Healer who never fell back laid to rest
Rocky Mountain News ^ | 30 DEC 2006 | Jim Sheeler

ARLINGTON, Va. - The sergeant with no legs sat inside the cemetery, thinking about how this homecoming was supposed to happen. The 24-year-old Marine had spent the past two months in a hospital bed, grimacing as he devised his own painful physical regimen to strengthen the tender stumps that end just above his knees, hoping to earn his prosthetic legs early. His unit wasn't supposed to return from Iraq until April, so he figured he had plenty of time to learn how to walk.

"I wanted to walk when they came off the bus to see all of them, but especially 'Doc,' " he said, referring to the last face he saw before everything went dark.

"I wanted to shake his hand and say, 'Thank you.' "

Wednesday morning, near the perfect rows of headstones that stretched up and along the hillsides at Arlington National Cemetery, the man in the wheelchair spoke quietly, in a soft Southern drawl.

"To be honest," he said, "I'm pretty nervous about this."

"You'll do fine," his mother said.

The sergeant's body is still riddled with shrapnel wounds, pitting the skin on his entire left side with deep pink scars. What is left of his legs jutted from the wheelchair, filling only a fraction of his jeans, which were folded at the place where his knees used to be. Only one hand works.

He looked over at his wife and two daughters, at his parents and the rows and rows of white marble. Somewhere out there was a fresh grave.

As he entered the place known as "our nation's most sacred shrine" for the first time, the sergeant said he was unshaken by the seemingly endless headstones. What got to him, he said, are the people left behind to grieve.

"I just think about all the families," he said, "and the people like myself who had to go into Arlington for this."

The sergeant's father wheeled him into a waiting room, where the Marine asked to sit in the corner, out of the way. Soon, the room was filled with crisp Navy uniforms - admirals, chiefs and hospital corpsmen, many of them sporting dress coats jingling with medals.

Then, down the stairs, the sergeant saw the people who wore no uniforms, the ones who wore only grief.

As it turned out, the man with no legs didn't need to learn how to walk to welcome home Navy Hospital Corpsman Christopher A. Anderson.

Doc's family walked over to him.

A choice to 'go green'

Marine Sgt. Gregory Edwards took his last step Oct. 21. After six weeks in country, Alpha Company was on patrol in Ramadi, Iraq, conducting house-to-house searches when a hidden explosive detonated. He woke up and saw the hazel eyes he recognized immediately.

The lanky 24-year-old from Longmont wore a patch with two snakes intertwined around a winged staff - the caduceus, the traditional sign of a healer, and the emblem of a Navy corpsman. He was the only one of them in the squad who was not a Marine - the most important one of them all: the one they all called Doc.

Before being deployed, Navy corpsmen say, they have a choice to "go blue," serving their time on a ship or stateside, or to "go green," assigned to the Marines.

Christopher "Doc" Anderson volunteered to go green.

Before arriving in Iraq in early September, Anderson was assigned to Alpha Company of the 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment - a group with a decorated history dating to World War I. The rookie corpsman was soon on the front with the infantry, saddled with securing some of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Iraq.

Before the Marines headed to Ramadi, they had to know that the sailor from Colorado with the massive pack of medical gear was the kind of man they could trust with their lives.

Marines don't train field medics of their own; they rely on Navy hospital corpsmen, as they have for more than a century. A traditional saying holds that a Marine infantryman doesn't wonder if his corpsman will save his life - he wonders when.

"When you get a new corpsman, he has to prove himself, that he can do the same things the Marines can do," Edwards said. "When we do PT (physical training), he has to keep up. When we go on our hikes, he has to carry the same gear, plus his medical gear, which must weigh an additional 30 pounds. And he can't fall back."

A fourth-generation sailor, Doc Anderson never fell back.

Although relatively scrawny, it didn't take long for Anderson to prove that he could run as quickly as any of the "grunts," with the same endurance. He used his height to help shorter guys over walls and fences, following behind, always looking out.

Using his medical equipment as a universal translator - and ice-breaker - he treated Iraqis as well as his own men, forging trust in a place where the word often has no definition. If he saw an Iraqi child with a cut or scrape, he would paste the child with antibacterial cream and bandages and attempt to win his part of the war with Band-Aids.

