, which was founded in 2005 by Chris Cummings, a prosthetist from Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Cummings said the clinic has fitted 500 people with artificial limbs since its founding.
Some, he said, were civilians, like Shahad. He recalled a pair of sisters in their 20s who worried that without limbs they'd never marry.
On Friday, Shahad arrived at the clinic to get her legs. She wore a pretty blue denim dress and dangling earrings, and her mother and uncle wheeled her into the clinic.
Iraqi technicians used a special machine to create a 3-D image of the top half of her leg. They measured where the calf and foot would have been had they not been blown off. Falcon mussed her hair, and her mother, Wahida Jabbar Mohammed, stood nearby.
"Don't be scared," her mother said.
"I'm not scared," Shahad answered. "I want to walk."
By Friday afternoon she was taking her first steps. At first she was tentative and a little scared.
Falcon called out, "Sasha, come give me a hug." With a sloppy grin on her face, she took several shaky steps into his arms.
"She was looking at my legs, and I was looking at her legs," he said. "Thank God."
Falcon doesn't see his mission as completed. He pulled the picture of him and Shahad from his pocket and looked at it with concern. In three weeks, he'll be gone. Who will check on her? Who will bring her medical supplies and call in favors to help her?
"I don't care how long it takes," he said. "I'll come back and find her."