Politics & Government

Wounded soldier has a long climb to recovery

WASHINGTON -- Army Staff Sgt. Christian Hughes fingers his scar, the first of four.

One bullet, he says, went in here. He points. Another went here. That's it for his right leg, the relatively intact one. Then the former Fresno resident peels back a bandage from his left thigh, a grave revelation.

"I will walk again," Hughes says. "But if I don't get my feeling back in my left foot, I won't run again."

A one-time Bullard High School student, whose family still lives in Fresno, Hughes is recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center after being wounded in Afghanistan on Oct. 2. The 23-year-old infantryman has a steep climb ahead of him.

A titanium rod supports what once was a fully grown femur, four-and-a-half inches of which were pulverized by an AK-47 bullet. Below his left ankle, Hughes feels nothing save for severe pain.

Morphine helps with that. Other meds let him sleep, thin his blood and keep at bay that which comes with a serious combat wound.

"I'm on so many medications, it's unbelievable," Hughes said.

Hughes has undergone six surgeries so far. Most recently, surgeons harvested bone from his right hip and grafted it into his left femur. The doctors don't yet know whether this will take. His nerve damage still resists medical intervention. Some things, he knows, are lost forever.

"I'll never kick in doors again," Hughes said.

Nonetheless, he seems upbeat. His stepfather, Carnot Pease, is back home in Fresno, where he works as a Save Mart Center stagehand. But his mother, Barbara Pease, is with Hughes this Thanksgiving week. So is his wife of 15 months, Bethany. She is his rock, Hughes says. Certainly, he's making progress. Hughes left his hospital room Tuesday and moved into Mologne House, a soldiers' hotel on the Walter Reed campus.

Outside the hotel late Monday afternoon, a one-legged soldier sat sucking on a cigarette. It's cold and wet, the soldier agreed. Inside, beneath chandeliers, family members waited on damaged loved ones.

Hughes rolled up in his wheelchair, rocking a black T-shirt earned by those in the 2nd Battalion of the 87th Infantry Regiment. It's part of the 10th Mountain Division.

"Climb to Glory," the division poster had proclaimed, outside Hughes' hospital room. "To the top."

Hughes always knew he was bound for the military. After spending his freshman year at Bullard, where his sisters Megan, Samantha and Sydney also matriculated, Hughes lived with his grandparents and graduated from Vacaville Christian High School. He enlisted in June 2005.

"He was always building forts and dressing up as a soldier for Halloween. I always expected him to serve in the Army," Barbara Pease said. "I just didn't think there would be a war going on."

By January 2006, Hughes was in Afghanistan's Paktika Province. He returned to New York's Fort Drum in June 2007, where a good thing happened when he met Bethany at a sports bar. In time, he would credit her with saving his life.

In January, Hughes was back in Afghanistan's Wardak Province. The mountains were higher; the fighting, tougher. During his first 16-month deployment, Hughes said, the 2nd Battalion lost four men. So far this year, he said, the battalion has lost 23 men.

Improvised explosive devices are all the rage now. The overall number of IED fatalities in Afghanistan increased from 41 in 2006 to 254 so far this year, according to the icasualties.org Web site. The 10th Mountain Division morale has correspondingly suffered, by some published accounts.

But an IED isn't what wounded Hughes on Friday, Oct. 2. His was a more intimate ambush.

One moment, about 2 in the afternoon, Hughes and his fellow soldiers were standing around. The next moment, an Afghan police officer was shooting them. Two U.S. soldiers died immediately. The treacherous Afghan police officer fled, and so far as anyone knows he is alive to this day.

Medics swarmed Hughes, who was teetering into shock.

"I thought I was going to die," Hughes says. "Then I 'saw' my wife, and I decided I wasn't dying there."

Luck helped, too. The bullets missed his femoral artery, which if clipped would have pumped out blood like a geyser. Hughes' fellow soldiers packaged him onto a helicopter, the start of the pipeline to Walter Reed.

Since arriving, Hughes has met President Barack Obama, professional athletes and assorted celebrities like actor Gary Sinise. The famous strangers are nice, but other things seem more fundamentally therapeutic: The presence of parents and siblings, fellow soldiers who know the score, and most of all his wife, Bethany, for whom Hughes gives daily thanks.

"Without her," Hughes said, "I do not fathom how I would get through this."