Among the Marines, he earned frequent smiles, often at his own expense. He was teased endlessly for his trademark bouncy walk - a literal spring in his step - which he swore he didn't do on purpose. He stocked an endless reserve of bad jokes, the punch lines of which he would laugh at much too loud and much too long, until everyone around was laughing both with him and at him.

"I like to remember the good times with Doc," Edwards said. "Sometimes he was a complete jackass."

'You're not going to die on me'

One week before the funeral, the sergeant sat outside Walter Reed Army Medical Center and closed his eyes.

"You're going to have to give me a minute here," he said.

For weeks, he couldn't tell the story of what happened that day - he lied when asked about it, saying that he couldn't remember anything. The problem was he could remember almost everything.

On Oct. 21, his patrol had stopped in front of one of the houses owned by a government official in Ramadi, he said. The sergeant stepped on what he thinks was a mine or a radio-controlled explosive.

"I was unconscious. And when I woke up, the first face I saw was Doc Anderson," Edwards recounted. "He said, 'Don't worry about it sergeant; it's not that bad.' "

The sergeant looked up and saw his legs - or what little was left of them. He saw all the blood, looked at his mangled hand and he went into shock.

"Doc kept saying to me, 'Stay strong. Stay with me, Sgt. Ed,' " the sergeant said. "He said, 'You're not going to die on me.' "

The Marines carried Edwards into an Iraqi home, where Anderson began emergency first aid.

"I told him, 'You take care of my babies.'

"Doc Anderson said, 'You're going to take care of your babies. You're going to be just fine.' "

"There was a lot of pain, and . . . and . . . "

The sergeant stopped and closed his eyes again.

"Give me a minute," he said.

Once transferred to a Humvee, Anderson kept working, tying tourniquets with one hand while elevating the sergeant's head with another as they sped to the nearest aid station. That's when Doc started shouting at his patient.

"While we were in the Humvee, I could feel myself slipping away, wanting to go to sleep, and Doc started yelling at me," Edwards said. "I was ready to enter whatever afterlife there is, and he kept yelling at me, telling me it was going to be OK."

Anderson later would tell his friends and parents that it was the most terrifying day of his life - that he constantly second-guessed himself, wondering if he had done everything he could have and should have. He told his closest friends that he had lost the sergeant's pulse three times on the way to the clinic but that each time he had managed to bring him back.

More than 30 days later, Edwards woke up at Walter Reed in Washington, D.C. He remembered one voice:

"The last thing I heard was Doc saying, 'You're going to be OK.' "

Prankster got 'squared away'

One of the highest compliments a service member can bestow on another is to say that he or she is "squared away."

Squared away means that nobody has to worry when the action starts - someone who is squared away can be counted on, even in the most hectic circumstances, to perform flawlessly.

As a boy, Christopher Anderson hardly fit the term.

A prankster with a Bart Simpsonesque streak, he was a master of mooning his cousins from the car. Along with his brother, Kyle, he drove plenty of schoolteachers to the brink of breakdown.

As he grew older, he could juggle girlfriends like a street busker. A stickler for dressing immaculately, he spent inordinate amounts of time choosing his clothes and was known to change clothes as many times as Cher before going out to a bar.

As a teenager, he worked as a baseball umpire, learning to moderate, keep constant watch and mediate disputes. After graduating from Longmont High School, he worked many jobs - from clothing sales clerk to bar bouncer - but always left one option open.

Three generations of Andersons before him had enlisted in the Navy. His father served as an elite Navy SEAL.

In 2005, he became the fourth. Soon after signing the enlistment papers, he committed himself entirely.

At boot camp, he was voted the "honor graduate" of his company. He then returned to Longmont during Christmas break and spent all of his spare time at the recruiting office, trying to bring as many sailors as possible along with him.

His enthusiasm sparked the interest of Navy Commander Dave Copp, who awarded Anderson the Navy Achievement Medal even before the young sailor entered corpsman training school.

"I remember this kid," said Navy Chief Darrell Crone, an instructor at Naval Hospital Corps School in Chicago, who oversees the Internet site corpsman.com. "He was decorated with an award before he got to our school. We thought, 'What the hell is this - what kind of brown-noser is this?' "

After a couple of phone calls, he found out.

"He wasn't a brown-noser of any kind," Crone said. "When he was on leave, he was actually recruiting. Normally when kids go home, they lie on the couch and play video games. He was out there doing the job. He was the kind of guy who, if there was a nook or cranny to get things done, he could just do it."

