Tim Maxwell did six combat tours over the years before he lost some of his brain in Iraq. He couldn’t command warriors anymore, so he created something new, a barracks, which became a regiment, of wounded marines like himself.
By Mike Sager
Read more of the Best and Brightest 2007
Ringo and Wildman are kickin' it with Jo Jo, Hazy, Sergeant D, and the rest of the Devil Dogs in the rec room at Maxwell Hall when who should come through the hatch but the old man himself, Lieutenant Colonel Tim Maxwell, the guy for whom the barracks was named.
Thick shouldered and squared away, Maxwell is dressed in his digital cammies -- the sleeves of his tunic rolled cleanly to his biceps, the trouser cuffs banded securely around the shanks of his sand-colored suede combat boots -- the uniform of the day aboard Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. Forty-two years old with nineteen years in (twenty-three if you count ROTC), Maxwell did five deployments overseas without a scratch. Then one afternoon in 2004, three months into his sixth, near the southern Iraqi town of Iskandariyah, he decided to take a power nap -- fifteen minutes after chow. He'd heard about it somewhere: Many leaders through history had done the same, a short pause to refresh.
Now he pauses just inside the door of Maxwell Hall and looks around, smiling his slightly crooked smile -- the right side of his face still lags; it might come back or it might not, there is no way to predict. The room has been recently repainted, the windows replaced; the new carpet is due soon -- the workmen have moved on to the fitness center next door. It is July. Outside, the temperature and the humidity are both in the high 90s. Tree frogs bark, cicadas sing their familiar summer song in the lush and tangled undergrowth. In here it is air-conditioned, a cool 69 degrees. A couple dozen enlisted men and NCOs are hanging out -- shooting eight ball, playing Call of Duty on a new Xbox 360, watching a cable movie on the big flat-screen TV. One group is huddled together on doctor's-office-variety chairs, talking smack, scratching, waiting for pizzas to be delivered so they can eat their afternoon pain meds, which need to be taken with food. (The chow hall is just across the way. Nobody eats there, even though the cost of meals is deducted from their pay, which runs about $1,700 a month for a corporal, $1,300 for a private.) A couple of the guys are racked out on the new leather sofas -- one kid with his mouth wide open is snoring loud enough to interrupt the dialogue of the movie, Risky Business, about carefree high school boys in the affluent suburbs. Two more guys luxuriate in massage chairs, fancy models like something from Sharper Image, the hum of which is clearly audible beneath the raucous clubhouse din generated by this assembly of young men, most of them in their late teens and early twenties, most of them damaged beyond full repair. In conversation, Maxwell calls them "my marines." He has a thickish Southern drawl that he picked up from some mysterious recess of his brain when he began to recover his speech after the injury. In fact, he was born in Ohio.
Maxwell spots the guy he's looking for, moves in that direction, his gait powerful but uneven, like Chesty the Bulldog with a limp. He has a strong jaw and piercing blue eyes; there is a large scar on the left side of his head, a ropey pink question mark that runs like concertina wire below the hedge line of his high-and-tight military flattop. He has trouble reading and taking instructions, his short-term memory is shot -- it took him forever to build the little fort in the backyard for his son, he had to keep rereading each step of the directions over and over again. He tells his daughter to put refrigerator on her tuna sandwich. He refers to the airport as "the place where people come to fly" and to Somalia, where he once served, as "that country in Africa." His hernia, which he kept a painful secret so as not to miss his final deployment, is "that problem with your nuts." He calls the family's new dog Magic instead of Miracle (though he can remember perfectly the name of their old dog, Bella). His right arm and right leg are functional but "clumpy'' -- he can still run several miles on a treadmill; he does three sets of ten bicep curls, thirty-five pounds each. Though his IQ, his reflexes, his limb strength, all of his measurable functions are down from their "factory original," as he likes to put it, he is still within what doctors tell him are "acceptable ranges." Acceptable to whom? Maxwell wonders. He will never be the same. He will never be as good. It weighs on him, you can tell. He is the type of man who has spent his whole life pushing and striving, trying to raise his score or to lower his time, a man who never took the easy path: As a high school kid, he wanted to play lineman in football, even though he weighed only 140 pounds. He took his undergrad degree in industrial engineering and a masters in management and statistics, even though he struggled with math. He eats "morale" pills (he tried four varieties before settling on Effexor), antiseizure pills (five varieties), more pills every day than he is capable of recalling. All the pills have side effects. The list is a mile long. Here is the list for Effexor: constipation, dizziness, dry mouth, insomnia, loss of appetite, nausea, nervousness, sexual side effects, sleepiness, sweating, and weakness. Ask your doctor if Effexor may be right for you. Oooh-rah. Sometimes, his brain starts to crash -- that is his word for it. His speech becomes slurry; he gets this look on his face like a guy who has been up for several days doing alcohol and drugs. He just has to shut it all down and go to bed. It happened earlier this week, after he drove the six hours in his old green Land Rover to Quantico, Virginia, to meet his new boss. He is still on active duty. He's due to report to his new billet in one week.
