Among the 140,000 U.S. troops currently deployed in Iraq, one in 10 is a woman; two of five are parents. As with soldiers in all wars, their experiences have been a mix of service and sacrifice, pride and pain: As of press time, 969 soldiers have been killed and 6,690 wounded. Among the injured, 45 percent returned to duty within 72 hours. The rest, like the four brave men and women here, suffered wounds far more grave. For them, another kind of struggle has just begun
Jeremy Feldbusch, who was permanently blinded in Iraq, says, “I’ve been through it all”
One afternoon in April 2003, Sgt. Jeremy Feldbusch, a 6-foot-3, 24-yearold high-school wrestling champ from Blairsville, Pennsylvania, with dreams of becoming a doctor, stood in the blistering heat of central Iraq, overlooking the Haditha Dam on the Euphrates, the 2,235-mile-long river mentioned in Genesis 2:14 as being one of the four rivers of Eden. Feldbusch was on guard duty-the dam was the only thing between 2.2 trillion gallons of water and nearby towns. If anyone managed to slip past U.S. soldiers and blow a hole in the dam's side, the torrent of water "would have killed tens of thousands of people," he says.
After graduating from the University of Pittsburgh in 2001, Feldbusch was thinking about medical school but decided to postpone it to join the Army's elite Rangers unit. As part of the 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, he was among the first Americans to parachute into Iraqi territory in 2003 and grew accustomed to dangerous duty, such as aiming and firing mortar shells. It was April 1, at the very height of the war, when the Rangers seized the Haditha Dam on the basis of intelligence reports that it was vulnerable to sabotage, and they had been guarding it closely.
All seemed quiet enough two days later, and Feldbusch polished off lunch: a packet of Armyissued, heatand-serve chicken teriyaki.
That was the last thing he remembers.
When he woke again, everything was black. He assumed he was still in Iraq, but he could hear his parents' voices. "I thought, What are they doing here? What in the hell is going on? Am I dreaming?"
Five weeks had passed since an Iraqi artillery shell slammed into the ground just 100 feet away from Feldbusch. His fellow Rangers carried the semiconscious soldier to safety, and he was airlifted out of Iraq to an offshore hospital.
Back home in Blairsville, his mother, Charlene, a bookkeeper, got the news when she returned a phone call to a number from Georgia that she'd found listed on her caller ID. What her son's commander said became a blur of words in Charlene's mind. She walked out to the garage and wordlessly CONTINUED ON PAGE 110
Jeremy Feldbusch, who was permanently blinded in Iraq, says, "I've been through it all"
handed the phone to her husband, Brace, a former coal miner.
"The next thing I know, my girlfriend was picking me up off our deck;' Charlene says. "I lost it?'
Feldbusch's parents were filled in on his ghastly injuries: A oneinch-square piece of red-hot shrapnel had sliced through his right eye, severed the optic nerve in his left, shattered part of his skull and lodged in his brain. He was clinging to life but would soon be flown to a hospital in San Antonio. Doctors urged his parents and their two other sons, Shaun, now 26, and Brian, 18, to make arrangements to meet Feldbusch there. "They wanted us to see him while he was still alive;' says Charlene.
In a desperate effort to save him, doctors put him in a medical coma. Surgeons then executed a series of delicate operations, peeling back the top of his face, removing the shrapnel and inserting a titanium-mesh framework to replace the part of his cranium that had helped hold his brain in place. They replaced his right eye with a ball of fat taken from his abdomen and covered with synthetic material in hopes of fitting him with a glass eye later on.
Charlene remembers that when she first set foot in that intensive care unit after a grim briefing from his doctors, she saw her son on a ventilator, his body swollen from fluid retention. Mercifully, bandages covered his eyes. "They gave him a 50/50 chance of making it," Charlene says.
His parents stayed at his bedside for a month, leaving only to sleep One night, as they were reluctantly preparing to leave, Brace leaned in close to his son, as usual, to whisper in his ear that he loved him.
