A place for wounded warriors

08:35 AM CDT on Sunday, May 28, 2006

By GRETEL C. KOVACH / The Dallas Morning News

 

JIM MAHONEY/DMN
JIM MAHONEY/DMN

Lt. Col. Tim Maxwell was hurt during a mortar attack in 2004, and has the scars to prove it.

CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. – Lt. Col. Timothy Maxwell prided himself on being a hard-core Marine, a square-jawed, straight-talking devil dog who demanded the utmost of his grunts.

He was a tough son of a gun on his third tour in Iraq who thought nothing could rattle him. Then mortar shrapnel pierced his brain.

The hard-charging officer from Dallas found himself in an empty hospital room one morning far from the battlefield, crying tears of rage and fear.

"Suddenly, when you're wounded, you know nothing. There is the confusion and the pills and feeling isolated from your squad," said the 41-year-old Col. Maxwell, former operations officer for the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit.

"I was alone," he said, and that tormented him most of all.

A Marine never faces battle alone, he thought. The battle to heal should be no different.

A year later, the "wounded-warrior barracks" – officially known as Maxwell Hall – was christened at Camp Lejeune, a sprawling base on the North Carolina coast where Purple Hearts are nearly as common as pine trees.

Col. Maxwell had a wife and two children to go home to after he was wounded. But he thought of the Marines fresh from high school whose parents live in other states, and the men and women who joined the corps to get away from home or had none to return to.

Where would they go while their buddies were still at war?

Today, 30 injured Marines live together in former officers' quarters modified with wheelchair ramps and grab rails. Most of the staffers at the barracks are wounded, too.

The secretary of defense, the vice president, Army representatives, an Iraq war widow, even Miss USA all toured Maxwell Hall after it opened in November. And Camp Pendleton is creating a barracks for wounded Marines on the West Coast.

 

A new set of duties

 

There's no reveille for morning formation at Maxwell Hall. Many of the Marines assembled in the common room on this spring day couldn't stand at attention without crutches or canes.

But don't think Gunnery Sgt. Ken Barnes went soft after that roadside bomb blasted his arm. He's the top enlisted man in charge of the barracks – the one who helped Col. Maxwell sell the idea to commanders – and there isn't anything wrong with his vocal cords.

"Hi, ladies. ... It's 0800 and I still see Airsoft BBs," he said, eyeballing plastic ammunition strewn across the carpet "battlefield."

"Y'all are out of high school. Mama cut the umbilical cord years ago."

In the afternoons, they gathered outside the brick building to talk, some dragging on cigarettes or spitting chew. They e-mailed Marines in the field or watched videos they filmed of their firefights in Iraq.

But first, duty called.

Lance Cpl. Peter Dmitruk, 20, of North Olmsted, Ohio, used his scabby, skin-grafted arm to wipe the tables with a cloth. "If my mother sees me cleaning, I'm done. I won't be able to pull the 'Mom, my arm hurts' routine," he said.

Later that day, Sgt. Jack Durgala – an infantryman who loved his job so much that he tattooed its code, 0311, onto his arm – picked up a pellet and examined it between his trigger fingers.

"You can take the grunts out of the battle, but you can't take the battle out of the grunts," he said, tossing it in the trash.

 

Three squads

 

Sgt. Jonathan Brown, 23, a tall, blond Marine from Indianapolis, said his first month of convalescence at home was awesome.

His arm had been shredded by a friendly-fire missile during the November 2004 raid on Fallujah. Eight months and 17 surgeries later, Sgt. Brown resorted to weekly buzzcuts at the barber to stay busy.

"It was the only thing I could do to feel like a Marine," he said. "I was losing my mind."

In August, he went to work helping to organize the wounded-warrior barracks.

As the program expanded from just a few men, the team split into three squads. One heads to the Camp Lejeune hospital to coordinate doctors' appointments and medications and check on Marines arriving on medevac flights.

The others work in public affairs or serve as teachers' aides at Johnson Primary School.

A few months ago, Cpl. Juan Ramirez, 21, of Oklahoma City was climbing into a Humvee when the driver gunned it, flinging him to the ground.

Now, with his busted arm, he's bent over a worksheet helping an Argentine boy make sense of teacher Elizabeth Hudson's questions. Juan Cruz Hillman Segura, 7, a freckle-faced boy just starting school in America, can't speak much English.

"¿Qué va a hacer?" Cpl. Ramirez asked, looking at the worksheet about the growth cycle of bean plants and translating for the teacher: What will happen next?

"Flower!" Juan answered, thinking of the English word.

"Good job! ¡Excelente!" Mrs. Hudson said, beaming at the boy and the Marine.

 

'It ain't growing back'

 

When "Gunny" Barnes asked the Marines at the barracks who was getting out of the Corps soon, someone reminded Cpl. Timothy Maguire, 21, of St. Louis to raise his arm: "Stubby!"

Cpl. Maguire gamely raised the stump of his right shoulder and grinned.

You might as well have a good attitude, explained Cpl. Maguire, who works as a comptroller for the barracks. "It ain't growing back," he said.

The wounded Marines who live and work together in the barracks seem to be progressing faster than the others, said caseworkers and medical corpsmen at the base.

