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Soldier who lost feet optimistic about future, but puzzles over war

ROCKY POINT, N.Y.—A year ago, 1st Lt. John Fernandez, 25, rumbled across the Kuwaiti border into the Iraqi desert with a platoon of 30 soldiers, determined to help save the world from another tragedy like Sept. 11. He was a muscular, tan man with a bright outlook, a new bride, a West Point engineering degree and the world at his feet.

Now, a year later, he still has his bride, his degree and his optimism. But he's pale and weighs more—not the lean, mean fighting machine he was.

And he has no feet.

Two weeks after he entered Iraq, a U.S. Air Force jet dropped a laser-guided bomb on his unit. Fernandez, who was asleep, awoke to find his feet had been blown off by what he thought for weeks was incredibly accurate enemy fire.

Now, Fernandez wonders why the Air Force pilot didn't use his infrared scope to identify the Army unit before dropping a bomb. "We were easy to identify," he says. He also puzzles over a war he once supported—"I know there are politics involved"—and he longs to find meaning in it. "I hope Iraqis will be better off in the future," he says.

Fernandez is one of at least 3,273 American soldiers and Marines wounded in the year since the war in Iraq began, and one of a smaller, officially uncounted group wounded by mistake.

His story is uplifting and sorrowful. Even when it's obvious that Fernandez struggles daily with the pain of his prosthetic legs, his optimism comes through.

"I chose a path for myself and I did it for the right reasons," he says. "West Point changed my life for the better, and being an Army leader in war taught me so much about being a good soldier and a good person. This means everything to me—even more than my feet.

"Which stunk anyway," he adds.

But his wounds lie heavy on his parents.

"The other day I went to my son's house, and he crawled to the window and yelled that he couldn't get to the door till he put his legs on," his father, also John Fernandez, says. "Things like this break my heart. I keep asking myself, `For what?'"

Says Mary Fernandez, John's mother: "The people who say this war is OK don't see the dead and wounded. They don't know how it affects their families."

Growing up, Fernandez played Little League baseball and was on the soccer team in junior high and the lacrosse team in high school. On weekends, he hunted with a bow and arrow and fished with his dad.

Family vacations were always physical—skiing or diving or hiking. The family had a pool in the back yard and a cabin in upstate New York.

John's agility, strength and speed as an athlete got him into West Point, where he became captain of the lacrosse team. West Point taught him a lot about being a good soldier, he says.

"It's the same as being a good person. You give your best to everything you do and don't complain."

Fernandez and his fighting squad of 15 from Charlie Battery 3-13 Field Artillery were camped a few miles north of Karbala in central Iraq two weeks after the war began.

Some of the soldiers, like Fernandez, were sleeping. Others fired a rocket grenade in the direction of a small enemy encampment. Within seconds, an explosion knocked Fernandez from his cot to the sand.

Fernandez's recollection of what happened then is strangely detached now. But when he first recounted it to this reporter, just a few hours afterward in a dark hospital tent in the desert, a dazed Fernandez was dramatic:

"I was blown to the ground by enemy fire. I unzipped my sleeping bag and saw my feet were blown off. My gunner was calling for help. I tried to pull him out of the area, but without my feet I couldn't."

Flames, fuel and fire were everywhere. It was nearly impossible for anyone to pull the wounded and dead out. When soldiers finally did, they loaded the three dead men and five wounded into a Black Hawk helicopter, which flew 30 miles to a MASH 212 tent in the desert.

Even before they were brought into the makeshift hospital, those inside could hear the screams of the burned and maimed men.

In the MASH tent, doctors scoured the black and bloody raw meat that had been Fernandez's feet. Nurses wrapped them in gauze balls that became so blood-soaked they looked like red boxing gloves. Later that day, Fernandez was flown to an Army hospital in Spain, then on to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.

His new bride, parents and sister met his stretcher as it was pulled out of an ambulance.

"We were so happy to see him, so glad he was alive, but so torn," says his father.

During the two months that Fernandez spent on Ward 57 at Walter Reed, he had 12 surgeries—10 to scrape possible infections from his wounds and two to amputate more of each leg. Now, his left leg ends above the ankle and his right leg ends below the knee.

