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New Battle on the Home Front

When wounded U.S. troops return from Iraq, nearly everything has changed. Except, for many, the drive to keep on fighting.

April 04, 2006|David Zucchino | Times Staff Writer

Fayetteville, N.C. — The vision in Vincent Worrell's left eye was blurry. The hearing in his left ear was bad. Two of his upper teeth were missing. There was a hole in his left shoulder, a surgical scar on his lip, shrapnel in his face and a metal pin in his left thumb.

Still, it was a very good day. He found a simple joy in being able to push his 5-year-old daughter, Indra, on a park swing. It was a blessing to hold hands under the trees with his wife, Jayme.

Just five weeks had passed since a roadside bomb blew shrapnel and grit into Worrell, an Army staff sergeant, as he walked on patrol Nov. 6 in Iraq. Now his little girl clung to his arm, as if she were afraid he would evaporate if she let go. That week, she had drawn ink spots on her hand and wrapped it in a white towel to imitate her father's shrapnel wounds.

"Daddy's girl," her mother said.

About 500 miles north, in Manheim, Pa., snow crunched underfoot as Marine Lance Cpl. Ryan Buchter, 20, struggled to walk on his wounded leg without a cane. On Nov. 8, an insurgent's grenade ripped apart his left leg and sent shrapnel whistling into his nostrils.

He was pacing outside his parents' small-frame house, which was filled with fruit baskets and letters -- some from strangers -- welcoming him home. From time to time, he would pick shrapnel out of his leg. His girlfriend, Erin Culley, used her fingernail to scrape tiny slivers of metal from his face.

Ryan's father, Douglas Buchter, 41, an Army National Guard sergeant whose unit is scheduled to head to Iraq in the fall, predicted that his son would heal in time to serve there with him. Despite Ryan's wounds, Douglas said he believed the Marine Corps was the best thing that ever happened to his son.

"He left here a boy," he said, slapping Ryan's shoulder, "and he came home a man."

When the wounded come home from Iraq, nothing is as it once was. They look different, of course -- pocked with shrapnel scars and surgical incisions, sore and tentative, and carrying the memory of that moment, just before the blast or bullet, when they were still whole.

Their families are different. Mothers and fathers and girlfriends and wives become nurturers and caregivers, their daily routines upended and their relationships forever altered. They change bandages, fetch medication, drive to hospitals, and walk their loved ones through months of physical therapy and rehabilitation.

Aggressive and driven in Iraq, the wounded become dependent and distracted back home. Hometowns and living rooms feel different. Friends have moved away. Children have grown. Iraq was terrifying and dangerous, but it became fulfilling and familiar.

The wounded are relieved to be back with their families. Though thankful to be alive, they're burdened by a sense of unease. Vincent Worrell felt it, and Ryan Buchter too. So did three others wounded over a four-day period in November -- Marine 2nd Lt. Mike Geiger and Marine Lance Cpl. Francisco Ponceherbozo in California and Army Spc. Joshua Griffin in Texas.

They call it RTD -- return to duty. They couldn't wait to get back to Iraq.

At 11 p.m. on Veterans Day, Douglas and Tracy Buchter drove three hours from Pennsylvania to Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, D.C. They had been told to meet their wounded son at the airport.

They stood on the tarmac at 2 a.m., waiting for Ryan to be taken off a military plane from Germany. Instead, a flight surgeon told them that he was being flown to a hospital at Camp Lejeune, N.C., for more surgery.

The Buchters climbed back into the car and drove eight hours to North Carolina.

They had been agonizing over their son's condition since Ryan called and told his father: "Pop! I've been ... fragged! The freakin' Iraqis fragged me! I'm in so much freakin' pain!"

The phone connection was so distorted that Douglas didn't learn how seriously his son was hurt. The last thing he heard was: "Tell Mom I have 10 fingers and 10 toes."

After hours of trying, Douglas finally reached a nurse at the U.S. military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, who told him something he did not want to hear: Ryan's badly swollen leg might have to be amputated. Douglas began making arrangements to fly to Germany.

Then Douglas got another disturbing call, from a Marine officer at Camp Lejeune who said Ryan had been wounded in both legs. Cut off from information, thousands of miles away, Douglas and Tracy felt helpless and confused.

"The worst thing was knowing he was in that much pain and we couldn't be there to do anything," Douglas recalled later. "At the point they said he was going to lose his leg -- that's when it hit me the most."

Now, as the Buchters were escorted to their son's room at the Camp Lejeune hospital, Douglas told his wife, "Look, just be prepared for the worst."

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