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Army specialist wounded by friendly fire will get his Purple Heart

WASHINGTON—Four months after "friendly fire" in Iraq shattered his left kneecap, Chris Carlson may be getting his Purple Heart.

The 25-year-old Army specialist and Modesto, Calif., resident is set to leave a Georgia veterans hospital Thursday, and he's ready to rejoin an Army unit.

Carlson's Purple Heart also should be pinned on him eventually, said a knowledgeable Army official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to talk to reporters.

That's a relief for Carlson and his father-in-law, Modesto business consultant Will Gault. They feared that Carlson might be denied the medal because he was shot Sept. 7 not by the enemy but by a fellow American soldier who made a mistake.

"We certainly feel that he deserves it, and we are proud of him," said Gault, who'd contacted The Modesto Bee newspaper and a San Joaquin Valley congressman about his son-in-law's case.

The Bee wrote about Carlson's case, but no political muscle apparently was flexed.

Although the paperwork for Carlson's medal was completed in October, it lagged behind him as he was transferred from hospital to hospital. Officially, the Army still hasn't told him. He's received neither a letter nor a phone call.

Carlson and Gault learned of the Purple Heart from a Bee reporter whom the Army contacted after the earlier article about Carlson's plight.

"I think maybe they should contact me and let me know," a bemused Carlson said Wednesday in a telephone interview.

Actually, he's lucky. Other wounded veterans are even more frustrated with the Army's pace and decision-making.

J.J. Garcia is a 57-year-old Fresno, Calif., resident who works with the federal Indian Health Service. A generation ago, Garcia said, he was a flight engineer aboard an Army helicopter that crash-landed in South Vietnam. Garcia manhandled his machine gun to fight off the Viet Cong; in doing so, he said, the overheated gun burned through his flight glove and seared him with first-degree burns.

The Army denied Garcia's bid for a Purple Heart from the Aug. 23, 1970, incident, saying his burns resulted from his own mishandling of a weapon. He's trying to involve California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein in his case.

"The United States sends you to do a job," Garcia said, "and when a GI needs assistance, the agencies give you this big runaround to the point where we get discouraged and give up."

About 200,700 Purple Hearts were awarded during the Vietnam War period. Through last July 31, the Army had awarded 13,944 Purple Hearts to soldiers wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Carlson was hit by a young 82nd Airborne Division soldier during a nighttime mission. At the time, Carlson was guarding a convoy with the 117th Cavalry Regiment of the New Jersey Army National Guard.

An Army official directly involved in the medal award, who also asked not to be identified because he was speaking without authorization, explained what happened next.

Some things happen quickly in Iraq, such as the treatment of wounded soldiers, the official said. Other things happen more slowly, such as routine paperwork. The .50-caliber machine gun bullet that sent shrapnel into Carlson's leg sent him on an expressway out of Iraq.

Carlson's Purple Heart commendation was approved Oct. 27, according to the Army official. That was fairly quick, compared with some. Even so, the paperwork can take a long time catching up to evacuated soldiers.

"Delays, though common in the confusion of war, are unfortunate, and we are committed to reducing them as much as possible," the Iraq-based Army official said in an e-mail.

Carlson sounds only partly mollified. The military, he said, has a habit of keeping soldiers guessing.

"It happens all the time," Carlson said. "I never hear things until the last minute."

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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