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U.S. soldiers wounded in Iraq grow in number day after day

LANDSTUHL, Germany—Army Spc. Jason Gunn doesn't recall hearing the explosion.

"I felt all this tremendous pressure coming down on top of me," Gunn, 24, recalled from his hospital bed in Germany last week, after being evacuated from Baghdad and joining the growing list of wounded-in-action from Iraq.

There are thousands of them, and a new generation of disabled veterans promises to be among the painful, expensive legacies of the Iraq war, one that hasn't received much attention yet.

"Everything was just, like, real quiet. Everything got real dark and glazy, and then I just felt all this pain. And the next thing I knew, I could feel the Humvee just whipping around, and we hit the guardrail and we finally stopped, and that's when I opened my eyes."

Nov. 15 had been just another Saturday for Gunn, of Philadelphia, who drove an Abrams tank into postwar Baghdad with the 1st Armored Division. He had been shot at and mortared before, and sometimes he wondered what U.S. troops were doing there. But he took solace in the laughter of Iraqi children and the visible improvement in his battalion's northern Baghdad sector.

At the wheel of a Humvee that day, Gunn drove down the middle of the street in a failed effort to evade the sort of roadside bomb that had killed so many other soldiers.

"Everything was just smoky. I looked at myself—I was still smoking. There was blood all over the place, and I just thought, you know, just, I thought I was going to die."

One friend in the Humvee was already dead from the blast of the jerry-built 90 mm mortar round, and one would die later. Those two joined the ranks of the 421 U.S. soldiers who've been killed in action since the Iraq war started.

Gunn, who was treated at the scene and flown out by helicopter, became part of a much larger, less scrutinized group: the wounded in action.

According to the Pentagon, 2,076 American soldiers had been wounded by hostile acts in Iraq as of Monday, including more than 1,200 who were hurt after major combat operations were declared over May 1.

Although that number is small compared, say, with Vietnam, it's growing at roughly 10 a day, meaning thousands more could be injured before the U.S. occupation of Iraq ends. While the Pentagon regularly announces soldiers' deaths, it rarely identifies the injured, who often arrive in the United States at night and deplane out of sight of news cameras.

The attack on Gunn merited a four-sentence Army news release that didn't mention his name.

He was lucky. His arms and legs were torn by bits of jagged metal, and at the moment he can barely walk. But he still has all his limbs, and he's expected to recover fully.

The same can't be said for hundreds of others who've come through the Landstuhl Army Medical Center. Soldiers injured in Iraq and Afghanistan come here if they require treatment that's unavailable in the theater.

Aided by bullet- and shrapnel-stopping body armor and advanced battlefield medical care, soldiers are surviving attacks in Iraq that would have killed them in previous wars. Many of them, however, are left with disabling and sometimes disfiguring injuries in places body armor doesn't cover: the arms, legs, face, groin.

"Body armor and Kevlar helmets have dramatically increased the survivability from torso hits and head hits," said Maj. Brent A. Johnson of DeWitt, Iowa, the medical director of what Landstuhl calls the Deployed Warrior Medical Management Center. "The result of that is we get a higher percentage of extremity wounds."

Landstuhl is a high-tech way station, a place soldiers go for a few weeks of intensive treatment before they're transferred somewhere closer to home, such as the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. Landstuhl's permanent staff of 120 Army and Air Force doctors, plus reservists brought in for the Iraq war, see a daily parade of young service members with missing limbs, severe shrapnel wounds and horrible burns.

Landstuhl also treats deployed soldiers who've been hurt in accidents or are sick, with illnesses from kidney stones to pneumonia. As of Nov. 20, 8,093 military personnel had been flown from Iraq to Landstuhl for treatment, said Marie Shaw-Fievez, the hospital's Belgian-born chief spokeswoman.

It takes a toll.

"Very few of the people that I see will actually be back to what they used to be," said Capt. Justin Barratt, a native of Phoenix who got his medical degree at Temple University in 2000.

"Imagine a kid who has lost both arms, asking how he is going to provide for his family," Shaw-Fievez said. "It's gut-wrenching."

Yet staff members say they're continually impressed by patients' fortitude.

"I'm always amazed at how up they really are, and how positive they are," said Col. Ben Todd, a chaplain. "I don't know that I would be, but they are."

You won't find much self-pity at Landstuhl. You certainly won't find it talking with Spc. Matthew Van Buren, 21, of Kansas City, Kan., who's in a wheelchair and awaiting surgery to close a huge cavity in his leg caused by a chunk from a roadside bomb. Clutching a fatigues-clad stuffed turtle that his brother gave him when he completed basic training, Van Buren chuckled as he explained how pieces of shrapnel are working their way out of his body, sometimes popping out as he sleeps.

Van Buren, also of the 1st Armored Division, was hit Nov. 8 in an attack that killed another soldier. "It just riddled my truck with shrapnel," he said.

Like Gunn, Van Buren said he believed in U.S. troops' mission in Iraq and was glad to have been a part of it.

"There's a group of real good people over there, and they want just what Americans want: a job, security for their family, a nice life," he said. "The Army is trying to help them get that."

Neither Van Buren nor Gunn will be going back to Iraq, but both said they'd remain in the military. Gunn's next stop probably will be a rehab facility in Germany, where his unit is based and he has a steady girlfriend.

"I'm glad I don't have to go back, but in a way I'm kind of disappointed, because I won't know what's going on with the rest of the guys I was over there with," said Gunn, who enlisted in 1997.

As for the Purple Heart that comes with being wounded in combat, he said, "It's the one medal I wasn't looking forward to getting but I'm glad I'm getting it. I feel lucky."


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

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): usiraq+wounded