Corporal Justin Kinnee is sitting on one of the sofas, staring at the flat-screen through a pair of dark Nike sport sunglasses, the kind issued to troops in Iraq. Several of the guys in the room are wearing them. Extreme sensitivity to light can be another side effect of some drugs. It is also a symptom of a traumatic brain injury (TBI). In previous U. S. military conflicts, 14 to 20 percent of surviving casualties reportedly suffered TBIs. Of the twenty-eight thousand American troops injured so far in Iraq, anywhere from a quarter to a half are estimated to have suffered TBIs. In bygone days, after you got whacked, the Marine Corps gave you a Purple Heart -- the medal that no marine wants -- and a discharge. Then they sent you on your way to deal with the Veterans Administration for the rest of your life. Now, due to Maxwell's efforts, there is not only a barracks for wounded warriors aboard Camp Lejeune (and another aboard Camp Pendleton in California), there is also a brand-new Wounded Warrior Regiment in the Marine Corps. That's why Maxwell is moving -- he's joining the general staff as an advisor. Though none of the men know it yet, this is his last day in Maxwell Hall.
Before he enlisted, Kinnee was a sheriff's deputy in Cherokee County, Georgia. He'd been in Iraq three months when a piece of shrapnel ripped open his neck. He lost five of his six quarts of blood, stroked out, died in the dust. Somehow, they saved him. There is a precise-looking scar on his head, just right of center -- running from the front hairline to the back, like a part scissored into his crew cut, which he has trimmed for seven dollars every Sunday after church -- where they removed a portion of his skull to allow his brain to swell after the stroke. Now he has an acrylic plate and twenty screws, "five screws per manhole cover," he likes to say; you can feel where the plate starts. As a result of the stroke, his left arm doesn't work. He takes special meds to keep it from becoming palsied; at night, he also sleeps with a brace on his hand. After he sits down, he will typically use his right hand to reach over and pick up his left arm by the wrist and place it on his lap, this inert thing attached to him that must be managed. "How you doin', Kinnee?" Maxwell asks, leaning on the arm of the sofa opposite.
Kinnee looks up, groggy at first, uninterested. Then he realizes who's in front of him and snaps to a seated form of attention. Though he can't fully dress himself without help -- the fussy rolled cuffs and trouser ties, the calf-high lace-up boots; "try putting on a sock with one hand," he says in his typical challenging tone, the result of personality changes and disinhibition caused by the death of the right hemisphere of his brain -- he is one of the more motivated marines in Maxwell Hall, at least when it comes to doing chores and maintaining military discipline. Having joined later in life than most of these guys, Kinnee, twenty-six, is more serious. He made corporal in only two years. This was going to be a career for him.
"Fine and dandy, sir," Kinnee answers dryly. There is a cast to his face, a waxen awkwardness, as if the left side and right side are expressing different emotions simultaneously. Think of your mouth after dental surgery. He always carries tissues or a napkin to mop up any moisture. Kinnee's tongue is tricky, too, as is Maxwell's. The words come out with some difficulty.
"Your morale seems better," Maxwell drawls. "That trip home musta did you good. Did you get that ball for your hand?"
"Come on, man." Maxwell thumps the corporal playfully on the shoulder. Before he was injured, Kinnee was bench-pressing 225 pounds. He carried heavy radio equipment in the field. He studies his boots.
"How much does it work?" Maxwell asks, his tone bright and encouraging.
Looking up: "What?"
"The arm. How much does it work? Does it have some utility?"
"I can squeeze the hand shut but I can't open it," Kinnee says. He doesn't bother to demonstrate.
"Fuckin' brain injuries," Maxwell says, shaking his head. "You know that, um -- what's that chubby kid's name?"
"Reynolds," Maxwell repeats, tapping the front of his broad forehead with his fingertip. "Reynolds. Reynolds. Before I leave, I have to go around and get everyone's picture and label them. I can't remember anyone's frickin' name."
Best & Brightest 2007
Wounded Battalion - Page 2
By Mike Sager (more from this author)
11/20/2007, 12:04 AM
"I can only remember what I knew before, sir," Kinnee concurs.
"Anyway, R-R-Reynolds," Maxwell says, struggling with the name, his jaw working awkwardly on its hinge like a man with a bad stutter. "R-Reynolds' hand didn't work at all and his leg didn't work. But look at him now. He got a lot of it back."
"We'll see," Kinnee says, not at all convinced. In the images he's seen of his brain, the left side is entirely white. The right side is entirely black.
Maxwell searches the ceiling for a lighter topic. In earlier phases of his military career, he often found himself out among the troops, polling them, taking stock, reporting back to superiors. He likes to see himself as an idea man, as a guy who understands a little bit about what people need. Like the day he came across that young Devil Dog alone in his barracks, crying. The rest of his unit was still in Iraq. He was back at home, injured and alone. Wounds in combat are not like the ones in the movies. You hear about the amputees, the burn guys. But one bullet through the arm can turn a bone to sand. The nerve damage creates pain enough to make a junkie. The limb will never be right again. There was no place for him; he had no purpose. From day one in training, they teach a marine that there's no I in team. They teach him that he's only as good as the man on his left and the man on his right. They teach him to be a lean, mean killing machine. What happens after the machine is broken?
