CNN Alex Quade: Maxwell Family 2006 

Finding meaning amid the carnage in Iraq

By Alex Quade

NEW YORK (CNN) -- I talked quietly with an 8-year-old boy at his home in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. His father -- a lieutenant colonel in the United States Marine Corps -- suffered severe brain injuries while on duty in Iraq and had been back home recovering for more than a year.

"It's scary. What happens if he dies in the middle of the night?" the boy said, his big blue eyes brimming with emotion and showing the wisdom of someone beyond his years.

I first met the boy's father, Lt. Col. Timothy Maxwell, when an incoming mortar near Iskandiriya, Iraq wounded him. Now, at his home, it was difficult to comprehend just how this Marine's life and that of his family had been changed forever -- in an instant -- while putting his life on the line for his country.

Since that time, Maxwell has made remarkable progress. He's giving motivational speeches and opened the first "Wounded Warriors Barracks" in America -- what could become the model of care for the nation's wounded. (Read about Maxwell's fight.)

Maxwell's story is one of bravery and triumph, a Marine who defied the odds when he teetered between life and death.

How can a person, even a reporter, not be affected by such stories?

Since the start of the Iraq war, I have seen a bit of everything: Mass casualties, amputations, traumatic brain injuries, CPR and death. I also witnessed bravery, loyalty, integrity and luck. Yes, luck -- at times luck means just surviving another day without injury.

For more than 18 months, I documented the stories of battlefield heroes in Iraq-- not only those who have been wounded, but also those who are providing the medical care.

I will never forget the Air Force doctors and nurses who continued to perform surgery and provide care for critically wounded patients even as their forward operating base was under attack. They did their jobs, sometimes wearing flak vests and helmets along with their stethoscopes. Patients who could be moved were. For those patients who couldn't be moved, the medical staff stayed with them, so they would not face possible incoming mortar or rocket attacks alone.

I followed some of these troops from the kill zone or point of injury all the way back to their homes in the United States. The journey touched me deeply. It makes you put your life and priorities into perspective. My problems seem so insignificant compared to the troops who are struggling to survive, struggling to recover, struggling to readjust to life back home.

Think about that 8-year-old boy who lives in fear that his father may die in the middle of the night.

I spent a year running "the permission gauntlet" for these stories -- within all branches of the military and, yes, even within CNN.

I wanted to do something to help answer the questions of troops about to be sent overseas, and to help answer the questions of their families left behind on the home front. I wanted to bring to life the names of those wounded troops, who so often appear only on military press releases.

What I got was unprecedented access: An inside look that civilians, and even many in the military, had never seen. (Watch medics work on the wounded while troops battle insurgents -- 2:42)

Earning the trust

I traveled to Iraq several times to embed with units in all branches of the military -- not only with combat medical teams but also with field hospitals and Black Hawk helicopter air medevac units on the ever-changing front lines.

I worked to earn the trust of the wounded and their families. They allowed me to share their personal stories and, for the very first time, to show their faces. Military policy does not allow patients' faces or anything identifiable to be videoed. The reason behind this is to give the military enough time to alert next of kin, before they see their loved one bleeding or dying on television.

I felt a huge responsibility to the wounded and their families, to do justice to their stories, and their trust. Eighteen months later, mothers of some of the wounded still call me to let me know how their son or daughter is recovering. Some husbands and wives still call me about their spouse's progress.

But nothing quite prepared me for facing the parents of a soldier who died of his injuries while we were shooting video. I knew that the parents of Army Staff Sgt. Andrew Brown would probably take comfort in seeing some of our video and learning that their son did not die alone. He was surrounded by his Army unit in an actual hospital, not in a tent out in the desert.

Shortly after his death, I located his parents and called them. It was probably one of the hardest things I've ever done. I explained to them I wasn't a telemarketer and that I would not call again, but if they were interested in seeing the video, they could contact me at any time when they were ready.

Bill and Lourdes Brown called me back a week later. When they saw our video, they said that it provided some relief to see how well cared for their son was in his final moments.

