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Thread: Indelibly marked by war's wounds
07-28-03, 09:15 PM #1
Indelibly marked by war's wounds
Indelibly marked by war's wounds
Combat: A young Marine returns from Iraq with scars, a hero label and tempered views of war.
By Scott Calvert
Originally published July 27, 2003
CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. - The scars, plum-red and raised like welts, line his arms and wrists. They are the graffiti left by the bullets that flew through his body and the surgeries that saved his 18-year-old life.
It has been almost four months since Lance Cpl. Michael Wayne Meyer was shot eight times by a Syrian fighter who popped up in a field south of Baghdad. Now Meyer is 9,000 miles from Iraq, limited to light duty on this Marine Corps base where rolling hills dip into the Pacific Ocean.
But whenever he looks at himself, Meyer sees those scars. Everywhere he goes, on post or in Oceanside or San Clemente, people ask: What happened to you? How did it feel? Some say how sorry they are. Many call him a hero. He loves the fuss and hates it, too.
The war in Iraq and its violent aftermath have created a new generation of wounded soldiers. Pfc. Jessica Lynch may be the most famous, but hundreds of U.S. troops have been shot, hurt in accidents or otherwise made unfit for duty. Many, like Meyer, have been sent home to mend their bodies and, less noticeably, to tend their minds.
Meyer, a native of Elgin, Texas, was relatively lucky. Despite losing a bone in his hand and gaining a metal plate in his arm, he has all of his fingers and limbs. He can get around fine and should regain most of his strength and flexibility. As of now, he has not needed counseling. He might remain, as he hopes, a Marine grunt.
He still struggles, though. He talks about the firefight dry-eyed, but he sobbed drunkenly at a party as the television news reported more Marines killed in Iraq. He boasted about his eight combat ribbons in an online forum but detests the hero label. He is glad to be out of Iraq but feels guilty for leaving behind his comrades.
And he is still the same joking, absentminded knucklehead - his father's words - who can happily waste an afternoon eating greasy pizza and watching MTV. But barely two months after his 19th birthday, he talks of a greater appreciation for life and a dimmer view of war, even one he supports. The boyish bangs remain on his buzz-cut head, but the swagger has faded.
Now that the bad dreams have ended along with the morphine doses, he replays his brush with death over and over in his waking hours. In his mind the ending changes, sometimes for the better, sometimes not.
"I think, if only I would've seen that guy before he saw me," he said this month as he drove his red Chevy pickup truck over Pendleton's twisty roads. "I also think, what if I would have stepped further and caught a couple rounds in the head.
"There are all sorts of things I think about."
It was on a trip to Houston's Astroworld in the late 1980s that Ken Meyer first spotted his son's budding interest in the military.
Mike, who was then 4 or 5, had a choice of costumes to wear for a photo at the amusement park. His big sisters chose Playboy bunny outfits. He, like many boys his age, reached for the fatigues. In the picture he holds a toy rifle and grimaces for the camera.
Mike points to his father and other family members as role models. Ken was a Navy lieutenant in the 1970s, and Mike's grandfather and uncles served in the Navy. His Uncle Mike on his mother's side was a member of the Army's 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam.
He committed to the Marines in December 2001 as a high school senior. Last August he formally enlisted, finishing boot camp in November. Next came infantry school at Pendleton, between San Diego and Los Angeles. That ended Feb. 10, and three weeks later he flew to the Kuwait desert to meet his unit, the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines.
The battalion motto is "Get Some," and he arrived, then still a private first class, in time to be reminded of its lethal, violent essence. Lt. Col. Carl Mundy used a metaphor in his pep talk, but he was plainly ordering his 1,100 men to prepare for fighting and killing.
"The knife's edge is starting to get a little dull," Mundy said before the fighting began. "We need to get the blade sharpened."
Popular, athletic and bright, Meyer had surprised his friends by enlisting for four years. Everyone else went to college or got jobs after graduation. Not only was he joining the military, but he was also doing it at a time when a war was already under way in Afghanistan.