And so it was that Maxwell took his idea up the chain of command. He was assisted by his wife, Shannon, who had started a support group for marine families, and by Thomas Barraga, a former marine and a local legislator in Suffolk County, New York, who worked with Maxwell to write the proposal for a "medical rehabilitation platoon." Within fourteen months of Maxwell's injury, by order of Lieutenant General James F. Amos, then-commanding general of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force, there was a new central billet for injured marines. Maxwell Hall was open.
Maxwell checks his watch. His arm rotates awkwardly; he also took shrapnel to his left elbow. "A'ight," he drawls, "I gotta get going to the next item on my checkout list. I'm almost done. I gotta go to C, uh" -- he stumbles over the initials -- "CSI."
"What's that, sir?"
Maxwell thinks a moment. "Oh. CSI is a movie. About cops."
"You mean, frickin', uh -- " Kinnee gestures in the air with his hand, pointing generally to the west.
"Yeah. You know. The, uh -- " an open palm, wrist rotating in the same direction.
Nodding conclusively: "Yeah."
"Okay, then. Catch you later."
Ten in the morning, four guys are hanging out in somebody's room, call him Romeo, on the second floor of Maxwell Hall. It could be a college dorm, a double suite with connecting bath, each side eight by twelve with full cable hookup -- you can pay extra for Internet.
Leeman and Ringo are on the sofa, using Romeo's laptop, YouTubing videos from Iraq of IED explosions and firefights; one of their favorites is set to the song "American Idiot." Cybula is on a folding chair, poking through the small fridge -- nobody's had shit to eat today. You have to be up and dressed to report for formation at 7:00 A.M. Then . . . nothing. A few guys have jobs or duties. These guys don't at the moment. Romeo is on the queen-size bed, which faces a big-screen television with a built-in DVD player, standard issue in every room. On top of the TV are an Xbox and a PS2, two of the dozens of donated gaming systems floating around Maxwell Hall. All of the components fit snugly into a cherry-wood armoire/entertainment center, also standard issue. Next to him on the bed is a beautiful young girl with flame-red hair and freckles, a rising senior at a high school twenty miles away. She says she's eighteen. Romeo met her a couple of weeks ago at a stoplight. Of all the marines in town -- there would hardly be a reason for Jacksonville if there were no marines; they are everywhere -- for some reason she settled on him. Once, in the middle of sex, his wife called. He picked up his cell phone and proceeded to have a conversation. At the moment, the redhead is staring at the TV screen, pressing buttons on a toy guitar, a video game she is playing. Nobody pays her any mind.
"I miss Iraq so bad," Leeman says, clicking on another YouTube selection. Corporal Jeff Leeman is the ranking NCO in this room. He is tall and thin, twenty-one years old, from Lebanon, Tennessee. He talks low and fast and swallows his words like Boomhauer on King of the Hill.
"I know, man. Fuck! I just wanna kill some of those fuckin' people." This is Ringo, Lance Corporal Jeremy Dru Ringgold, age twenty-two. He has big blue eyes and the gift of gab, an accent like the Marlboro Man. He seems especially upbeat today, loud and expressive.
"Watch this'n," Leeman mumbles. "Suicide bomber. Black car right thar. He's approachin' a checkpoint. Wait for it. . . ."
The small extension speakers on the coffee table shake and rattle and hiss.
"That's horrible, dude."
"There's this one video I wish I could find," Ringo says, grabbing the keyboard away from Leeman. "It has this Iraqi. He gets in his car, and he's sitting next to all these 155 shells. He's fuckin', like, petting the fuckin' things. And then he drives down the road and blows himself up. I'm like, What the fuck, man? Why didn't you come to me and let me shoot you in the fuckin' face?"
A native of Augusta, Georgia, Ringo is charismatic, intelligent, and well liked. Lately, he has developed a potbelly from lack of exercise and too much beer, which he shouldn't be drinking anyway, due to his regular use of Percocet, which helps to mask the excruciating nerve pain he feels in his arm. As a side effect of the drug, he is constantly rubbing his nose and sniffling -- his behavior and the tone of his voice are very much reminiscent of a heroin addict. In fact, he says, his brother was a heroin addict. His sister got pregnant and left home at fifteen. Like every other marine in the room (and all but one of the marines I met at Maxwell Hall, including Maxwell), Ringo didn't know his father very well, though he remembers that his father gave him his first rifle, an AR-15, when he was nine. Back home, Ringo's wife, whom he calls Skinny, is living in the house he just bought. He has not yet slept there. She is a manager at a grocery store, pregnant with their first child, a little girl; he realizes he might end up having to shoot some guy someday for trying to get fresh -- ha, ha, just kidding.
Ringo did two tours in Iraq. The first, he lost half his squad to a suicide car bomber. On his second, twenty-two days in, he got hit trying to save a marine he'd never even met before. It was his day off. For some crazy reason, he volunteered to go on patrol with another squad. At the top of the firefight, he got hit in the helmet -- it went through and through but never touched his scalp. Then a second bullet found his forearm and turned it into chips and dust. He is convinced he was supposed to die that day. He doesn't know why he didn't. He feels guilty for getting injured. He was a team leader. After he left, some of his fellow marines got whacked. Maybe if he had been there . . .