I also remember another Marine, Gunnery Sgt. Mel Greer, who spoke with me at Camp Pendleton, California. When I first met him near Ramadi, Iraq, he had been shot. The bullet went through his pistol and his leg. He now limps with a cane and is assigned to desk duty, instead of being out in the fight.

"You do not get shot and get home and everything is fine, as Hollywood would like you to believe. It is a long process. Recovery takes time; for some people, it takes years," Greer told me.

"By showing viewers this, they will see the truth, and it will help their families and other servicemen and women going through the process."

This is what I tried to accomplish with "CNN Presents: Wounded Warriors." This documentary is for the families of those serving in Iraq and Afghanistan and for the men and women of the U.S. armed forces trying to get all the wounded warriors home.


CNN From Alex Quade 2006 

From Alex Quade

CAMP LEJEUNE, North Carolina (CNN) -- At a first-of-its-kind barracks at Camp Lejeune, Marines wounded in Iraq share their recoveries with the one group of people who understand -- each other.

They live at Maxwell Barracks, named for Lt. Col. Timothy Maxwell, who suffered a serious head wound in 2004 and almost died near Iskandiriya, a city in Iraq's notorious "Triangle of Death."

When the injured Maxwell got back to the United States, he asked his superiors if he could use a building to help his wounded comrades get through the final phases of recovery. The Marines at Maxwell Barracks go through this battle together rather than being sent back to their units.

The lieutenant colonel is still an active duty Marine, and his closely cropped hair reveals a scar that runs in a circular path from his left ear to his forehead. He struggles slightly with his speech, yet he still speaks with the authority of a senior officer.

"The transition from being in your unit, being wounded, going through hospitals, and then either phasing back to their original unit, or back to civilian world, this would be the last stop," Maxwell said.

Camp Lejeune is a huge base in eastern North Carolina that is home to tens of thousands of Marines in II Marine Expeditionary Force, 2nd Marine Division and other units. Many go to Iraq and some come back victims of roadside bombs, shootings or accidents.

At Maxwell Barracks, wounded Marines deal with change-of-life issues and get individual counseling. Maxwell sometimes still works with a speech pathologist.

One of Maxwell's close aides is Joseph Roe, a Navy hospital corpsman who helped save Maxwell's life in Iraq before Roe was wounded by a roadside bomb days later. They understand the rare bond of the wounded.

"These kids go home and there's nobody around to talk to," Roe said. "Your family doesn't understand. Your friends back home don't understand. We do.

"No matter if you're Army, Navy, Air Force or Marines. Once you've been hurt, and you're a wounded warrior you understand."

It was more than a year ago that Maxwell and Roe were wounded. Maxwell's head was hit by shrapnel from a mortar round. For a while he was in and out of consciousness. While doctors and nurses watched over him, the hospital he was in was shelled.

His path from the battlefield back to the states lasted just a few days. Maxwell was evacuated first to a field hospital north of Baghdad before he was flown to Germany, then the United States.

A month after the mortar attack, he was at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Richmond, Virginia, well into his path toward recovery.

He now works with Marines at Lejeune who spend a short period there adjusting to their new lives.

"They come here, stay for just a couple of days and see other Marines are wounded and how far they are in life," Maxwell said. "Instead of going home with their mom and dad and wondering, I wonder what it means to get shot in the leg. I don't know what that means in three months. Here, he'll see."

The painful recovery is also hard on the families of the wounded. Maxwell's wife, Shannon, helped found a support group for spouses of wounded Marines.

"The largest thing we try to get through is the uncertainty," she said.

Maxwell's children also worry about what could happen. His son is afraid still that his father might die in the middle of the night. The officer said the families have it worse than he does.

Maxwell wonders if it was fate that led him to being one of the wounded, and the one who pushed for a place to heal with others with similar fates.

"I guess I look at it sort of like maybe this happened to me on purpose," he said. "I'm not a very religious guy, but maybe I got wounded so I would do this for a living."






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