Donald Ferguson, a member of the Marines' walking wounded, helps his comrades.
By David Zucchino Times Staff Writer
July 31, 2005
Camp Lejeune, N.C.
A hospital therapist pressed down hard against a ridge of crimson scar tissue on the shattered left leg of Marine Lance Cpl. Donald Ferguson. The corporal gritted his teeth.
His face red and contorted, Ferguson tried to snap to attention as a Marine lieutenant colonel approached. The officer's hair was cropped close on top and shaved on the sides, revealing a jagged pink scar across his left temple from a combat wound.
"Relax, relax," Lt. Col. Tim Maxwell said, resting his hand on the corporal's shoulder. "Just wanted to see how you're doing."
"Doing good, sir. How about you?"
"I feel like I got no brain left," Maxwell said. "My brain got whacked pretty good. I kind of have to fake it to get by."
On Oct. 7 in central Iraq, mortar shrapnel tore into Maxwell's skull, causing severe brain damage and lacerating the left side of his body. Seventeen days later, a rocket exploded near Ferguson in western Iraq, shredding his lower left leg.
The two Marines had never met before the 40-year-old colonel sought out the 22-year-old corporal in the physical therapy ward of the Naval Hospital at Camp Lejeune this month. Their encounter was part of an extraordinary endeavor by a Marine officer with a faulty memory and a speech impediment, in which the walking wounded helped care for injured comrades.
Even as Maxwell recovers physically and psychologically, he patrols military hospitals and barracks to comfort and counsel a handful of the U.S. service members injured in Iraq, which number about 14,000.
Sometimes Maxwell's speech is halting, and often his right foot "flops," as he puts it. He struggles to recall mundane words, like "strawberry" or "compass." But Maxwell, who has endured depression and self-doubt during his recovery, says he is determined to make sure that no wounded Marine is left alone to sink into depression or despair.
"People who haven't been wounded can't possibly understand the sense of loneliness and abandonment you feel," Maxwell, a slender, sharp-featured figure in a tan Marine uniform, said as he hustled through the therapy ward.
Maxwell, one of the highest-ranking U.S. service members wounded in Iraq, recalls encountering a 20-year-old Marine sitting alone inside a Camp Lejeune barracks in May.
"The kid couldn't use his arm. He'd seen his buddy killed. His family was in Florida," Maxwell said. "And he told me he felt so lonely and lost. I decided no Marine was going to be left all alone like that."
This spring, his solitary mission evolved into an informal effort approved by Marine brass. Maxwell has recruited several other injured Marines to help wounded comrades — most of them very young and far from home.
They tell them what to expect during surgery, therapy and recovery. They help them negotiate the military health system. They have heartfelt talks with wives and parents.
They also display graphic photos of their own wounds to show that even the most grievous injuries can heal. Mostly, they try to lift spirits during what is probably the most trying period in the lives of these soldiers.
"I want these families to know that their guys aren't forgotten," Maxwell said. "There are Marines here for them, right by their side."
Maxwell says the military will provide a small office and vehicles as he recruits more volunteers. A 10-bed living quarters for wounded Marines will open at the base on Aug. 8, he said.
Sometimes Maxwell brings along his wife, Shannon, on his visits. She helps him finish his sentences and fill in holes in his memory. She urges him to be gentle and patient. "I was a scary guy with a bad temper" as a battalion operations officer in Iraq, he said.
Shannon Maxwell says her husband doesn't remember rolling his wheelchair through a ward at Bethesda Naval Hospital just days after brain surgery in January, searching for Marines. He does remember the first thing he told her after awakening: "I want to be with wounded Marines."
Maxwell still longs for the intense bonds forged in combat. Every wounded Marine he has met, he said, has described a deep emotional void that develops after being ripped from a tightly knit unit.
"Worse than getting hurt is leaving the team," Maxwell said. "These Marines feel guilty: 'Did I abandon my buddies? Did I quit on them? How will they ever get along without me?'
"Their unit — their crew — is all they care about. So we've created a new crew for them."
Maxwell finds camaraderie in what he calls his "wounded warrior team." There's Staff Sgt. James Sturla, 26, a tank commander whose right hand was "de-gloved" — the skin, tissue and muscle ripped from the bone — during an attack in western Iraq in September. And there's Gunnery Sgt. Ken Barnes, 35, whose left arm was shattered by a roadside bomb in central Iraq in November.
Barnes was recovering in the hospital here last month when Maxwell called.
"He was so excited, it took me a minute to figure out what he was talking about," Barnes said. "But once I realized he meant reaching out to wounded Marines, I jumped at the chance."
Barnes has had seven surgeries. His left wrist was broken and his face and arms were tattooed by shrapnel. His left arm has lost muscle tone. His children call his injured hand "The Claw." Once a 225-pound weightlifter, he weighs 180. He can barely do three pull-ups.
"You get discouraged with how slow the recovery goes," he said. "I tell these Marines that no matter how bad things look, they will get better."
Sturla, who was recruited by Maxwell at the hospital in late May, has struggled through 24 surgeries on his hand, arm and back — including skin grafted from his stomach to his hand. His face is dotted with tiny purple shrapnel scars, and his right hand is still bandaged.