Cybula burps loudly, causing everyone to laugh. Lance Corporal John Cybula, twenty-one, is a handsome guy from Sweetwater, Tennessee, raised by his granny. The top of his hair is a little longer than regulation -- it's all gussied up with gel. He can sit at a table in a bur-ger joint with two friends, and before he leaves, a cute little female marine will give him her number. After he got whacked, Cybula ended up marrying one of his nurses from the hospital in Portsmouth, Virginia. She's still up there. He's down here. She wants a divorce.
"I'll tell you something," Ringo says, standing up now, pacing the room energetically, two steps forward, turn, two steps back. "The first time I held a rifle in my hand and realized it made shit blow up, I was like, 'You know what? This is what life is all about right here.' "
"I heard dat," Leeman says, grabbing the laptop.
Cybula burps again, theatrically. He was on the roof of a building when a sniper bullet caught him in the back of his flak vest and knocked him through a hole. He fell three stories and broke his knee and pelvis. The Marines are not convinced about the sniper part of that story; his Purple Heart has thus far been denied. Cybula is on morphine and Vicodin. He's also on meds to help him sleep and meds to block out his dreams. He says he can't sleep without getting drunk, which he does many nights. His eyes are slits. His body itches all over from the morphine; he's constantly scratching. Back when he was on Demerol, only his stomach itched. Now it's everywhere, usually just out of reach. He has a sly smile, a sweet vibe that kills the ladies; you can tell there's a really nice guy buried somewhere inside all of that medication.
Ringo and Cybula used to be suitemates, but then Ringo was ordered to move to another barracks because of the overflow. He had been in Maxwell Hall for nearly six months. He hates the new barracks. It is a pog barracks, which stands for "person other than grunt," meaning someone who is not in the infantry. Pogs are lower than the skin on a snake's belly, lower than a hemorrhoid on a hajji's ass, etc. Leeman is a pog, a combat pog, because he rides in a pussy LAV, a light-armored vehicle, instead of humping like the real men. Lucky for Leeman, they take pity on his pog self and let him hang around. As fate would have it, he outranks them -- presumably pogs have more time to study for the advancement exams. Ringo's pog barracks, which is full of administrative personnel -- superpogs -- is quiet and sterile. These weird big bugs from the marsh crawl under the door and into his room. There is no TV or pool table or Sharper Image massage chair, and nobody else who has ever been in a firefight, much less been wounded in one. Lately he's been staying at Maxwell Hall, sleeping in the same queen-size bed with Cybula.
"Did I tell you what happened last night?" Ringo asks, superanimated, still pacing.
Wounded Battalion - Page 3
By Mike Sager (more from this author)
11/20/2007, 12:04 AM
"That was one helluva storm," Leeman says. "My dogs was goin' crazy." Leeman was on his first tour when the eight-wheeled armored wagon he was driving hit a pressure-plate mine. They were only about five hundred meters outside the gate of their FOB, their forward operating base, pronounced like Bob. He was able to call in his own three-line injury report over the radio before everything went black, he explains with mumbled bravado. Because he doesn't have a fake ID, Leeman -- who will not turn twenty-one for a couple more weeks -- cannot drink a beer when he goes to Hooters, as the guys like to do, for the wings. (They got free coupons the other day when the Hooters girls came to visit the barracks. People are always visiting Maxwell Hall. Often the wounded warriors are bused off base for field trips -- a sailing regatta, a party at a local bar, even a trip to Washington, D. C., to speak to the kids attending the Presidential Classroom. The new guys really seem to enjoy all the fuss. It feels good being called a hero. The guys who have been here a while enjoy the outings because it's something to do. But they don't like the attention. To a man, they will tell you they ain't no heroes. Heroes are people who fight, not people who get injured. When you're injured, you can't be a hero. In some cases, you can't even wipe your own ass. Although the Hooters girls were wearing their tight little orange shorts, they didn't bring any wings. Who sends the Hooters girls to visit a bunch of young marines without wings? The sense of disappointment was palpable.)
Leeman's wife is named Brandy. She is twenty-two. Sometimes, at a restaurant, she'll order a beer and give it to him. They live together in a small detached two-bedroom over in married housing; Leeman hangs out at the barracks all day, per orders. Like the other 115 men assigned to Maxwell Hall -- some have been here as long as two years -- Leeman's job is to attend his doctors' appointments (you pay up to eighty dollars out of pocket if you miss), take his medicine, and follow all doctors' orders to get well and then move on, either back to a unit or out of the corps and into a serviceable rest of his life. Brandy is a friendly and buxom redhead he met at church when he was a junior in high school. She just thought he was way cute. He is not allowed to say on tape which part of her first attracted him. She gives a hint by placing one hand, palm down, at the level of her shoulders, and the other hand, palm up, at her waist. Brandy used to work the overnight shift at Target, restocking shelves. That's where she was when he called her from the hospital in Al Asad, all doped up on morphine -- "Honey, I have a little news." When you're injured, one of the first things they do is give you a phone card with nine hundred free minutes. Leeman doesn't remember whom he called or what he said. Brandy, whose screen name is JeffreysWoman, is hoping her husband will be well enough soon to get off LIM DU, limited duty, and start back with PFT, training for the physical-fitness test. She wants him to return to his unit. There is precious little for them to do back home in Lebanon.
