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Head wound in Iraq ends Army career, leaves soldier lost, disabled

PAINTSVILLE, Ky.—Kevin Hannah doesn't sleep much these days. Two or three hours are about as much as he gets. When he does sleep, he suffers frequent nightmares.

When he's awake, he alternates between restlessness, depression and anxiety. His future, once bright, now seems a blank. He doesn't know what to do with his life anymore.

"It's kind of a day-to-day thing," says the 23-year-old former Army sergeant, who was wounded in Iraq last year. "Some days are better than others."

A year ago, Hannah was nearly one-third of the way through a promising Army career. But a gunman at a traffic checkpoint in Baghdad last May robbed him of that, firing a pistol point-blank into the back of the young soldier's head, nearly killing him.

Hannah spent two months at Army hospitals in Kuwait, Germany and the United States. A stroke he suffered at Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington left him temporarily paralyzed on his left side. He recovered enough to go home in July and is now on the slow road to recovery.

"It's a long process," he says. "They said at Walter Reed that I should have a full recovery. But I don't see a full recovery. There's just too much happening (to me)."

Kevin Hannah is one of nearly 3,200 American soldiers who've been wounded in Iraq since the war began last March. Thanks to better field hospitals and better body armor, more American soldiers than ever are surviving battlefield wounds, according to military officials. But even as the physical wounds heal, the inner ones remain.

Hannah will have a bullet lodged in his neck, a quarter-inch from his spinal cord, for the rest of his life. Doctors have told him they can't remove the bullet. Doing so would either paralyze him or kill him.

"He's had a rough time of it," says his mother, Sina, 46. "The doctors said it would be a year before he'll be well enough to do some things. But there are some things that he just won't be able to do anymore."

Paintsville lies in the mountainous coal country of eastern Kentucky, within spitting distance of the West Virginia state line. It's a small town of about 5,300 people, where $6 an hour at the local Wal-Mart or Lowes is a good-paying job. It's a place where a lot of people marry their high school sweethearts and settle down to raise families.

But in September 1998, Paintsville didn't offer much for an 18-year-old kid straight out of high school, on the mend from a busted relationship and with few prospects. So, Hannah joined the Army. His parents weren't happy.

"I cried like a baby," says his mother.

"She didn't talk to me for two weeks when I first signed," Hannah said.

But Hannah took to Army life. As he told his parents, "Where else am I going to make this kind of money every two weeks?"

His first assignment took him to Fort Carson, Colo., where he spent three years. A second enlistment took him to South Korea for another year. He'd just re-enlisted for another three years, requesting an assignment at Fort Benning, Ga., because he had a buddy stationed there. But as soon as he heard he'd been assigned to the 3rd Infantry Division, he knew he was on his way to Kuwait and most likely Iraq.

He joined Apache Company, 1-30th Infantry, during a sandstorm on the demilitarized zone between Kuwait and Iraq, two days before the war began. Because he was a corporal, he was made a fire-team leader, in charge of three other soldiers. He was an experienced soldier, with nearly five years of service under his belt, but still he was nervous.

"I was scared of the young guys around me because a lot of them were fresh out of basic and AIT (Advanced Individual Training) and didn't have a lot of experience."

The invasion went relatively easy for Apache Company. They were in a few scrapes, but they were lucky, with none killed and only three men slightly wounded.

Then, on May 4, three days after President Bush declared from the deck of an aircraft carrier that the war in Iraq was over, Hannah was manning a traffic checkpoint near a bridge in southern Baghdad when a gunman shot him in the back of the head.

"I remember hearing a loud bang," he said. "My lights went out for just a minute, and when I came to, I was lying on the ground. I thought I'd been hit by a car."

A nearby soldier ran to get a medic. A group of Marines, passing by in a truck, stopped to render aid. They fired warning shots to disperse the crowd.

"I was conscious the whole time. I wasn't really afraid. You'd think I would be afraid, but I wasn't."

The gunman was never caught.

Hannah was evacuated for initial treatment to a combat field hospital. Once he was stabilized, he was flown to Kuwait for surgery, where doctors repaired damaged tissue and blood vessels. The bullet had entered just behind his left ear, ricocheted off the back of his skull and lodged in his neck. It was a one in a million wound, just missing his spinal cord and a major blood vessel.

Sina Hannah was at home that Sunday, watching CNN, when an Army officer from Fort Benning called.

"I knowed what had happened before they told me," she says. "Mothers have premonitions. And I was sitting here one day, and I saw this white light. It was two weeks to the day before they called me."

Finally, the next day, Hannah's parents were able to get through to a military hospital in Kuwait and spoke to their son. He was very weak.

As soon as he'd regained some strength, Hannah was transferred to a hospital in Germany and then to Walter Reed, where he saw his parents for the first time in months.

While undergoing an angiogram at Walter Reed, a blood clot caused by the wound loosened in his brain, causing a blood vessel to rupture and resulting in a stroke that left his left side paralyzed. Doctors told his parents it was unclear if he'd ever recover.

But a few weeks later, the middle finger on his left hand twitched. With the aid of physical therapy, he slowly began to regain control of his limbs and the rest of his damaged body.

By July 4 he had recovered enough to go home. Two state troopers waited at the Kentucky border to escort him home. When they reached Johnson County, sheriff's deputies joined them. A group of veterans in one town stood at attention and saluted him as he passed. When he reached Paintsville, he clambered aboard a fire truck for the last few miles home. Hundreds of people lined the roads.

But these days, Kevin Hannah feels like anything but a hero.

He's still waiting for his discharge from the Army and disability rating. The experience has left him feeling frustrated and in limbo.

He's still recovering from the stroke. Though the slurred speech is gone, he hasn't regained all his strength. The shooting left him deaf in his left ear, and he can't drive because of frequent blurred vision. He suffers from frequent headaches and a frequent burning sensation in the back of his head—"worse than any migraine you've ever had."

Doctors have forbidden him from doing any heavy lifting or strenuous activity. For someone who used to enjoy playing basketball, baseball and football, those are hard orders to live by.

"That's the most depressing part about it," he says.

Then there's the sleeplessness, the nightmares of what happened to him in Iraq, the anxiety, the memory lapses and the inability to concentrate.

Before he was shot, Hannah says he "wasn't prejudiced." But now he admits to feeling antipathy toward Iraqis. "I guess you could say I'm angry."

Right after he came home, Hannah went through a period "where he was drinking some," according to his father. But that stopped after it began to interfere with his medication and landed him back in the hospital for a month. Then he bought a couple of dogs, but soon lost interest in them. He began trading guns and knives, but his interest in that soon passed as well. His biggest habit now is playing poker on the weekends.

For someone who spends most of his days at home, watching television, Hannah sees his gambling as an inconsequential vice.

When asked what he wants to do with the rest of his life, Kevin Hannah pauses for a moment, then answers, "To be honest with you, I really don't know."

He'd like to try college, but doctors have warned him he'll have a tough time because his attention span isn't what it used to be.

So right now he's concentrating on the simple pleasures of life, such as trying to get that rare good night's sleep, spending time with his family and giving his body and spirit time to heal. His life will never be the same, he knows. But what it will bring, he's not sure.

"It feels like I'm starting all over again," he says.

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(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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

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