After Anderson's death, his father received a call from his son's commanding officer, who told a story of the first time he saw Christopher in Iraq. The lieutenant colonel remembered pointing to the only serviceman there who wasn't a Marine and asking about him.

"The master sergeant looked up and said, 'Oh, that's one of our docs, Anderson. He's the most squared-away Marine we've got,' " Rick Anderson said. "And that was Christopher - squared away."

Sacrificing for kids 'like mine'

Last week, inside Ward 58 at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the sergeant shook out a Marlboro Red. These days, despite what the doctors say, even his mother won't give him grief about smoking.

"I figure he survived that," Cheryl Edwards said, nodding toward his legs. "He can have a cigarette."

After 36 surgeries, much of the shrapnel remains inside. The sharp chunks of metal will work their way out during the next several years, as his body expels the war.

Edwards' left hand was shattered in the blast, the bones pulverized "like powder," he says. The hand is now a gnarled brown mess of dead, flaky skin and giant Frankenstein stitches that wrap around the fingers that have been reattached and secured with surgical pins. He can move his thumb and forefinger like a crab pincer, but he lost some of his knuckles, so his other fingers are shorter than they were. At one point, surgeons suggested amputating some fingers to save his hand.

"The doctor came in and said, 'How attached are you to that index finger?' " Edwards said. "I told him, 'I'm attached to all my body parts. I've already lost enough.' "

The stumps of his legs are discolored patchwork quilts of skin grafts. One leg was rebuilt with the thigh muscle from a donor body; it now ends several inches above his knee. The other was amputated through the kneecap.

On his head, a bandage covers a quarter-sized dark red hole, which otherwise remains framed in the "high and tight" Marine haircut.

Outside the hospital 10 days ago, a man in a camouflage uniform paused at Edwards' wheelchair and offered his hand in thanks.

"I get that a lot," he said after the man left, pulling out another cigarette. "But me, personally, I don't think I need to be thanked for my service. I chose this. I know that being blown up or dying is one of the hazards of my job. If you don't expect to get hurt as a Marine infantryman, you're in the wrong line of work."

This was his third tour in Iraq. He went in on the initial invasion and saw the statue of Saddam Hussein fall. During his second tour, he was nearly electrocuted and spent time at Walter Reed recovering. Although he is a living example of the war's cost, he prefers to look back on what he says will be lasting benefits of his sacrifice.

"I lost my legs not for this country, but for the country of Iraq, so their children will be able to run around, just like mine," he said as he watched his daughters, ages 3 and 5, playing on the hospital grounds. "If time was turned back, I'd do it all over again."

He says he told the same thing to President Bush last week. Before leaving for Texas for Christmas vacation, the president and first lady made rounds at Walter Reed, speaking to many of the wounded.

Edwards' mother said that the president, after visiting with Edwards for about half an hour, spoke to other injured service members then returned to the sergeant's room.

"(The president) said, 'Some of the guys have cussed me out. Some said they hated me. But I'm going to quote you word for word in my next speech,' " Cheryl Edwards recounted.

"He said, 'I'm going to quote you,' " the sergeant said. " 'You just watch.' "

Outside Walter Reed, Edwards' girls ran back to him, and he boosted Paige into his lap.

The girls call the stumps of his legs "Daddy's boo-boo."

Memorial Day never ends

At Arlington National Cemetery, the American flag flies at half-staff every weekday, as an average of 25 funeral processions a day amble near it, past the white rows of marble, where privates and unknown Civil War veterans lie near Medal of Honor winners and presidents. Arlington is where Memorial Day officially began, the place where it never ends.

The cemetery holds the remains of more than 300,000 men and women on more than 600 acres. According to the Department of Defense, the cemetery recently acquired more land, which should keep it available for burials until 2060.

That is, if the current rate of burials holds.

In section 60, the place where they bury soldiers from the latest war, the headstones are still fresh.

The first of those tombstones is for another man from Colorado, the first casualty from the Iraq War buried at Arlington: Russell Rippetoe, of Broomfield. Not far away lies Lt. Col. Ian Weikel, of Colorado Springs, who was killed in Iraq in April.