"So me and this friend are watching TV," Ringo continues, "when all of a sudden there was this huge explosion: crack! And I thought, Damn! Incoming! Shit, man! I got down and covered up!"
"I fuckin' hate loud noises, man," Romeo says.
"No shit," says Cybula.
The high school girl, still holding the toy guitar, turns her head to listen.
"So who was this friend, anyways?" Leeman asks. His eyes are a little slitty; he's rubbing his nose, too. Though the nightmares have stopped, he still gets bad headaches. His elbow doesn't work the same anymore since the operation. In two days' time, he'll be walking down some steps and his knee will go out. He's on Percocet, too.
"She's just a friend that I worked with, okay? A schoolteacher. We were watching television. Can I just tell my story?"
"I ain't stoppin' ya," Leeman says.
"So I'm down and covered, and my friend screams, like, 'Eek! The house is on fire!' And I'm like, 'What?' And she's like, 'Look! The chimney's on fire!' And I get up from my covered position and I realize" -- here he stops in his tracks, and his eyes widen, and he thrusts both arms in the air, as if evoking the good Lord in heaven -- "a lightning bolt has just hit the fucking chimney!"
"Ya damn skippy," says Ringo, pointing to his fellows like a huckster working the crowd. "See, a lightning bolt came down through the chimney and exploded the gas line in the fake fireplace. And the gas is like wooooooosh, shooting out everywhere, hardcore. And I'm asking her,'Where is the fuckin' fire extinguisher?' and she's like, 'I don't have no fuckin' fire extinguisher!' So I'm like, 'Oh, shit!'So I run outside the house and I find the garden hose, and I run back inside and already my arm is like fuckin' killin' me and I'm like -- "
"Hey, Ringo," interrupts Corporal Leeman.
"I'm just gettin' to the good part, man."
"You took a lot of medication, didn't you?"
An impish expression, like a kid sugar-drunk on purloined candy: "Why do you ask?"
" 'Cause you all hype, tellin' that story. You taking extra?"
"Nah, man, I just didn't have nothin' to eat. Took the shit on an empty stomach."
Leeman, the ranking marine in the room, stares him down a few long seconds, brother to brother. "Maybe we better go find us some chow," he suggests. "Who's drivin'?"
"Who's payin?" Cybula asks.
Another day, Corporal Kinnee is in the rec room. His tunic is half on and half off. He can't seem to get his left arm to go through the rolled-up sleeve. The roll is tight. The arm is rubbery. Think of a time when you woke up in the middle of the night and your arm was totally asleep, just dead meat. That's Kinnee's arm pretty much, except for the little bit he can squeeze his hand -- the grip not as strong as a newborn baby's. In addition, his shoes are untied, his trouser bottoms are unsecured. He has asked one of the sergeants to help him finish dressing.
"When it gets past my elbow, I'm good," Kinnee explains.
"We'll git ya," the gunnery sergeant says reassuringly, meanwhile struggling a bit, trying to force the inanimate hand through the tight roll of cloth. Sometimes, the gunny's vision will all of a sudden flick off, like a shorted-out lightbulb. It can last a minute or a day. So far, his vision has always returned.
They are standing in the far corner of the room, near the vibrating recliners. Devil Dogs watch the big screen and play pool, doze in chairs. There is a general morning heaviness in the air, the groggy feel of a hangover. The gunny is making scant progress. His lips are pursed and grim.
"Just cut it off," Kinnee says. "It might be easier. Shit. It don't even work."
"You might want it someday. Isn't there some indication it'll get better?"
"Yeah, there is. I'm just joking around. I don't want my arm cut off. I like it. I've had it for twenty-six years. I can't really see using some metal claw."
"How about we just loosen this sleeve a bit, take off one of the rolls."
"But it was lookin' good," Kinnee protests.
"It needs to be a little looser, pard'ner," Gunny says gently. He begins unrolling.
"Aw, mannnnnn," groans Kinnee.
"Don't worry. I won't make it look bad."
"Corporal Love usually does it for me. He makes 'em tight."
"You don't need 'em tight right now," the gunny says, a little annoyed. "Unless somebody's gonna be there to help you take them off, you'll be in trouble."
"I'm not takin' 'em off," Kinnee says, a tad petulant.
Master Sergeant Ken Barnes is the second in command for the moment. Born in Montana, raised in Oregon, he joined the Marines at seventeen. Now he's got twenty years in -- he served with Maxwell in Iraq. From day two, when Maxwell briefed him on his idea for a Wounded Warriors barracks, Barnes worked hard to get the whole concept off the ground. Barnes is your textbook senior NCO, at once a cynic and a true believer. He's exchanged live fire in Liberia, in Somalia, in George senior's Desert Storm, and in George junior's post-Saddam Iraq.
Barnes was riding in a turret of a Humvee when a thousand-pound IED, planted by the side of the road, was detonated. He remembers the bright flash, a lot of pain, his hand going numb -- he thought he'd lost the hand. He looked down there and it was just a big hole that was bleeding everywhere. The tendons of the first two fingers were severed, the thumb tendon was severed, the artery was severed. The wrist was shattered into little itty-bitty pieces. The shrapnel went clean through the wrist bone. The doctor told him that if it hadn't been for the way he wore his watch, facedown, the hand itself would have been lost.