Some people in Elgin, a cotton-growing, cattle-raising town of 5,000 near Austin, thought he was crazy. This guy with a shiny 1974 Corvette and wild streak to match, the one elected prom king and class clown, was essentially signing up for war.
"In boot camp we joked we were going to go over and fight and kill," he recalled. "We'd joke about it, not really knowing we were going to go."
In early March, surveying the swarm of fellow Marines in the desert, it occurred to him that he might be among the soldiers who commanders said would surely die or be wounded. But he doubted it. The odds seemed in his favor.
Pride and worry
Meyer's parents were proud but worried sick. He was just 18, after all, and had not always shown great judgment. In high school, he stole his arch rival school's flag as a prank and nearly tangled with its very angry football team.
Now, as a Marine, he could not afford to be so cocky. Iraqi soldiers, father told son, "are probably not very good shots, but they do occasionally hit people. Please don't be out there in the middle of the field doing jumping jacks."
Denise Meyer relied on her Christian faith to calm her nerves. Not so her husband. He awoke every morning with a knot in his stomach and, with her, raced to check MSNBC and The Sun's Web site for news from reporters traveling with Mike's unit, India Company.
On April 5, a Saturday, they read that Mike's unit had been involved in a firefight the day before. One Marine had been killed, at least two wounded. The story did not include names, so they were left to wonder and worry. That weekend they canceled their plans. They would stay close to home and wait.
Mike never wanted his parents to worry. He had junked the "death letter" his superiors made him write, thinking it bad luck. A week earlier, on March 28, he had written his parents a confident letter from Iraq telling them he was fine.
"Dear Mom and Dad," he began, and proceeded to tell them his unit had already seen combat. "We got ambushed and our platoon totally kicked ass. We wiped out an entire Iraqi company in less than 5 min. We took no casualties. I shot 1 man twice in the chest who didn't put his AK down when they were surrendering. It was either him or me.
"Yall shouldn't worry about me. The air support, mortars and artillery are amazing. Anything that's moving will be destroyed by the time we even get near it. ...
"The word is we will be home around May so I hope yall are ready for a birthday bash. And I will be casually drinking from the keg! I figure if I've been shot at I deserve a beer! ... I'll tell all my stories when I get home so yall don't have to worry. ...
"Hey mom tell everyone at church I'm doing good and that their prayers are working! And to keep praying for us. Lord knows I'm praying. And dad, tell everyone at work I got me one of those terrorist killing bastards and I've got his bayonet to prove it! Well I gotta go. Love yall and I'll be home soon."
That letter was still somewhere in Iraq on Monday morning, April 7, when the phone rang at the Meyers' house just after 5 a.m. Ken answered, thinking it was about the sand and gravel operation he runs - unless it was about Mike.
A sergeant said he had Mike with him and put him on the line.
"Dad, I've been shot, but I'm OK," Mike said.
The Marines had made rapid progress in Iraq since the war started March 19, rolling north up the eastern side of the country as the Army's 3rd Infantry Division cruised up to the west.
Resistance from elements of the Iraqi army and Republican Guard had been less than the Marines expected. By April 3, the 3rd Battalion hoped for a quick push to Baghdad.
But that changed in a farming village called Al Muhaydi As Salih, where a group of well-trained Syrian and Egyptian fighters began firing. The Marines called them "jihad" fighters and took note of their new ammunition and sniper rifles.
As the battalion fought back that afternoon, Meyer stood on a troop carrier. His platoon was held in reserve and he was pulling security when, suddenly, bullets began whizzing by. Commanders ordered his platoon into action, so he and his mates ran toward the firefight about 300 yards away.
American helicopters and mortars pummeled the farmer's field where the foreign fighters hid amid tall grasses. Then the Marines went in to flush out the enemy.
Meyer walked into the field holding his M16 rifle. When gunfire rang out, the Marines would drop to the ground and shoot back before pressing forward.