In between are several men who were stationed at Fort Carson - Lt. Col. Eric Kruger, Chief Warrant Officer Dennis P. Hay, Sgt. Neil Armstrong Prince and Spc. Hoby Bradfield.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, a total of 21 Navy corpsmen have died in Iraq and three have died in Afghanistan, making up more than one-third of the total Navy casualties.

Not far from the cemetery, the massive Iwo Jima memorial towers over an intersection, honoring the Marines who raised the flag over Mount Suribachi during World War II. Although it is considered a Marine memorial, one of the men immortalized 32 feet tall in heavy bronze is John "Doc" Bradley, the unit's corpsman.

At the beginning of World War II, corpsmen and Army medics wore red crosses on their uniforms. That stopped when the enemy began using the crosses as targets, knowing that the servicemen would do anything to save their medics. These days, the corpsmen wear the Marines' digital camouflage while in combat zones and carry full weaponry.

Still, as the tombstones reflect, they remain primary targets.

At Arlington, visitors can buy a $6 ticket for a "Tourmobile" that whisks them through the cemetery in 30 minutes - a tour that pauses at the eternal flame of President Kennedy, the Tomb of the Unknowns and the home once owned by Robert E. Lee, back when the cemetery was a plantation.

The Tourmobile doesn't go near section 60.

Across the street, the ground is empty. There, workers are preparing section 61.

The unspoken bond

Back inside Walter Reed, Edwards grimaced.

He lives every minute with pain that would make most people wince, so when his face contorts in pain during physical therapy, it nearly shakes the hospital table.

"I'm not a very good patient," he said. "I have no patience."

Nearby, men with new computerized legs ran on treadmills, while others tried out their new arms. In a corner of the room last week, two little girls and a young boy watched How the Grinch Stole Christmas, oblivious to their parents' trying to figure out their new limbs.

After he awoke in the hospital, Edwards asked not to see his own two girls.

"It's not that I didn't want to see them," he said. "But I didn't want them to see me."

When he first heard that his Doc died Dec. 4 from a mortar attack, he asked his wife and kids to leave the room.

"My dad stayed with me," he said. "For two days, I was heavily depressed. I was heavily medicated. It took me two days to cope with it without being medicated. Now that the funeral is close, I'm starting to have a hard time with it again."

Last week was the first time he spent a night alone - sometimes, while asleep, his arms will flail and his body will thrash with the inevitable nightmares, so family members take turns watching him, making sure someone is there to wake him from battle.

Only a week before, the commandant of the Marine Corps met with Edwards at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.

In the center of the lobby is an enormous bronze statue of a Navy hospital corpsman carrying a wounded Marine, as the injured man's legs drag the ground.

Now, Edwards said, he plans to send his Purple Heart to the Anderson family.

"It's the only way I can say thank you," he said. "I can't put it into words, what a corpsman means to his Marines."

He thought back to that bronze memorial.

"It says it all in that statue," he said. "It's called The Unspoken Bond."

'Daddy will tell you one day'

Wednesday morning, inside a building at Arlington National Cemetery, the Anderson family walked past the Navy officers, directly toward the man in the wheelchair.

Debra Anderson was immediately intercepted by another mother.

"Your son saved my son's life," Cheryl Edwards said through sobs, locking Debra in a hug. "I thank you. I thank you so much. And I'm sorry. So sorry."

The women hugged, then the men did the same, thumping each other on the back.

"He saved our son's life," Cheryl Edwards repeated.

Together, the families walked to Sgt. Edwards, who sat with his 3-year-old daughter, Paige, in his lap, and 5-year-old Caitlin and his wife, Christina, by his side.

"I'm so glad you're here," Debra Anderson said.

"I wouldn't have missed it for the world," he said quietly. "I didn't give them a choice at the hospital. I told them I had to come."

"I know Christopher was so worried about you," Debra Anderson said. "He was so worried."

"He did everything right. Be proud of him," the sergeant said. "If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be here. I wouldn't be able to hold my daughter on my lap."

Rick Anderson then bent down in a deep hug. With the knuckle of one finger, he brushed the hand of one of the girls and smiled.

"Your boy kept me alive," Edwards said. "I wanted to let go, and he kept me alive."

Kyle Anderson approached Edwards and during a long embrace told the Marine that he now carried part of his brother with him. Kyle told the sergeant he always would consider Edwards his brother, too.

Edwards looked up at Anderson's parents.

"If there's anything I can ever do for you, you let me know," he said.