Now he's behind this desk, in an office behind the rec room of Maxwell Hall, feet up like an executive, fiddling in midair with a golf club the way men do -- a bunch of the more senior Wounded Warriors are being treated to golf this weekend at Myrtle Beach. His grip is totally fucked, but he plays anyway. As physical injuries go, his is permanent and annoying. It is constantly in pain. It is constantly an inconvenience -- try pulling down your fly without using your thumb. But it is not life threatening, he's quick to point out. Sometimes he pays no attention, sometimes it bugs him. On certain days it's really bad. At one point, they were talking about amputating the hand because he was seeing guys doing more things with prostheses than he could do with what was left of his hand. He was on meds for nine or ten months. Pain meds. Sleep meds. Anxiety meds. He was on this nerve drug to try to calm the pain -- the problem was, it didn't just target one nerve in the body, it targeted every single one; he felt like he was trying to walk through mud. Finally, he said to himself, I'm not takin' this shit no more.
Best & Brightest 2007
Wounded Battalion - Page 4
By Mike Sager (more from this author)
"Do I hurt? Yep. Does it bug me? Yeah. Do I still have bad dreams? Yeah. Do I still have anxiety attacks? Yeah. I get all that stuff. But to me, it's better to feel like shit than to feel like I'm drownin' or like I'm trying to get through a puddle of mud. If I don't sleep, I don't sleep. That's it. I'll get up, play on the computer or watch some TV, stand out in the yard at 2:00 in the morning, swing a golf club. I mean, it just doesn't matter. If I can't sleep, I can't sleep. If my hand hurts, my hand hurts. You rub it, you pay attention to it, you don't bump it -- eventually, it settles itself down. As far as bad dreams, I've had bad dreams since I was, you know -- everybody has nightmares. When you were a kid, you had nightmares. So, to me, it's the same thing. You wake up startled and sweatin' and holy shit, what was that, and then you take a deep breath, you go get a glass of water, you look under the bed like Mom told you, there's no bogeyman. Then you either go to sleep or you don't.
"The worst nightmares are ones when you're awake," he continues. "It's almost like an anxiety attack. Something triggers it and you start to drift off mentally and kinda disconnect from where you're at, which is a little dangerous, especially when you're driving. That's when a lot of 'em tend to happen to me. It's different for everybody. In time, you start to recognize what's happening. I still have a hard time driving past a parked vehicle. You know: You're driving down the road here in the United States, and it's not uncommon to see a vehicle parked on the side of the road. Maybe somebody's car broke down, what have you. If I'm driving on a two-lane road, seeing a car like that will send me almost over the edge. Still today. It really -- I still grip the steering wheel. I consider the possibility -- what if? What if that car is loaded with explosives and it's going to blow up any second? And you start going through that, and that starts triggering other things, and before you know it, you're off and running, and then you really have to get a grip on yourself. You're like, All right, asshole. Settle down. You're okay. Ain't nothin' but a car beside the road, some piece of shit that broke down. Some days, I have to just pull over to the side of the road. Okay, dummy, knock it off. That's enough. But you can't let shit get the best of you. You can't let -- "
"Excuse me . . . Master Sergeant? You sent for me?"
A young grunt, call him Lance Corporal Mario, knocking on the frame of the open door. A good-looking kid, a little on the short side. Plucky, you can tell, like the Italian-from-Queens guy in one of those old black-and-white movies about soldiers in World War II. His mouth is a little crooked, making it appear as if he is talking out of the side of his face like Popeye.
Barnes points his golf club accusingly: "You got a drug problem, marine?"
Taken aback: "What?"
"Do . . . you . . . have . . . a . . . drug . . . problem?"
Indignant: "I wish."
"Why aren't you taken 'em?" Barnes asks.
"I took 'em," Mario protests. "You can prove it with the blood test."
"That's the problem. The blood test is saying that you don't have it in your system."
"I do. I do. They just keep telling me to put more and more poison inside myself."
"Well," says Barnes, practicing his stroke from a seated position, "they're obviously not gonna tell you to take something that's gonna kill you."
"I took ten milligrams."
"Well, that's not enough. You have to take what they tell you. They want you on that much because you have a potential for blood clots."
"They're just feeding me rat poison."
"Look, I take the same shit they use to make nuclear weapons, and I still stick it in my mouth every day."
In walks Sergeant D, a six-six string bean with a tattoo for every year he's been in the Corps. He gapes at Barnes with mock horror. "You stick what in your mouth every day? Maybe you gentlemen need to be left alone."
Friday afternoon formation. A lot of the guys haven't bothered showing up. Sergeant D has sent a fire team -- three guys -- to scout the dorm. To bang on doors and rouse the Devil Dogs from their naps or jerking off or whatever the fuck they're doing when they're supposed to be here.
Ringo, Cybula, and Leeman are here on time, sitting together on the doctor's-office chairs in their usual spot in the back of the room.
"The hardest thing for me," Ringo is saying, "was the fact that my guys were still over there. I've been with my guys coming up on three years now. I know when their bowel movements are. I know 'em that well. I know what foods give 'em gas. Or why this guy is all of a sudden really angry for some reason. When you know people like that, and then suddenly you're gone, it's really tough."
