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Wounded soldiers tell wrenching stories from front lines

U.S. troops wounded in the Iraq war are being treated on hospital ships and in makeshift medical units that dot the desert. Their individual stories of the front lines are a grim reminder of the toll that war takes on those who fight.

In these four vignettes, men from Missouri, New York, Pennsylvania and North Carolina tell their stories. Summing up his experience in Iraq, and the experiences of so many others, one wounded Marine said: "I'll never be the same."

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SOUTHERN IRAQ—In this Navy hospital of canvas and boards, a shot-up Marine clutched his morphine drip in an intensive care unit room filled with injured Iraqis.

Outside, Marines stood guard with M-16s, protecting a facility about two miles from a captured Iraqi air base.

It's the first Navy Expeditionary Medical Facility ever put in place in combat, said Navy Chief Al Bloom. On Thursday, the third day of operations, the place had already seen 38 patients.

The tally so far: 34 Iraqis, both soldiers and civilians; three U.S. military personnel with injuries or illness suffered on camp grounds; and one serviceman injured in battle.

The latter, the first U.S. battle casualty for the hospital, is Marine Sgt. Michael A. Simmons, 23, of the 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion.

His arm in a cast and sling, with blood encrusted fingernails, he spoke to a reporter between morphine doses. A bloodied flak jacket lay under his cot.

On Tuesday, Simmons was part of unit moving through the northern side of Hayy. "Our lieutenant had volunteered us for a humanitarian mission," said Simmons, of St. Louis, Mo.

The trip would mark the fourth time his group would prepare to enter a nearby village—this one just west of Hayy—to hand out humanitarian rations. The group traveled in light-armored vehicles, with Simmons' vehicle in the lead. Before each trip, they had received intelligence that there could be an ambush. This time there was.

"We pulled up to the eastern side of a bridge," he said. "We were maybe 400 meters from the small town when we saw a roadblock. I could see no one was on the bridge. Then, three rockets fired at me: two over my head; one to the right, one to the left. One hit the vehicle. I called it in and we pulled back another 300 meters.

"There was more firing. We returned fire and called up the Cobras," he said, referring to attack helicopters. "Then suddenly, a light tank with a cannon was 300 meters to my right. I just saw a muzzle flash. A rocket hit my smoke grenade launchers.

"I felt my hand fly back in the air. I saw blood. I put my hand over it. I got on the radio and said `I've been hit and need a corpsman.' I'm holding my wrist and directing the driver. We drive backwards. Finally we are able to turn around. A small fire was going on in the engine.

"I didn't even feel the pain. It felt like jamming your finger back during basketball. It went numb," he said.

It turns out that a small piece of shrapnel had severed a nerve in his ulna. It wasn't until later that he realized how lucky he really was: His flak jacket, with a ballistic plate, took a bullet that went in just under his belly button. The bullet made it halfway through the plate.

For Simmons, the hardest part before the ambush was his time in Nasiriyah. His unit was just north of the city. He knew the drill, to expect that the enemy might just as easily drive a school bus as an armored tank. This time, his unit saw a convoy of buses pass by.

Inside the vehicles, he said, were about 10 men, wearing green with gray uniforms and firing machine guns out the windows. Inside, he recalled seeing eight or so civilians sitting in the seats.

"We were ordered to shoot the buses," he said. "They really didn't stand a chance."

Simmons said his unit shot up five such buses.

"I saw several dead civilian people in robes," he said. "It pretty much broke me down."

Later, he said he found some comfort in the thought that some of these civilians might have been, in fact, soldiers in disguise.

"Eighty percent of the people, even after we've shot at them, are glad to see us," he said. "The villagers, they give us information: where the armed men are, where the weapons are stashed."

Three Iraqis lay near Simmons in the intensive care ward. While there are some official Arabic translators, staff members carry plastic cards around their necks that contain basic medical Arabic.

One Iraqi was asleep, a thick white bandage wrapped around his head.

"The guy came in yesterday walking and talking," said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Gregory W. Davis, a registered nurse in charge of the intensive care unit. "He had a gunshot wound to the back of his head. (The bullet's impact) fractured his skull."

The injured man's reaction to entering an American hospital for treatment?

The patient kissed the hand of Navy Petty Officer Second Class Austin Ernst, a hospital corpsman.

Ernst, 26, said the kiss left him with mixed emotions.

"It felt weird," he said. "I was glad but ...." He paused.

"I try and distance myself from it."

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ABOARD USNS COMFORT IN THE PERSIAN GULF—They were together that day on the road to Nasiriyah, caught in Iraqi crossfire, when Iraqis captured a group of their comrades and left some of them in shallow graves.

It was the day Pvt. Jason Keough nearly lost his foot and Sgt. Jose Torres was shot twice by Americans. The day they shot at anything that moved. The day they saw others die. The day they thought they might die, too.

They are together this day, as well—the 26-year-old Torres' first day out of bed, maneuvering his wheelchair in a small circle around the ward. It is the day another Marine with them in Nasiriyah, Cpl. Michael Mead, 20, of Newberry, Mich., left the ward, still healing, but well enough to make the trip to the United States.

"I thought for sure he was gonna die," said Keough, 26, looking at Torres from his bed.

"He was bleeding real bad."

Each day has gotten better since they arrived here in late March.