"I was talking to the nurse;' charlene says, "and Brace came up to me, and he was crying. He said, 'Go over there and bend over to Jeremy.' I thought, Oh, my God, what happened? I went over, and he whispered, 'I love you, Mom? I can't even tell you what that moment was like."
Still, it was rough going-he fought pneumonia, a raging bacterial infection and excruciating pain in his head. On doctor's orders, his parents waited another two weeks to tell their son that he was permanently blind. "We told him he still had bandages on his eyes. It was very hard to lie;' Charlene recalls. "But I was afraid he might go into shock if we told him too soon."
Somehow he pulled through. Feldbusch's neurosurgeon told his parents he had no good explanation for Feldbusch's recovery and the way he managed to regain the ability to speak. "That young man is a miracle," he told them again and again.
Yet as Feldbusch improved, the terrible reality of his injuries began to sink in: Not only was Feldbusch completely blind, he had trouble with his short-term memory and suffered occasional grand mal seizures. As with many other soldiers returning in shock and pain, he raged against his fate. He became notorious among hospital personnel for cursing.
He wasn't the first in his family to be wounded in war. Both of his grandfathers had been in the Army; one of them was in the Normandy invasion and was missing in action for four months before the French returned him, wounded, to U.S. troops. Now his grandfather's Purple Heart sits on a shelf next to his own.
Feldbusch and his parents returned to their tiny town late in the summer of 2003. One of the first things he did was arrange to meet a 13-year-old girl who had sent him a rosary blessed by the Pope.Jessica Kurnocik knew what it was like to see dreams cut short. She'd been crazy for gymnastics when doctors' tests revealed an enormous tumor in her leg: It was an extremely rare and painful form of cancer. The friendship between Feldbusch and Kurnocik helped both of them tremendously. "Jeremy could do no wrong in Jessica's book," says her mother, Tracey. "He didn't recognize her as the 'poor, little, skinny kid with cancer? She could just bejessie?'
Feldbusch's sadness began to lift. He learned to get around using a long, white cane. (He hopes to get a service dog someday.) He's learning braille and is considering going back to school somedaymaybe to study biology or chemistry. If so, the military will help pay his tuition. He has put aside his dream of becoming a doctor but he thinks he might be able to deepen his scientific knowledge and pursue some kind of pharmaceutical research.
After Feldbusch's bittersweet homecoming made the newspapers, he was recruited by nonprofit groups, among them the Wounded Warrior Project, to help other newly injured soldiers struggling to come to terms with the shock, pain and despair of serious injuries, like amputations, paralysis, extensive burns and head wounds.
Every few months, Wounded Warrior foots the bill to send him to an Army hospital. Often he starts off simply by sitting and listening, letting a maimed soldier rage and curse a blue streak, just as he himself used to do. "Then I say, 'Now that you're done with swearing at me, we can talk? And then they listen," he says. "I tell them I've been through it all. I let them know that they're going to be just fine. No matter what they feel inside, we're going to help them and they still have a lot to be thankful for?'
Today, the man who doctors feared would never be able to communicate also gives speeches to corporate groups, urging them to donate to Wounded Warrior and other independent veterans' support organizations.
Still, he had to get through one more heartbreak this year. Jessica's cancer returned with a vengeance, this time attacking her lungs. By Easter, she knew she was dying and requested that Feldbusch be a pallbearer at her funeral.
As she was drifting in and out of consciousness, Feldbusch came over for one last visit, a gesture that deeply moved the Kurnociks. "Jeremy had faced his own mortality," Tracey says. "For him to come in there, knowing she was dying-that took a lot of courage?' For Jessica's funeral Mass, at Saints Simon and Jude Church, in Blairsville, Feldbusch dressed in full Army uniform with his green beret to help carry her small casket.
More than six months later, Feldbusch faces a Thanksgiving season with, he avows, many blessings to count. "Oh, there's a long list," he says emphatically. "I'm thankful for the people who raised me. For the area I grew up in. For this country. For having the opportunity to help protect all of them."
He pauses, then adds softly, "I'm thankful to still be here."