"I think a lot of people think we come back and we're real happy we're home," Cybula says. "Yeah, we're glad we're alive. We're not stupid. But they don't see the other side of it."
"The hardest thing I've ever done was at my buddy's memorial service," Ringo says. "You put the helmet on top of the rifle, the boots in front. It was the hardest goddamn thing I've ever done in my life."
"I had no illusions about it goin' in," Cybula says. "I still don't."
"I don't complain about it, but it upsets me," says Ringo. " 'Cause I got hit and had to leave my boys. Now I been six months with this thing, and I got no feeling in my hand."
"Ain't that good for jerkin' off?"
"Yeah, like it's somebody else with a weak grip."
"No matter how much you train to deal with stuff like that it's still gonna be hard."
"People always think it'll happen to someone else," Leeman says.
"When that round went through my helmet," Ringo says, "I thought, This was supposed to be the one that killed me."
"Well, it didn't, man," Leeman says conclusively.
"What do you know about that?" Ringo sings.
"It gets so bad over there," Cybula says. "At first you're all, like, alert and lookin'. Scared shit, even though nobody admits it. By the time you get to that third month, it's like you actually like it. You get to that point where you need that adrenaline rush. And then you come back here and everything is so damn slow. You're still lookin' for that rush. You come back here and you try to fit back into your life, but it don't work. Your relationships with everybody suck. They don't understand how you feel."
"I came back and my wife was like, 'I'm not sure you've dealt with your issues,' " Ringo says, doing an impression of an Oprah-influenced female.
"The women just want you to come home and take care of their problems," Leeman says.
"Big daddy's home," Ringo sings, another tune.
"Everybody here helps everybody else out," Cybula says. "We're here with other people who share the same problems with you. You're not alone. Your job here is to get better."
"I still miss the warfare," Leeman says.
"I would love to be in a firefight rightnow," Cybula says. "I would love that. It would make my day. Remember the kill house we found in Fallujah? They were, like, takin' people's eyeballs out, torturing people every way they could, fuckin' stretching 'em out and stuff like that. These were Iraqis doing it to their own Iraqi people. Remember that, Ringo?"
Ringo cuts his big blue eyes to his former suitemate. "I never been to Fallujah, bro."
Sergeant D is pissed. It's 3:30 P.M. He's still here. He could have dismissed these guys an hour ago if they'd shown up. It's Friday, true, and all the senior guys have left for Myrtle Beach to play golf, but where the fuck is the military discipline? They are still marines. He scratches his head. His skull is caved in slightly on the right front, above his eyebrow.
Jack Durgala Jr. is thirty-one, from Binghamton, New York. He actually met his father for the first time courtesy of the U. S. Marines. His buddy was working as a recruiter. He was on a call at a family's house to talk to their son, who wanted in. He noticed the name of the father, Jack Durgala, and asked if he knew his buddy, Sergeant D. The guy was like, "I've been looking for him for years."
Sergeant D was training Iraqi soldiers when he got hit, a suspicious rice bag two hundred feet down the road turned out to be an IED. His left leg was broken. His left foot got spun around. A piece of shrapnel hit the lower part of his right leg, took a big hunk out of it. Another piece ruptured his intestines. A piece of iron rebar embedded itself into his helmet. Luckily, he had one of the new-model helmets. Whoever designed it did a great job, he'd like to testify. The rebar hit the helmet and stuck, but it didn't go through. The force of the blow, however, was enough to split open his skull.
Wounded Battalion - Page 5
By Mike Sager (more from this author)
Like the others, Sergeant D was saved by quick work in the field, quick evacuation. Combat mortality rates have fallen from 24 percent in Vietnam to 10 percent in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most troops are in Germany within a few days of their injury. They're back stateside in a week, two tops. Sergeant D has less intestine now than he used to. "Food goes through me a little bit faster," he laughs. He has nerve damage in his right leg; it's called drop foot. His left leg has metal holding the foot to the ankle. He has very mild TBI, mostly a short-term-memory problem. Sometimes he'll tell his marines to do the same thing five times, because he doesn't remember the other four. The worst for him is the nerve problem. "You know how when your leg falls asleep and you get the pins? Well," he says dryly, "I have the pins. Now dump gasoline on it, light it on fire, have a midget come over with a sledgehammer and start slamming on your foot, and then you add one deranged person with an ice pick trying to put the fire out, and then somebody coming by with water, ice-cold water, and dumping it on your leg. All that within a second. It just gets very frustrating, to say the least. And now they've diagnosed me with a crack in one of my vertebras from getting thrown. Every time I go to the doctor, it's something else. I'm happy that they found the problem, but I would like to move on with my life already.
"More or less, Maxwell Hall is kind of" -- he searches for the right word -- "a holding pen is the best way to put it. Some of the marines refer to it as purgatory. A lot of the injuries they don't know how to fix. They don't know what to do. The gear is better now than before. If I was wearing, like Vietnam-era gear, I wouldn't be alive right now. Today, more people are getting injured and living, and the doctors don't know how to solve a lot of the problems, especially the brain problems. Or like myself: nerve damage. Before it was like, okay, the leg got ripped off, give him a prosthetic. Now they attach it back or whatever. But how do you fix a nerve problem? Obviously, they don't know how."
