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No longer a girlie girl, not yet a crass old veteran

NAME: Pfc. Sarah Weddle

AGE: 19

BRANCH: Army

HOMETOWN: Independence, Missouri

ROLE: Combat medic

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EAST OF NASIRIYAH, Iraq—Pfc. Sarah Weddle sits in the sunshine with tired eyes.

"It hurts me when I see people hurting," she says, clasping her hands tightly.

At night, when she tries to sleep on a green cot under a scratchy green blanket, not far from the tent where she works as a medic, she remembers their faces.

There was the adorable little girl whose mother died in a gunfight. "We think the mother pushed the girl under the dash in her car," Weddle says. "She was fine. She was so cute, but it was so sad."

There was the man whose arms were peppered with gunshot wounds. He was holding two children in his lap, trying to cradle and comfort them, when they were struck by bullets.

And there was the man who didn't look like a man; his entire body was covered with burns. His kidneys shut down, and his organs failed, and he slipped away on her watch. Died right there in front of her.

"It was so scary," says Weddle, 19. "He looked so bad. I mean he had no skin left. I've never even seen a dead person before. I've never seen anything like that. I've just got out of high school."

She tries to sleep, but she sees their faces and remembers their stories and hears their voices, even the voices of Iraqis—the enemy prisoners of war she can't understand—and she wishes she were home in Independence, Mo., back where it's safe and warm, with her family. She never thought she'd miss her family, but she does.

She wishes she were back in her bedroom with a closet filled with clothes, mostly pink and baby blue. "I love clothes, colorful clothes, but now I only wear beige," she says. She wants to feel normal and go back to being the girl with the long blond hair who shocked them all when she joined the Army.

But she's not that person anymore.

No longer a child. Not yet a crass old veteran.

She's somewhere in between.

And she begins to cry, lying in her cot, unable to sleep.

"I've been crying a lot lately," she says. "It's so hard. I think, why do I have to be doing this? I think, why am I out here? I don't understand it sometime."

And then, she thinks of her patients.

She tries to comfort them. The Americans and the Iraqis. She treats the injuries, not the uniform. She tries to be cheerful and upbeat, but it's all an act.

And it's getting harder every day.

The veteran medics joke about death. But she can't joke. She's too young.

She's been out of high school less than a year. She just got out of boot camp. And now she's in the middle of a war?

"I had a scholarship to a community college, and I didn't really want to do that," she says. "Everybody was shocked when I joined. I wanted to do something different with my life. I didn't think I was ready to go to college yet. To me, that seems too easy. Everybody goes to college after high school. I wanted to do something different; I wanted to see some things. I was afraid if I didn't do it now, I would never do it."

But now?

Now, she questions the decision every day. "I think, why did I do this?" she says.

"My parents write me and say, `If I would have known you were going to be there right now, I wouldn't have let you join.' That's what my mom keeps saying. She keeps writing me saying that."

Weddle works for an Area Support Medical Company, which has moved six or seven times since the start of the war.

Her unit was supposed to move farther north, but a convoy was ambushed along the same route they were going to take, and the plans were scuttled.

"They told us we wouldn't be pushing forward," she says. "We will be staying here, and I was so grateful because I was so scared. I want to wait for things to settle down; I don't want to go forward at all. There are a lot of people who say, `I want to go forward,' but I'm sorry, I'm so new at everything. It scares me. I'm not going to lie."

She called home a few days ago, and that helped a little.

Her squad leader told her to take some time off, to go watch a few movies, and that helped, too. She watched "Minority Report," and she felt normal again.

"Anything that reminds me of home is wonderful," she says. "The last couple of days have been really hard. It's very stressful. I don't get a lot of rest, so it's real hard. But I read my Bible a lot."

And she decided to paint her nails.

Bright pink.

"I know we aren't supposed to paint our nails, but I did anyway," she says. "I have a habit of biting my nails if they aren't painted. I said, `OK, we are at war, I'm painting my nails.' I don't care. It's the only girlie girl thing I have, the only thing I can do."

No longer a child. Not yet a crass old veteran.

She doesn't jump anymore when she hears an explosion, and isn't that strange, how she doesn't even flinch? It doesn't bother her anymore to go a couple days without a shower, or to push medicine through an intravenous line.

"I'm thinking about re-upping," she says. "I'm thinking of doing 20 years and then retiring."

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(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ILLUSTRATION (from KRT Illustration Bank, 202-383-6064): IRAQFACES+WEDDLE

Iraq

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