"You just take care of these girls," Debra said, offering one of the largest smiles that many family members have seen since her son was killed.

"We want to watch these girls grow up," she said.

From her father's lap, Paige pointed at Christopher Anderson's mother.

"Who dat?" the 3-year-old said.

"You'll understand one day, OK?" her grandmother said.

"Yes," the sergeant said, stroking her hair. "Daddy will tell you one day."

'They all come home'

In section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery, the sun flashed off the bugle of a lone sailor who stood among the thousands of headstones. Dormant trees scratched toward the blue sky, holding dried cherry blossoms that had turned brown.

The burial was supposed to take place last week, but the family was caught in the blizzard and spent the night at Denver International Airport while the sailors rescheduled the burial for Wednesday. The Andersons spent Christmas without their son, without an ending. It had been 23 days since the sailors first rang their doorbell to tell them the news.

The day before Christopher's funeral, the Department of Defense announced the death of another corpsman - another piece of news that hit hard in the crowd of mourners, which included several families who have sons serving in Alpha Company, still in Iraq.

Earlier in the month, the Siruchek family from New York received a call from their son, a Navy hospital corpsman, who told them that his best friend had been killed. Lots of people called Christopher their best friend.

"Matt asked us to come for him," Adam Siruchek said. "He said, 'Since I can't be there, can you go in my place?' "

The couple knew they had no choice. They didn't know how hard it would be.

"The biggest fear in our mind is that it could be us in those chairs (near the casket)," Becky Siruchek said.

"They're living our worst nightmare, the thing we actually have nightmares about. And they're going through it."

As the Anderson family approached the flag-draped casket and took their seats, six sailors surrounded it and lifted the flag.

The chaplain spoke, and the rifle salute cracked.

The lone bugler then began the first few notes of Taps, and Edwards dropped his head, without wiping his tears.

Methodically, the Navy honor guard folded the flag into tight triangles, slapping each fold into another, as if the flag were starched. A rear admiral presented the flag to Debra.

Within 15 minutes, it was over.

Debra's sister, Sherry McDonald, handed out a bag filled with dark brown dirt, sent from the home field of Chris Anderson's favorite baseball team, the San Diego Padres.

Each family member took a fistful and dusted it onto the casket. Kyle, imitating his brother as an umpire, spread some of the dirt on his own jacket.

Debra placed her hand on the casket and held it there for several minutes. Slowly, she let go.

The sergeant's mother walked to Debra Anderson again, and they embraced.

"Greg says he wished it was him," she said, crying again. "He says he wishes that it was him who came home in the casket instead of Christopher."

The two women held each other for a long time.

"They all come home," Debra Anderson finally managed to say, as they hugged on the bright green artificial turf laid out over the mud where another family would soon stand.

"They all come home."

A father's salute

After everyone else climbed into their cars and prepared to leave, Rick Anderson stood with Kyle at the gravesite.

The two men put their handprints in the dirt, and smeared it around. -Kyle Anderson didn't want to leave the casket, and, once again, it fell to his father to convince him to go.

For the past three weeks, Rick Anderson had been the quiet rock, steadying his family, comforting them, looking out for everyone, the way he had taught his son to do, the way his son was doing.

He spoke at his son's funeral in Longmont and said he cried long and hard during his private, personal conversations with God.

On the outside, with his friendly face and salt-and-pepper moustache, he looked more like the real estate salesman that he is, rather than a former member of one of the most elite special warfare units in the country.

But after all of the quiet, all of the stoicism, Rick Anderson stood at the empty gravesite, took a deep breath and let out a Navy SEAL war cry that carried over the headstones.

"HOOYAH, KID!" he shouted at his son's casket, his voice breaking.


Field of honor

Eligibility for burial at Arlington National Cemetery includes:

• Anyone who dies on active duty.

• Any retired veteran with 20 years service or greater from the regular military.

• Reservists who have one period of active-duty service other than training who are age 60 or older and have a total of 20 years or more.

• Honorably discharged recipients of the Medal of Honor, Distinguished Service Cross, Distinguished Service Medal, Silver Star and Purple Heart.

• Other eligible service members include former prisoners of war and veterans who are medically disabled with a 30 percent rating or greater before Oct. 1, 1949, as a result of their military service and were discharged for that reason. Their spouses are eligible for burial alongside their husbands or wives.Source: Department Of Defense