View Full Version : The Soldiers of Ward 57

07-21-03, 06:13 AM
The Soldiers of Ward 57 <br />
The War After the War <br />
Soldiers' Battle Shifts From Desert Sands to Hospital Linoleum <br />
<br />
By Anne Hull and Tamara Jones <br />
Washington Post Staff Writers <br />
Sunday, July 20,...

07-21-03, 06:13 AM
Danny is now the model patient, always chipper and polite. Thank you so much, he tells the nurse bringing pain medication. "Awesome work," he congratulates his surgeon. He urges the bleary-eyed residents to get some sleep.

One morning, an intern unwraps his bandages, causing Danny to grip the bed rails in pain. "Oh, Danny Boy," she begins to sing, trying to distract him. He manages an appreciative smile even as he winces.

The Honeymooners

By the time he reached Walter Reed, John Fernandez had made a vow. "I'm not going to feel sorry for myself," he swore. Not when three men around him, including the gunner he tried to save, came home in body bags. "I'm here and I'm alive and I'm going to walk out of this place."

His hospital room is the first home he and his 22-year-old wife, Kristi, have shared as husband and wife. Kristi has moved a cot into his room. They hold court bedside, John recounting his story to visiting dignitaries, buddies and hospital staff. "I don't have any problems talking about it," he reassures the curious. His 13th Field Artillery unit was pushing toward Baghdad when an explosion blew John from his cot as he slept by his Humvee the night of April 3, less than 20 miles from the Iraqi capital.

"I woke up. My legs were numb," he recalls. "I took off the sleeping bag and I screamed." His feet were bloody pulp. The Humvee was in flames, spewing fuel. Patches of fire burned around the wounded soldiers. "I crawled away, calling for my gunner. He called back. His legs were bad, pretty much blown off. So I threw my flak vest down on him, put my M-16 on his chest and started dragging him." Help arrived, and the gunner was carried off. Two more soldiers -- just kids, John thought -- appeared through the smoke. The Humvee exploded, throwing all of them to the ground again. His rescuers began to panic.

"Calm down, it's okay," John remembers telling them. "Just grab my legs, not my feet." At the mobile Army hospital, one of the senior sergeants burst into tears. "Don't worry about it," John heard himself saying. "I'm okay."

Arriving at Walter Reed, feet swathed in thick bandages, he figured he was in for some serious reconstructive surgery.

But the wounds were grievous, and infection set in.

Twelve surgeries later, John Fernandez is a double amputee.

Surgeons sawed off one leg just below the knee, the other a couple of inches above the ankle. His wife of three months insists that nothing has changed between them, and talks about dancing together at the big wedding postponed by war. The surgeons agree: Anything is possible. People climb mountains, ski, run marathons on state-of-the-art artificial legs. John had always been an avid athlete -- lacrosse, basketball, soccer, hunting, fishing, you name it.

Kristi had been waiting at the curb when they unloaded John's stretcher at Walter Reed. She remembers seeing his smile first, running to kiss him, to say "I love you" over and over through happy tears.

The honeymooners in Room 5711 quickly became the darlings of Ward 57. Encamped in the small room, they crack jokes in their Long Island accents and beg visitors from back home to bring fresh bagels. They draw a cartoon of John on the nurse's dryboard, with the proclamation: "I am the Spanish Thunder." That was his nickname as captain of the Army lacrosse team. John used to have legs like tree trunks.

The swelling is going down on his two stumps, and doctors hope to start fitting him for artificial limbs soon. The rehabilitation specialist, Jeffrey Gambel, says that John should eventually be able to bear weight on the longer stump, which will mean he won't have to put on both prostheses to get to the bathroom in the middle of the night. "It will be very hard to walk on," Gambel cautions, "like a cone."

"Like a pirate," John suggests. He and Kristi burst into laughter, sharing the same ludicrous thought:

"Halloween!" they hoot almost simultaneously. No need to worry about a costume this year.

Celebrity City

America is sending cookies and Hickory Farms baskets to Ward 57. Orioles tickets and NASCAR passes arrive. Sheryl Crow brings her guitar and sings for each soldier. Michael Jordan is as fast on hospital linoleum as he is on the basketball court: Here's an autographed cap and whoosh, he's gone. Kelsey Grammer pulls up a chair bedside. They are too young to remember Bo Derek; ("What's '10'?" a soldier asks after being introduced to the movie star.) But they thoroughly appreciate Jennifer Love Hewitt.

The staff on 57 worries about the attention being showered on the soldiers. What happens when they are no longer in the spotlight? Gambel watches as country singer Chely Wright and her entourage give each soldier a yellow rosebud. "They are told they're heroes, and they get home and they don't feel like heroes," Gambel says. "They feel like some dumb guy who stepped on a land mine."

So many celebrities and politicians arrive that a 28-year-old Special Forces medic whose left leg was amputated hangs a NO VISITORS sign on his door. The phrase "Thank you for your sacrifice" has lost its meaning, he says. "It's like someone saying 'Happy Birthday' or 'Merry Christmas.' "

One Sunday afternoon, the nurse's station on 57 gets word that Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld is coming for a visit. Counters are scrubbed, a hot rod magazine on the front desk gets stashed and nurses patrol the halls, making sure patients and rooms are presentable. An hour later, Rumsfeld cancels. He has a cold.