They know the guilt of leaving your team behind. They know what it's like to be stared at, about morphine dreams and the phantom burning pain of a nerve pushing its way through scar tissue.

"Everybody in this building knows what it means to get injured," said Joe "Doc" Roe, 38, of Akron, Ohio, "and come back and feel like you're lost."

 

Long road to recovery

 

Col. Maxwell, who is back to light duty as the officer in charge of the barracks, is still recovering from brain damage he suffered in the Oct. 7, 2004, mortar attack.

He ordered the wounded Marines to stand tall and proud during a weekend trip to the U.S. Naval Academy.

"Wounded guys are still in the Marine Corps – we're not going to look like a bunch of bums," he said. "You're speaking on behalf of those devil dogs still in Iraq.

"You ain't no [expletive] privates anymore. You've been through life."

Col. Maxwell could barely speak after the mortar attack. A year and a half later, the former Texas A&M cadet, who graduated from Newman Smith High School in Carrollton, still forgets some common words.

"What's the name of that fort in Texas?" he asked.

The Alamo? "Yeah, that's it."

The guy who used to work 12-hour days or longer fatigues easily now. One foot flops as he walks, and an angry scar curves like a question mark around his skull.

A series of seizures in December set him back. But Col. Maxwell applied the same energy and discipline he utilized as a triathlete and marathon runner for his own recovery, said his father, Bill Maxwell of Garland.

And, Mr. Maxwell said, his son developed a level of empathy that his previous Marine Corps experience hadn't trained him for.

"Now that he's gone down that path," his father said, "he sees that people have psychological injuries as well as physical ones."

 

'The wounded live on'

 

The young Marines were chatting about the usual things – hot women, fat enlistment bonuses, the ups and downs of mandatory pill popping – when Maj. Gen. Richard A. Huck, commander of the 2nd Marine Division, stopped by the barracks.

More than 265 Marines from their division have been killed in action, he noted.

"We have to constantly remind them that all of this comes at a cost," he said. "Keep your heads up. That's a big part of the healing. ... And get on with it."

"They don't have a choice, sir," Gunny Barnes interjected. "If they look down, all they'll see is my boot. ... "

"Well, give them a bigger boot," the general said.

Lance Cpl. Armand "A.J." Anderson, 23, of St. Augustine, Fla., worked his way from a wheelchair to crutches to a cane. He won't be satisfied until he's back in the infantry – preferably in time to re-enlist in January.

"There's family heritage. My mom, my dad, my grandfathers," all were in the military, he said, displaying nine stars tattooed around his arm in their honor.

About half of the severely wounded in the Marine Corps stay in the service, said Lt. Gen. James F. Amos, the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force commanding general.

In the past, many of them wouldn't have had that option. The commandant of the Marine Corps announced two years ago that the injured who could do a job would no longer be pushed out.

"We want the decision to be theirs," Gen. Amos said. "The wounded live on. I want them to know that we care."

At first, he thought the best place for unmarried wounded Marines was at home with their relatives or under the care of the commanders who took them to war.

But when he toured Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio and other hospitals, every last Marine told him they needed their own barracks.

Cpl. Jeremy Fountain, 23, of Homedale, Idaho, was thrown across the road by a bomb explosion that left 150 holes in his legs.

When his unit returned from Iraq, Cpl. Fountain came out on crutches, excited to see his buddies. There were hugs all around, but as time went by, he began to feel like an outsider living among them.

"They're all training, getting ready to go back. You're sitting in the barracks by yourself," he said.

Lance Cpl. John Williams, 20, of Toledo, Ohio, was blinded in one eye by a bomb that branded his thigh with a scar in the shape of the Playboy bunny.

He spent several weeks in his old barracks at Camp Lejeune before the rest of his unit returned from Iraq.

"I was pretty depressed. There was no one to talk to," he said. "Here they gave me something to do, a reason to get out of bed every day. People could relate to me."

One of the barracks' newest residents, Lance Cpl. Zachary O'Grady, 22, of Walpole, Mass., was hobbling slowly down the hall, leaning on a cane, when Col. Maxwell called to him from his office.

Cpl. O'Grady was hit by a car bomb in September and spent seven months in hospitals, three of them in a coma.

Several guys from his unit were already here when the machine gunner arrived. They're all looking out for him, making sure he gets out of his room and eats something besides Pop-Tarts.

"Hey, I want to give your parents a jangle. I'm sure they've got a lot of questions," Col. Maxwell said.

"That would help my mom out a lot, sir," Cpl. O'Grady said.

 

Uncertain future

 

Helping other Marines has helped Col. Maxwell heal, he said. But like many residents of the wounded-warrior barracks, he doesn't know what comes next – whether he'll stay in the corps or start over as a civilian back in Dallas.

Mr. Maxwell said he hopes his son will stay in the Marines until his 20-year retirement.

Before the Iraq invasion, Mr. Maxwell drove a bus to Washington, D.C., with other war protesters. But he is intensely proud of his son, whom he used to call a "poster boy" for the Marines.

He still is proud.

Whether the battle is in Iraq or a hospital bed, "he's a fighter," Mr. Maxwell said.

Col. Maxwell chafes at the limitations his wounds have imposed. But Marines don't whine, he said.

"I'm not complaining. I'm lucky to have made it this far."

E-mail gkovach@dallasnews.com