He lost his hands in Iraq, but not the will to serve

On April 7, 2004, Marine Cpl. James "Eddie" Wright was on his second deployment to Iraq, riding in the lead Humvee in a convoy patrolling south of Fallujah, when insurgents ambushed his unit.

As the eruption of concussions punched the air and shrapnel and machine gun bullets tore through windows, metal and flesh, a rocket-propelled grenade hit Wright's automatic rifle and exploded.

"I was conscious, surprisingly awake through the whole thing," Wright, 31, who grew up in West Seattle, says. "I can replay every moment in my head. I opened my eyes and looked at my arms and remember thinking, 'Damn, both of them?' "

The explosion had blown off Wright's right arm below the elbow and his left at the wrist. Wright's left eardrum was ruptured and his helmet and safety glasses were torn away. Looking down, he saw his left femur protruding from his thigh, and knew he could bleed to death.

"I was ****ed that I couldn't pick up my rifle, but I couldn't concentrate on little details," he recalls.

Young Marines around him, some without combat experience, needed him. Their commander had been killed. With a firefight raging, Wright knew he had to remain cool to save them and himself.

"If I freaked out, they would. I needed to get us to better cover out of the 'kill zone.' I figured I could have handled the RPG blast, but one or two bullets hitting me might have done me in," Wright says.

He directed the men in setting tourniquets and applying first aid to him and two other wounded. As one Marine jumped into the driver's seat of the damaged Humvee, Wright directed them from the area. As the Humvee sped away, Wright continued, too, to point out enemy machine-gun nests, directing others to take them out.

With both hands gone and his leg nearly lost except for the skill of a military surgeon in a field hospital, Wright's career, if not his life, might have ended then and there. Yet during a year of painful recovery and therapy, during which Wright was promoted to sergeant and awarded a Bronze Star for valor, he fought to remain in uniform, and won.

His job: Hand-to-hand combat instructor at the Marine Corps' famed martial-arts school at Quantico, Va.

Today, he charts a new life: college and a career in the business world, perhaps telling his story to inspire others.

Wright's father, Air Force Col. James K. Wright, is an accomplished plastic surgeon. But after the grenade tore his son apart, there was little he could do but alert the family. They included the Marine's grandmother, Katherine Wright, of West Seattle.

"I was devastated," she said of the day Wright's dad phoned her with the bad news from Fallujah.

"I said, 'How is he going to manage with no hands?' My son said, 'At least he's alive.' We started behaving like that. We're just so thankful he's alive."

Wright knew from the beginning that there was nothing his dad's medical skills could do.

"My dad and I talk about everything, almost daily," Wright says. "He understood that it was just a matter of getting proficient with prosthetics."

The problem was becoming accustomed to the hooks and attachments and negotiating his prosthetic arm. He has mastered some skills; with some adjustments he can keep up his love of boating and travel. Other skills will take more time and creativity. It can be frustrating.

"Like anybody else, I have rough days, but not any more than before I was injured," he says, "although I have had to learn to be more patient.

"There is no interface between you and the (prosthetic) machine to control hand commands. It's not that technology can't make such a machine; it can't make the interface," Wright says.

The interface, though, is Wright's infectious spirit, those who know him say.

"Ever since he was injured, he has been held up as a poster boy because he was so upbeat, and his attitude is wonderful," Wright's grandmother says.

Weary and wary of fame, Wright finally yielded to media interviews and now appears in a film at the new National Museum of the Marine Corps in Quantico, Va. Over the past two years, he reluctantly accepted a few gifts from a grateful public to make his life easier.

At Bethesda Naval Hospital and Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Wright explains: "I saw other guys way worse than me. They inspired me." They were the blind, paralyzed and brain-injured.

Wright met others who had remained in uniform after losing one limb. He learned he was among less than a half-dozen from all the U.S. armed services to lose both hands in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was the only one to return to active duty after his injury.

It was simply a "right-place-at-the-right time chain of events" that kept him in the service, Wright says. Marine Maj. Gen. Tom Jones, head of the training and educational command, visited the wounded one day in Washington, D.C. He was struck by Wright's upbeat nature and determination to remain a Marine and proposed a job if one came open.

"I jumped on it when it came up," Wright says. Holder of a green belt in Marine Corps martial arts, Wright taught new officers at the Marine basic school in Quantico, as well as other instructors.

"What I enjoyed most was working at something where I wasn't filling a desk," Wright says.

The citation accompanying Wright's Bronze Star calls him "the epitome of calm" in Fallujah, where he continued to lead his team during the firefight despite his wounds.

"I think that the training and the will to survive and to stay focused on the job at hand is what kept me from going into shock," Wright says.

"It took about 45 minutes from the time I was hit for the (evacuation) helicopter to arrive; the firefight was still going on," Wright says. Occasionally he popped up his head up to see what was going on and comment.

It took nearly 40 pints of blood to stabilize Wright.

A rush of family met Wright when he arrived in the U.S. They mustered around him in Washington, D.C., first at Bethesda, then at Walter Reed's amputee ward.

Wright's mom, Carmel Fitzgerald, flew from her home in Ireland to spend five months caring for him. Wright consulted with his dad and spoke with his brother, Matt, and sister, Nora.

In Seattle, his grandmother warmed up her kitchen oven. "He is fond of blackberry pie. I made one and carried it cross-country to him," she says.

Having won the right to serve, Wright, who is single, knew he then could retire one day on his terms. He did so last summer. It was a hard decision. Once out, he couldn't return. He loved his job, even wanted to be with his brothers-in-arms in Iraq.

"Just having the opportunity to stay in meant I didn't have to look back one day and say, 'What if?' " Wright says. He retired early but by choice rather than circumstance after seeing things he could accomplish as a civilian.

Wright moved near his sister in Houston. He thought of moving home to Seattle. "The cost of living around Houston is cheap, and I wanted to go somewhere that my VA pension wouldn't leave me pinching pennies," he says.

Wright's roots are in West Seattle. His grandfather served at an Army base there. His father graduated from West Seattle High. He and his siblings lived there when they weren't "Air Force brats" in some far-flung base.

Wright's dad, who once practiced medicine in Port Angeles, is now a military plastic surgeon in Florida. His mom has returned to her native Ireland.

Wright joined the Marines in 1995.

He'd do it again "in a heartbeat," he says, even with the same outcome. His journey opened significant doors to help others. "I wouldn't trade it, even for my hands back," he says.

Wright expects to enter Sam Houston State University in January to earn a business degree. He hopes one day to become a motivational speaker. He practices by accepting invitations to speak for free to veterans. Last month he was at an AmVets convention in Chicago; earlier this month, he was at the opening of the Marine Corps museum in Quantico.

A new project close to his heart requires traveling to raise money. Called Operation Grateful Nation, it pairs veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with business mentors. The goal is to help them enter the corporate world or start their own businesses.

"Myself and a lot of people in the end want to be self-sufficient again, in control of our own destinies and not living off a VA pension or handouts," Wright says.

In his journeys, Wright often hears one question.

How do you remain so upbeat?

"I don't make excuses for myself," Wright answers. "Everybody is in control of their lives to a certain extent. What I can't control is having hands. What I can control is my attitude about it."

P-I reporter Mike Barber can be reached at 206-448-8018 or mikebarber@seattlepi.com.