But the day that brought them is never far away. They relive it with every surgery and every time they try to chew, stand, remember or forget.

There are roughly 50 coalition wounded being cared for aboard the 900-bed floating hospital, along with 50 Iraqi prisoners of war, detainees and civilian women and children.

Some among the U.S wounded, including Keough, were hit by Iraqi fire. Others, such as Torres, were injured by friendly fire.

Eight aboard received Purple Hearts, including Keough, Torres and Mead.

Many have had multiple surgeries and face dozens more. Torres, of Cleveland, has had eight so far. Some will always have disabilities, doctors said.

The war still wages without them and they would gladly shed hospital gowns for their desert camouflage and return to their units.

Strong bonds are built in the military, especially during times of war.

"You sleep with them. Eat with them. Brush your teeth with them," said Keough, 26, a Marine from Buffalo, N.Y. "Those are guys that just risked their life to get you out of there."

On a sunny day from the deck of the Comfort, Keough's story pours out in a rush, woven with expletives and military lingo. His group had expected fire on March 23.

But radio transmissions reported that the Iraqi soldiers were surrendering. So the troops didn't fire. But the Iraqis did.

The vehicle with 15 Marines, including Keough, Torres and Mead, was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, setting off the munitions inside. Keough's foot was nearly severed. But he could not tell he was hurt, in the jumble of people.

There was a foot in his lap, but it belonged to another Marine.

"I just kind of handed it back to him," said Keough.

"He just kinda took it."

Still taking fire, the vehicle tried to back out of the city. It stalled and Keough and Torres ran to one medical vehicle; Mead ran to another one.

Keough's vehicle headed back into the city, where it was hit.

Keough and Torres ran to a third vehicle, which headed back into the city. When it could go no farther, they ran off the road, hunkered down and began shooting.

"We basically got in a 360-degree defensive circle and shot anybody," said Keough.

It would be six hours before the tanks could get through.

"I know two died," said Keough. "I seen them die."

He takes a drag from his cigarette, holding it in his left hand, where an IV drips. In his right hand is a Low Rider magazine, filled with cars and girls in bikinis.

His hearing is damaged in his left ear, but improving in his right.

And he has dreams often that he cannot understand.

"I just know that I wake up scared," Keough said.

"I have my foot. I'm alive. I'll never be the same."

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ABOARD USNS COMFORT IN THE PERSIAN GULF—Through a jaw wired shut, Capt. Harry Porter tells of the Humvee that could not see him in the dark of night and ran him over, shattering his jaw in 10 places.

But he also talks about Staff Sgt. James Cawley, of Layton, Utah, who died that night in the desert.

Porter, Cawley and the rest of the group were setting up a blocking position near Nasiriyah. They were standing knee deep in a trench facing west and other units were coming in their direction.

Porter, 32, told the sergeant to alert everyone down the line that "friendlies" were coming.

"The next thing I remember I'm waking up," said Porter.

This is his second tour in the Marines.

He joined first in 1994, served five years and got out.

But he re-enlisted after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist strikes.

"The radio operator is holding my head, crying, saying, `Don't move, sir. Don't move,'" he said.

Porter did not know initially that Cawley had died. "I asked as I lay there shaking and bleeding.

No one would answer me," he said.

Porter is sitting up in his bed, his back against a pillow, his jaw swollen from surgery.

A plate holds his chin together, but there's not enough bone left in his jaw for a plate, so wires hold it in place.

"Some pieces are so small, you can't plate them together," he said.

Before re-enlisting, the West Chester, Pa. resident was a sales representative for a company that sold facial plates and screws.

Porter will live with the wires for another six weeks.

"I hope and pray they're safe out there," Porter said of his comrades. "I'd love to be back with my unit. But I hope it's all over by then. For everybody's sake."

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ABOARD USNS COMFORT IN THE PERSIAN GULF—Lt. Andrew Turner had a phone call. He wheeled himself over to the desk. It was a brief conversation. Afterward, he wept.

Turner woke up in a hospital not knowing his helicopter had crashed, not knowing that he was the only survivor or that he'd tried to go back in and save his three crewmates.

But the call from the commanding officer made all that clear.

"I had accepted the fact that they were gone," said Turner, 26, a pilot.

"I didn't know the situation."

After a pause, he added, "I'll leave it at that."

They'd been transporting Marines from site to site on March 30. Their day done, they'd stopped to refuel. It was dark as they prepared to take off.

"Hour, hour and a half later, we would have been home," said Turner.

The Huey helicopter crashed and two crew chiefs and the captain died. Turner was thrown from the aircraft. He broke his ankle, which now has screws and a plate.

He woke aboard the Comfort with two thoughts. One was: Where was his crew? The other:

"OK, what's my family thinking?'"

His parents had seen the crash on television, but a Marine chaplain showed up at the door to say that Turner was alive. And now the trees in his Winston-Salem, N.C. neighborhood are draped in yellow ribbons.

But still, there are questions. Turner doesn't know what caused the crash.

A Marine official has said the crash could have been caused by a mechanical failure.

"I may never know," said Turner. (But) I have no regrets. If you can fix me up now, I'd go back."

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(Olkon, who reports for The Miami Herald, reported from southern Iraq; Bailey, who reports for the Detroit Free Press, reported from the USNS Comfort.)

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

Iraq

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