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Foxhole injury to hand no laughing matter for cartoonist hopeful

NAME: Lance Cpl. Joey Coleman

AGE: 20

HOMETOWN: Panama City, Fla.

BRANCH: Marines

JOB: Heavy equipment operator


CAMP CHESTY, central Iraq—Lance Cpl. Joey Coleman waits outside a Navy surgical hospital. His right hand hangs limp, swollen to twice its normal size.

"My right hand is my life," says Coleman, who is right handed. "It's my biggest fear, if anything happens to my right hand. I just don't want any scar tissue."

Coleman, 20, a Marine reserve, is studying to become a cartoonist. He smashed his hand into a rock six days earlier when he jumped into a hole after a mortar shell landed about 10 meters from him.

"I'm starting to get some numbness in my fingers, but that's about it," Coleman says. "They don't know what's wrong with it. Now, they think it's more of an infection."

Coleman, of Panama City, Fla., was guarding a Cobra helicopter at a base near Baghdad when the mortar round landed.

"As soon as it hit, it was a reaction," he says. "I just dived into my hole. I think God saved my life. I had my sergeant check the back of my flak jacket to make sure I didn't have any shrapnel in there."

After the explosion, he had to stay in the hole to make sure nobody was approaching his line.

"It's war," he says. "You can't let things like that bother you. I just went right back to what I was doing. You can't stop what you are doing. You gotta keep moving."

Coleman is a heavy equipment operator, but he's been used mainly for security. "Now, when I hear explosions or mortar rounds going off, I get weary about things," he says. "You start hearing noises, and you wonder if it's mortar or not."

He hasn't fired his weapon, but he's faced fire from civilians.

"With a lot of the pot shots we are taking, there are too many civilians around," he says. "They take a couple of pot shots, and they are gone. A lot of times you can't fire. They don't want you firing into a crowd because you want to keep peace with the civilians."

Coleman is a student at the International Academy of Design and Technology in Tampa, Fla.

"People say my stuff is like Garfield," he says. "It's definitely funny stuff. I'm not into the Japanese animation stuff."

He wants to work for Nickelodeon and eventually become self-employed with his own cartoon.

Coleman joined the Marine Corps when he was 19, following in the footsteps of his stepfather, Patrick McKenna.

"To me, it's the best," Coleman says. "The fewer the people, the harder it is. I just figured I'd go Marine Corps."

Coleman has been in Iraq for about three weeks. He's been in the Middle East for two months.

"It's been a good experience for me because you'll appreciate America a lot more," he says. "It's an experience nobody should have to live through. It's never pretty, never a nice thing. But it's something we have to do. I think it's a good thing that all these locals are so happy. It makes me happy about what we are doing."


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

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