His wife, Kristi, stayed on a cot in the room with him, and his parents stayed on the hospital grounds.

In late May, when Fernandez got his fake right leg and left foot and tried to stand with them, he couldn't bear the pain. Severed nerves were sending signals to his phantom feet. He throbbed with pain.

When he sunk his stumps, bearing all of his weight, into the hard plastic prostheses, it was more than he could bear, despite his resolve.

"I was so discouraged. I didn't know how I'd ever stand, much less walk," he says.

Every day he changes prostheses repeatedly, adding and removing padding and artificial limbs, as his stumps contract and expand. He puts ice on the swelling and raw spots at night.

"It's a process and I'm learning to adjust," he says.

It was on a rainy day in early June that an Air Force general—he forgets which one—called to say that Fernandez and his soldiers weren't casualties of hostile fire as they initially believed, but friendly fire.

The details of the tragic mistake, which Fernandez has never seen, are contained in a Department of Defense report. They give a chilling account of three branches of the armed services mistakenly fighting one another in a vicious cycle of death and destruction.

From the report: "Two US Navy F/A-18 Hornet aircraft ... were assigned a combat strike mission over Iraq. While returning to their ship these planes were mistakenly targeted by a U.S. Army Patriot Missile (which) launched two missiles to intercept the aircraft. ... One plane was shot down and its Navy pilot killed. ...

"An (Air Force) Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) mission was launched attempting to recover the F/A-18 pilot. ... The (CSAR) F15-E pilot and his wingman believing that they had just witnessed an enemy launch . . . began a bombing run, dropping one GBU-12 bomb.

"Immediately after this attack, the wingman detected friendly forces approximately one mile north of the target area. ...The F-15 E notified command authorities that it might have dropped a bomb on friendly forces. ... Subsequent investigation. ... confirmed the attack ... was the result of friendly fire."

Fernandez, who was still struggling to stand up when he got the news, had a mixed reaction. It had occurred to him previously that it was friendly fire because the single hit was so powerful and accurate. But he couldn't understand why the pilot and his wingman didn't use their infrared scopes to see their Army markings.

On the other hand, he knows "these things happen in the fog and friction of war."

Two days after he got his prostheses in late May at Walter Reed, Fernandez returned to West Point in a wheelchair for the 2003 graduation ceremonies. When the band played the "Star Spangled Banner," he struggled to hoist himself into a standing position. Once up and leaning on Kristi, he fought back tears of pain and emotion.

"Hearing the national anthem has always symbolized to me what's best about America, and it meant a lot to me to stand," he says.

After Vice President Dick Cheney gave the commencement speech, he introduced John. One cadet in the mass of gray uniforms stood and applauded, then another and another, until the entire 2003 West Point graduating class was standing and applauding the soldier in the wheelchair, whom they had watched run like a deer on the lacrosse field two years before.

When they got their diplomas, each graduate stopped in front of John and saluted. "I can't tell you what that meant to me," he says.

On Oct. 11, John and Kristi, who had married hurriedly in a civil ceremony right before John left for Kuwait in January 2003, had a huge wedding with seven bridesmaids and groomsmen and a flower girl and a ringbearer. When the wedding processional music began, to the surprise of hundreds of people there, John walked from the back of the church to the altar. There wasn't a dry eye in the place.

At the reception, amidst champagne and toasts, he and Kristi danced to an Etta James recording of their favorite song: "At last my love has come along. My lonely days are over and life is but a song."

Now, John Fernandez walks with hardly any unevenness in his gait, even though he's in pain. He's getting out of the Army and plans to become a public school teacher. He loves kids and thinks he can be a good influence.

Madison Fernandez is due at the end of April. He and Kristi just hung pastel curtains and put a pink carpet in the wood-paneled nursery.

"It was dark and we had to work together to lighten it up," says Kristi, unaware that her words are a metaphor for the last year of their lives.

John turned 26 a few days ago. Kristi gave him a treadmill for his birthday.

"To run on," he says.

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(Laughlin first interviewed Fernandez at a field hospital in Iraq shortly after he was wounded.)

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

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-ANNIVERSARY-WOUNDED

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