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thedrifter
09-05-06, 09:49 AM
Marine back home: Waterbury man wounded in Iraq

BY EMILY BEAVER
Republican-American

WATERBURY -- Sitting in a chair on his back porch, 20-year-old James Lauber stares at his right foot. A long scar runs up his right knee and a surgical bandage is wrapped around the lower part of his leg. With considerable concentration, he raises his right toe a few inches off the ground

"See, I can move it a little bit," he says.

Less than a month ago, Lance Cpl. Lauber was patrolling the streets of Fallujah, Iraq, as a Marine Corps reservist. Now, Lauber uses crutches to move around his home on Woodhaven Street in the Bunker Hill section. He was sent home after a grenade lobbed at his Humvee left shards of metal in his right leg, leaving him temporarily unable to walk.

However, Lauber plans to walk and join the Marine reserves again soon.

"I'm going to recover 100 percent," he said.

To celebrate Lauber's arrival, his neighbors hung welcome home signs on an Interstate 84 underpass. They lined his street with American flags, yellow ribbons and signs in his front yard inviting him to "sleep tight in your own bed tonight."

"It's a relief to have him home," his mother Connie Lauber said. "But we're still worried about everyone else who's over there."

James Lauber, who goes by his initials J.R., was sent to Iraq for the first time in March, less than two years after he joined the Marine Reserve unit in Plainville.

He and his company of about 200 Marines lived and worked in Fallujah, and Lauber says his work there had become routine by the time he was injured in early August.

He describes that day as otherwise normal. He and two other Marines were riding through Fallujah in a Humvee for a routine security patrol. Lauber was the vehicle's turret gunner, his upper body sticking out of the vehicle.

As the Humvee passed through a crowded marketplace, Lauber said an Iraqi boy threw a grenade into Lauber's turret, a space he describes as the size of a car's sunroof. Lauber saw the boy run down an alley. He screamed "grenade" to alert his fellow Marines inside the Humvee.

He felt pain creep up his right side, but didn't know exactly what had happened. The other Marines jumped out and helped Lauber pull his legs out of the Humvee. They pulled him into a nearby shop to quickly dress his wounds.

Lauber was then sent to a Fallujah hospital. Lauber and the Humvee's driver, whose left arm was injured in the blast, were transported to Germany for treatment.

Calling his fiancee and his parents after he was injured was difficult, Lauber said.

"When I told my dad I got hurt, the first thing he asked was, 'Do you still have all your limbs?'" he said.

Lauber was eventually transferred to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., before returning home. He will receive a Purple Heart for his injuries.

Lauber, a 2004 Sacred Heart graduate, said he was the only student from his class to enlist in the military.

He said he knew deployment to Iraq was likely when he enlisted, but the prospect of going into combat did not deter him from becoming a Marine, which was his childhood dream. His father was a Marine, serving in a military prison in North Carolina during the late '70s, and his grandfather was a Marine in the Korean war.

"People asked me if I knew if there was a war going on when I joined," he said. "I knew what could happen, but I never wanted to be a selfish person. I've always wanted to do this."

Lauber won't be returning to duty anytime soon. As a Marine reservist, he would have completed his tour by the end of October before being placed on a two-year furlough.

"The hardest thing about coming home was leaving my buddies," Lauber said. "Getting on the plane without everyone else, you don't feel right. It's like leaving your family behind."

After he recovers, Lauber plans to remain in the Marine Corps reserve, participating in the monthly training sessions while he attends an aviation school in Long Island, N.Y., to get his pilot's license. After his two-year furlough period is completed, he could be deployed again.

For the next few months, Lauber will stay at home to focus on his recovery. He had his first checkup at the Veterans Administration hospital in Newington on Wednesday morning, and will return periodically for checkups and routine psychological evaluations. He will also attend physical therapy sessions to regain strength and mobility in his leg.

His fiancee, 19-year-old Shea Ayotte of Waterbury, is taking a semester off at Western Connecticut State University to drive Lauber to his appointments.

"It's nice to have him home," she said. "I can sleep again."

Ellie