May 6, 2008

GI itching to rejoin Iraq unit

WATERFORD -- The rocket exploded just inches from Josh Whitfield's head, leaving him with a concussion and other moderate injuries.

But it isn't how close the Army specialist came to eternity that troubles him today. It's the distance that separates him from his buddies in Iraq.

The blast didn't stop him from ordering the driver of the Stryker armored vehicle he was in to back up to protect U.S. soldiers on the ground. Nor did it stop him from firing his mounted .50-caliber machine gun for nearly a minute before he passed out.

The 20-year-old Hughson High School graduate dismissed the notion that he was ever at risk.

"My life wasn't in jeopardy," he said. "My medic did his job and the platoon did their job."

His road to recovery from the March 24 ambush in Baghdad has taken him to Landstuhl, Germany, then to Washington, D.C., Palo Alto and finally home to Waterford.

Whitfield relayed his latest evaluations given to him by Army doctors.

"Physically, my prognosis is full recovery," Whitfield said.

Officially his condition was called "moderate traumatic brain injury" but significant might be a more accurate term to laymen. Doctors told him he will always be at risk from "secondary impact syndrome."

It's the same kind of injury that forced former NFL quarterbacks Steve Young and Troy Aikman to retire after they suffered a series of concussions.

Any more blows to Whitfield's head could cause serious brain damage, according to doctors.

It is that condition that could keep him from returning to combat.

Whitfield said he will appeal "with every fiber of my being" any decision that would keep him from rejoining his "band of brothers, my family in Iraq."

"The No. 1 goal for me is to return to my unit in Iraq in a combat role," Whitfield said. "That's what is driving my rehab."

He has one month of outpatient therapy at home before reporting to Fort Lewis, Wash. The Army will decide his military future in early June.

'Surviving makes you stronger'

Don't misunderstand Whitfield's motives. It's the men -- not combat -- that he loves.

"Every soldier learns to hate war," he said. "We go to war for the good of our country, really for the good of mankind."

Whitfield paused to add one request of his countrymen who oppose the war.

"You may hate the war, but don't hate the warrior."

Being in combat is something he can't explain or do justice to in words.

"It's 100 emotions all at once," he said. "Surviving makes you stronger."

Whitfield was a news junkie in high school and decided on a military career when he was 15.

"Even as a small child I was fascinated with police officers and soldiers," he said. "I chose to enlist because it was important to me."

Whitfield said he knew what might lie ahead if joined the military.

"You'd have to be a fool to enlist in the Army and not think that you could go in harm's way," he said.

Whitfield recalled what he could of the day his patrol got ambushed.

He manned a .50-caliber machine gun in the exposed turret, as he puts it "in the classic Sherman tank pose" seen atop American tanks in World War II.

As he did every mission, Whitfield was wearing about 50 pounds of protective gear. On the day after Easter, his team was securing an area where an explosive had been found.

Whitfield said the first shots he heard were from small arms and came from his right. He returned fire first with his M-4 rifle.

"I engaged enemy gunmen from my right. My Stryker (vehicle) was blindsided with an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade). It blew up 12 inches in front of me. It blew the M-4 out of my hands. I took shrapnel to my head from the blast. My armor took everything else."

Because of the force of the blast, he was suffering from bleeding in the brain and a severe concussion but didn't know it yet. Fellow soldiers later told him that he kept firing his machine gun for 40 to 60 seconds.

After Whitfield passed out, he was taken to the closest aid station in the Stryker he commanded. He regained consciousness 20 minutes later as he was being pulled out of a CT scanner.

Whitfield has conquered the short term memory loss that first afflicted him, but three days after being wounded he lost all feeling on his left side. That setback was caused by slow swelling in his brain.

A week ago in Palo Alto, Whitfield admitted walking was a challenge. "I just got off a cane. It's like Bambi on his first day."

He said he had some minor pain but it was manageable. This was the second time he had been hit since his tour of Iraq began in August. On a rooftop in December, Whitfield injured his knee and lost some hearing after a grenade exploded nearby.

At home, there are no readily apparent signs of his wounds. Whitfield said he might even surprise his parents and mow the lawn, a chore he was loathe to do as a teenager.

Assessing his own condition, Whitfield said the "most difficult physical challenge is lifting my left leg." And then he lamented what still bothers him most.

"What's worse is being ripped away from my guys."

Whitfield said he is ready for the possibility that he might not be allowed to return to Iraq.

"There will never be another experience like it -- being a part of 1st Platoon, Nemesis Troop, 4th Squadron of the 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment. And maybe it's over."

There was a maxim that Whitfield said best expressed his unit's camaraderie.

"Individually we may not have it all, but together we truly have it all. I honestly believe that," Whitfield said.

Uncertainty ahead

With all he has been through and the uncertainty ahead, Whitfield appreciates the support of loved ones. "With my home, my family and friends, I couldn't have fallen on a softer cushion." He said he believed his mother even supported his efforts to return to Iraq.

His mother, Tami Whitfield, was true to her son's words. "I do want whatever makes my son happy. I've met some of his (Army) friends. I understand (why he wants to go back)," she said. "I can't worry about him. I'd go crazy. I have to have faith he'll be OK."

Whitfield said he also is ready to let faith take over. "I truly have had the privilege of serving with the best my country has to offer. I'm trying to let go and let God. It's not easy to let Him have the leash."

Bee staff writer Roger Hoskins can be reached at rhoskins@modbee.com or 578-2311.

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