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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

A Heavy Purple Heart

Sgt. Charles Horgan's combat experience in Iraq lasted all of seven minutes. His regret over being wounded before he could fire a shot may last a lifetime.

May 06, 2003|Tomas Alex Tizon | Times Staff Writer

JEFFERSON CITY, Mont. — Sgt. Charles Horgan noticed immediately that real war happened without a soundtrack.

Of course he knew this on some level but he didn't realize how quiet it could be, there, in the desert of southern Iraq. He couldn't even hear the wind, standing in the turret of a Humvee with his fingers wrapped around the grips of a .50-caliber machine gun.

He was so ready to fight. He'd trained 3 1/2 years for this moment. He'd watched his favorite war movies over and over, memorizing scenes of heroism played out to the sounds of an epic score. He was prepared to be brave.

But before he had the chance, the enemy got to him first. Horgan was among the first American casualties in Iraq. His whole experience in combat lasted about seven minutes.

Today, he's back home in this one-tavern town in southwestern Montana, a 21-year-old disabled veteran with a shiny new medal, a stirring story and a disappointed heart.

"I wish I did more. I wish I had more time [in battle]," he says. "One measly firefight, and I was done."

He has a lot of time to think these days, recovering at his parents' rustic home in the hills above town. As he goes through the motions of preparing for the rest of his life, his mind constantly brings him back to the scene in the desert outside the city of Nasiriyah six weeks ago.

The Humvee was crossing a bridge when Horgan saw the missile coming. It slammed into the front of the vehicle, tearing through the engine and spraying shrapnel in all directions. Horgan was blown out of the turret and fell flat on the roof.

His right boot simmered with blood, smoke rising from where the heel used to be. He crawled to the ground, and for the next several minutes, watched a firefight unlike any he'd seen in the movies: slow, almost lazy, with long stretches of silence, then deadly bursts of pop-pop-pop.

Soldiers from another vehicle scooped him up and took him to a field ambulance.

He was brought to Kuwait and then Germany, where he told anybody who would listen that he wanted to return to Iraq and fight side by side with his buddies.

"That's all I think about. I play it over and over in my mind," he says. "I beat myself up. It's like you train all season to play football and then sprain your ankle running onto the field. I had my opportunity and I blew it.

"I didn't get a single shot off."

The disappointment, he says, is balanced by the fact that he's alive and home and applying to college, just as he'd always planned. But it's an uneasy balance. The soldier in him is preoccupied with what should have been: a scene brave and dramatic, like in the movies.

Instead, it was sudden, brutal and weirdly undramatic. Then it was over.

*

Horgan doesn't seem to mind the term "permanently disabled."

It's Thursday afternoon, and he has just returned from physical therapy at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Helena, half an hour north. He hobbles through the living room, sinking his lanky 6-foot frame into a leather couch, and props his right foot on a table. It's in a cast.

Doctors took out one piece of shrapnel, a ragged metal shard the shape of a shark's tooth. He keeps it in a small see-through container and sometimes stares at it, like a boy studying a bug he's just caught.

His face, wide-eyed and disarmingly friendly, belongs on a boy. His feet, though, are size 11, man-sized. The foot still holds a dozen small pieces of shrapnel that might remain for the rest of his life. The flesh covering the heel bone is gone. He'll probably walk with a slight limp or wear a lift in his right shoe.

Spread out on the couch are pencil sketches he has drawn of the attack on the bridge. They portray different angles of the scene: what it looked like from the ground, what it may have looked like from a distance, what he probably looked like as he stared at the remains of his foot.

Two sketches are on a rumpled brown napkin. The others are on white drawing paper. They are his way, he says, of trying to reconstruct what happened.

If he'd had his 35-millimeter camera, he says, he would have snapped some pictures. Even as bullets whizzed past, Horgan instinctively wanted to record what happened. It was the movie buff in him, the novice filmmaker who wanted to document the scene.

But all he has is memory, and every day he searches it for more details.

In Horgan's mind, the scene on the bridge was a culmination of many other scenes going back to his graduation from Helena High School in 1999. Six months after graduation, he enlisted in the Army out of a sense of patriotic duty. Soon he was stationed at Ft. Benning, Ga., as part of the 1st Battalion, 30th Infantry Regiment. He was good at shooting, and he became a gunner for a scout platoon.

In 2001, the platoon was sent to Kosovo to conduct security patrols. The fighting had long been over, and Horgan saw no combat during the six-month assignment.

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