Finally, some stragglers arrive. Their numbers are obviously down from the morning formation. The place has the feel of a ghost town. It's something they're constantly struggling with in Maxwell Hall: how appropriate it is to still play the game.
"Everyone of you in here should be frickin' pissed off at the guys that aren't at formation," Sergeant D tells them. "Simple shit. You know it's Friday. You know we're gonna get the hell outta here as early as I can get us outta here, right? As far as I'm concerned, this is the best barracks I've ever seen. Yes, it sucks the reason why you came here, I ain't arguing that. Just do what the fuck you gotta do to get yourself better to go back to your unit, to medically retire, to get your money every month, or whatever.
"Get out there and start doing what you're supposed to do. It's simple. Get a haircut. Wash your uniform once in a while. Take care of yourself. If you got a problem, don't wait until it becomes a huge problem to let somebody know about it. If you don't wanna talk to me, go talk to Master Sergeant Barnes. Go talk to the doc. Tell me you wanna see your chaplain. Whatever. If you're having sad thoughts or bad thoughts or family problems or something, everybody in here's got something going on in their head, whether you realize it yet or not, something's going on up there. And if you've got other problems, that's just gonna escalate things. Talk to somebody, okay?
"Besides all that, do all the right things for the right reasons this weekend. No drinkin' and drivin'. If it ain't eighteen, don't fuck it. If it is, wear a condom."
"Errrr," the Devil Dogs chorus.
Maxwell is sitting on the front porch of his house, in a prim little development behind the strip malls of greater Jacksonville. From the backyard can be heard shrieks of laughter, a small tenth-birthday party for his son. Eric always wears cammie cargo shorts; he wants to be a marine when he grows up. He worries that his father will die in the middle of the night. There is a jumpy with a basketball hoop that Maxwell's wife has transported and dragged and blown up herself. Last spring, Shannon was invited to the White House by President Bush. He gave her an award for her efforts with Hope for the Warriors, which helps the wounded and their spouses and families. (The timing of the award, it is difficult to overlook, came three months after the revelations of the poor conditions suffered by wounded soldiers at Walter Reed hospital.) To tell the truth, she was a little unprepared. But no matter. After all, it was the president of the United States, the commander in chief, her husband's boss. The Maxwells have lived in this house for four years. There is a bittersweet feeling to the proceedings. Tim is leaving in a couple of days for Quantico. The family will follow soon. They have to buy a new house, sell this one, find new soccer and softball teams for Alexis, thirteen, a jock type like her daddy.
On that fateful day, October 7, 2004, Lieutenant Colonel Tim Maxwell, Max to his friends, graduate
of Texas A&M, husband, father of two, triathlete, career leatherneck, operations officer for the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, walked back to his tent after lunch and prepared to take a fifteen-minute power nap. He took off his flak vest and his helmet. He left his booÁts on. He was dirty and dusty and he lay down on the wooden floor of the tent (or maybe he lay down on his bed; another thing he can't remember). It is interesting how fast you can crash out, he says, snapping his fingers. Comfort is irrelevant when you're exhausted. You just lie down and turn it off.
He was in a secure area, the command base. His tent was secured all around with, with, with -- that stuff in the bag. Not concrete . . . sandbags. There were sandbags leading out the door of the tent, an alley of sandbags, like a tunnel without a roof, two feet wide, six feet high. The alley led out for about three feet, then turned a hard left, continued on for a bit. He hadn't been asleep for more than five minutes, ten at the most, when enemy mortars hit the compound. There would be about fifteen in all. The first one, as it turned out, landed right in the middle of Maxwell's sandbag alley, just outside the door of his tent.
Two pieces of mortar shrapnel entered his brain through his left cheek near the zygomatic arch, damaging the central and temporal areas of his brain on the left. They are still embedded inside, too deep to risk extracting. Part of his skull was removed and placed inside his gut for safekeeping for three months; in January 2005, he had a cranioplasty to put it back in place.
"I use this story all the time in hospitals, when I'm visiting the wounded. I tell them about good luck and bad luck. I tell them about getting blown up in a secure area. Come on. What's the odds of that?
"The thing is this," he says, leaning forward in his plastic chair, his thick hands set upon his thighs, his voice small, conspiratorial, "I never even fired my frickin' weapon at anybody when I was over there. Never. Not in twenty years. I'm not happy about that, but I'm okay with it. I have to tell these young kids. Like Kinnee. He got injured after three months of combat. He didn't have no firefights. He feels like a pussy. I've had six pumps, three of 'em in a combat zone. But I'm always in a platoon that never gets no action. What did I do, you know what I'm sayin'?"
He leans back now, tilting the chair on its hind legs, eyes set to the horizon, heavy with the portent of another summer shower. There are big changes ahead. He has no idea what will be. But he's been trained to put one foot in front of the other. He will move to Quantico. "I'm just trying to help these guys, to do as much as I can," he says. He will hope that his brain doesn't crash too often, that things will get better instead of worse.
He will try to be of use.
Best and brightest 2007:
Lieutenant Colonel Tim Maxwell, 42, founder of the U. S. Marines Corps' first Wounded Warriors barracks, at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.