Of all the specialists who puzzle over Garth Stewart, of all the expensive drugs dripping into his veins, nothing brings relief. The stomach cramps and constipation persist. Instead of getting better, he's getting worse. And then his magic bullet arrives.

The remedy comes from an unlikely deliverer known as the Milkshake Man. Jim Mayer is a veteran who lost both legs in Vietnam. Several times a week, he brings McDonald's milkshakes to the amputees on Ward 57. The visits are just an excuse to talk and counsel. Mayer arrives this Saturday afternoon but Garth refuses the shake. Too rich. Any chance of a Mountain Dew, he asks. Mayer heads downstairs to the commissary.

The super-caffeinated soda does it. Caffeine! The next day, Garth is sitting up in bed. His blinds are open. "Mountain Dew saved my ******* life," he says, his voice deep and robust. Suddenly, he is ravenous. "Domino's keeps showing this commercial for Cinna Stix," he says. "You dip them in icing. Man, I want some."

When six Washington Redskinettes push through the double doors of Ward 57, wearing maroon sparkle bras and hot pants, Garth is waiting. "You guys are so cute," he practically shouts. One of the cheerleaders touches his stump. Garth says, "So many people look at this as you are less of a man. You should see the dignity of the guys who come in here to visit me. They roll up pants, and they are standing on plaster."

A day after the Redskinettes visit, Walter Reed's highest commanders come to bestow military honors. After the VIPs leave, Garth sits in bed, a gold medal pinned to his pajama top and an empty delivery box on the sheet beside him.

"Quite a day, man," he says. "Pizza and a Purple Heart."

The next morning, he's wide awake when the doctors arrive for rounds. Freshly barbered, he looks like a soldier again, which is what he wants to be as soon as he can escape the captivity of Walter Reed. He has one question: "When can I get out?"

"I think a week is certainly feasible," a physician, Ken Taylor, says, checking for signs that the skin flap is healing.

Garth says how badly he wants to rejoin his unit in Iraq. "This is something I'm really serious about, doc."

Taylor stays focused on Garth's stitches. "An amputation is not a death sentence as far as the Army's concerned," he says. "We've got two four-star generals with amputations. It's hard for me to say if you'd be a ground-pounder again, an infantryman, but I don't rule it out."

Garth continues to press. "I mean, if someone came and got me, could the Army stop me from leaving?"

Taylor pauses, holding the gauze in his hand. The 37-year-old Army major is unshaven. He has worked all night, and his long day in the operating room starts in 45 minutes. But he remains calmly intent on Garth. "You're itching to get out of here, and I'm itching to launch you," he says. "The fact that you're even saying that is fantastic. You were this guy curled up in a ball two days ago who didn't want the light turned on."

"You're on the fence right now," he says gently. "I can't pop your hood and look inside and tell you what's going on today to know what I have to do to get you out of here. The human condition is not like that. We're on your side. You buyin' what I'm sayin'?"

Garth folds his hands behind his head. "Yeah."

When Taylor leaves, Garth comes up with the idea to buy his own plane ticket back to Iraq. He can't stand the idea of the 3rd Infantry Division over there without him.

Trip to the Mall

Danny's little green notebook is full of his scrawled reminders now. There's a lot to think about, plans to make. He and his girlfriend, Mindy, will need a new apartment, ground floor. And transportation -- he sold his beater of a pickup truck before going off to war. Will a wheelchair fit in Mindy's Kia? He fantasizes about buying a bass guitar once he gets home to Green Bay, too.

In the haze of painkillers and too many different people trying to brief him on Army policy, the economics of being a disabled reservist confuse Danny. There are forms to complete, boards to convene, hearings to go through before the Army decides what his status will be and what kind of compensation he will get. The process can takes months. His head hurts. He thinks it must be the meds.


07-21-03, 06:15 AM
&quot;I'm not one to gouge the system,&quot; he says, &quot;but everyone's told me I already paid a big price and deserve what I can get.&quot; <br />
<br />
His mother, Nancy, arrives from Green Bay with Mindy, a blur of hugs and...

07-22-03, 05:49 AM
The Soldiers of Ward 57 <br />
Moving Forward, One Step at a Time <br />
After Iraq, Wounded Soldiers Try Out New Limbs, New Lives <br />
<br />
By Tamara Jones and Anne Hull <br />
Washington Post Staff Writers <br />
Monday, July...

07-22-03, 05:50 AM
Word comes that a medevac plane departing Andrews Air Force Base the next morning can ferry Danny and his mom to Wisconsin. The brain team will call him with their findings, and he can get an...

07-22-03, 05:51 AM
Stillwater is green and hot, cut in two by the majestic St. Croix River where Garth swam as a kid. One afternoon, a friend picks him up and she drives him to the river. Garth limps as he makes his...