He was in the middle of his daily therapy recently when he encountered Ferguson. When Ferguson mentioned that he was awaiting a special shoe lift because he had lost an inch of bone in his injured leg, Sturla said he had just had surgery to remove excess bone growth.
"I wish I could give you my extra bone growth," he told Ferguson.
The two began exchanging war stories. Most Marines will not tell anyone except a fellow Marine the details of their injuries, Sturla said.
"They just don't feel comfortable sharing their stories with outsiders, even the nurses and therapists," he said. "But once I tell them what happened to me, they open right up. There's this huge release — they just talk and talk."
There are two basic questions most wounded Marines ask: Can I go back to my unit? Can I stay in the Marine Corps?
Until recently, wounded Marines who could not perform battlefield duties were forced to leave the Corps. Now the service attempts to find noncombat positions for them.
Returning to combat is rarely an option. Barnes, who is serving as a machine gun instructor while he recovers, says he has accepted, with deep regret, that he will never again be a combat infantryman. Sturla still hopes to return to Iraq with his unit as a tank commander in the spring if his hand heals properly.
Apart from telling severely wounded Marines that they can't rejoin their units, the most difficult part of the team's mission is persuading them to talk to psychiatrists. A 2004 New England Journal of Medicine study of 6,200 Marines and soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan found that combat veterans with mental health problems did not seek counseling because they did not want to be seen as weak.
"They're afraid it'll stay on their record," Barnes said. "Plus, they figure they're tough, they're mentally hard, so they don't need a shrink messing with their heads."
Maxwell said he sought a psychiatrist after he realized he was severely depressed. He wept when he was transferred from the military hospital in Bethesda — where he was surrounded by wounded Marines — to a Veterans Administration hospital in Richmond, Va.
"I tell these kids: Don't be ashamed to see a psychiatrist. Don't be afraid," Maxwell said. "I tell them how depressed I felt, that it's normal to be depressed after what they've been through."
For Maxwell, counseling Marines is his own form of therapy. He is still recovering from surgery that removed a portion of his scalp to relieve brain swelling. The scalp flap was sewn to his abdomen in October and replaced on his head in January.
Early on, he said, he was bitter and angry. He had been a triathlete and marathoner and was proud of his physical prowess. Confined at first to bed and then a wheelchair, he had difficulty speaking and walking. Photos of him receiving a Purple Heart show scarlet bruises under both eyes and a raised red surgical scar snaking across his temple.
Shannon Maxwell described his progress: "At first, the doctors said he'd lose a lot of cognitive abilities and some of his personality," she said, sitting at home in Jacksonville with her husband and their two children. "So he's really exceeding the prognosis.
"He has the same personality and energy — he's just more sensitive now."
Lt. Col. Maxwell is able to swim, lift weights and run three miles. He has taught himself to read again, beginning with children's books. His speech pathologist, Anna Jurczynski-Martin, said Maxwell read at a third-grade level when he began seeing her in January. Today, he reads at a seventh-grade level and is improving weekly, she said.
At a recent therapy session, Maxwell held his head in his hands as he struggled to recall the names of everyday objects. He sweated through his uniform as Jurczynski-Martin showed him drawings — an exercise called "confrontational naming."
In January, Maxwell could name just 40% to 50% of the objects she showed him. On this test, he named 80% to 90%.
He was able to come up with "bed," "tree," "book," "pencil," "toothbrush" and "helicopter." But, squeezing his eyes shut, he couldn't remember "volcano."
"It explodes.... It smokes," he muttered.
"Starts with a 'V,' " the therapist said.
"Oh, 'volcano!' " Maxwell said.
She showed him a drawing of a tripod.
"You use it to lay mortar rounds," Maxwell said. He paused and said: "Yeah, 'tripod.' "
He stumbled over "accordion" and "asparagus," got "pyramids" and "tongs," but couldn't come up with "trellis," "protractor" or "abacus." He was sweaty and spent. The therapist ended the session.
"You showed significant improvement; you're doing great," she told him.
Despite his difficulty naming things — a condition called anomia — Maxwell's motor speech is good, and "cognitively, he is absolutely intact," Jurczynski-Martin said. "This man's motivation and focus are beyond anything I've ever seen."
Maxwell, a 17-year veteran with a chest full of campaign ribbons and awards, says he is determined to stay in the Corps if his condition continues to improve. But, he added, "I'll get out of the Corps if I stay the way, uh ... " — he struggled for the right words — " ... if I stay the way I am."
Maxwell spent much of a recent day patrolling the hospital ward, keeping up a steady chatter with nurses, therapists and wounded Marines. He focused on Ferguson and his badly injured leg.
He asked, as he usually does, about the Marine's family. Ferguson is married, with a 4-month-old son.
Maxwell asked whether Ferguson had spoken with a Marine comrade who was wounded in the same attack as Ferguson. The corporal nodded.
"That's critical," the colonel said. "Keep talking to him. I'm glad you got that going for you."
Maxwell paused, then mentioned how badly he had missed his fellow Marines in Iraq after being evacuated. He had felt helpless and abandoned, he told Ferguson.
"Being alone sucks, huh?" he whispered.
The corporal stared down at his scarred leg. "Yes, sir," he said. "It's awful."