Meyer was on the extreme right flank when he saw something perhaps five feet ahead. It was an enemy fighter springing up from a hiding spot called a "spiderhole." All he really remembers is the flash from the Kalashnikov rifle.
07-28-03, 09:17 PM #2
The next thing Meyer knew, he was lying on his stomach. He did not realize it at the time, but he had been shot six times. Two bullets hit the chest plate in his body armor, and stopped. One went through the base of his right thumb, another through his upper right arm. A third ripped through his left forearm and a fourth grazed his left hand.
His arm felt as if it had been hit by a sledgehammer. Then he felt a seventh bullet go through his foot - the eighth grazed his backside - and comprehended that his foe was still firing.
He felt something else. In addition to firing back, fellow Marines had shot a grenade at the fighter, and a piece of shrapnel punctured the roof of Meyer's mouth. The blood made him believe he had been shot in the head.
"I thought I was dying on the field," he said. "Actually, I was just waiting for the lights to go out."
He tried to crawl away but couldn't. That was when a corpsman dragged him to safety amid the gunfire. He and another corpsman put an intravenous line in Meyer so he could be taken to a helicopter.
The man who shot Meyer, it turns out, had Syrian papers. "He had a smile on his face, is what they tell me," Meyer said, "and they put a bayonet through him a couple times."
Meyer made it out, but Cpl. Erik H. Silva, 22, of Holtville, Calif., was unlucky. He was killed that day. All told, four of India Company's approximately 130 members were killed in Iraq and 16 were wounded - a casualty rate of 15 percent.
The helicopter took Meyer to a military field hospital in Iraq, and he was soon airlifted to an Army hospital at Landstuhl, Germany.
Doctors had plenty of work to do. One bullet had broken the humerus bone in his right arm, requiring a metal plate. The trapezium bone in his right hand had to be taken out. Surgeons also cut into his right elbow and both arms to relieve swelling around muscles.
Mike did not feel much pain, thanks to a steady flow of morphine. But he did have bad dreams. In one, he was at a trailer park when mini-Corvettes began firing machine guns at him. In another, he was at a party when gunfire erupted; he fell to the ground, only to find he could not move.
After two weeks, Meyer was flown to Bethesda Naval Medical Center in Maryland. His parents and two sisters, Melissa, 25, and Katie, 22, traveled east for a family reunion. Meyer had a stream of visitors, from generals to Orioles players to comedian Drew Carey.
He returned to Texas in early May. Elgin embraced its returning son. Restaurants refused to let Meyer pay. He was grand marshal of the Independence Day parade.
The hero treatment embarrassed his parents, who urged reporters not to forget the Elgin boys still in Iraq. Mike appreciated the show of respect but found it awkward, too.
"I'll be like, I didn't do anything different from the others," he said. "The other guys put their lives on the line. Just because I got unlucky and got shot doesn't make me any different."
His moods could swing wildly. One night while in Texas, Meyer attended a party and drank heavily. He glanced up at the television and saw a report that more Marines had died. He started crying in front of everyone.
There was one other person he has let see him cry: 18-year-old Sherrill Mogonye, whom he has dated on and off since middle school.
"He's been through so much and he's like an adult now," she said. "He talks about how scared he was and how close he was to dying and how he's lucky."
Return to Pendleton
"Hey, there goes a dead man walking," Sgt. Enrique Alaniz shouted.
He was talking to Meyer after his return to Camp Pendleton this month. The last time Alaniz saw him, Meyer was lying wounded in Iraq. The sergeant thought it would be the last time he saw Meyer alive.
"We didn't think he would make it," he said.
Meyer found Pendleton a ghost town populated by other walking wounded and a clutch of Marines due to leave the Corps or, like Alaniz, receive new assignments.
Two mornings later Meyer drove to Camp Pendleton Naval Hospital for physical therapy.
The chants of New Age music filled the hand clinic. Marines in gym clothes or fatigues sat at tables beneath motivational statements, squeezing clips, putting pegs in holes or tugging at webs. Some had been injured in Iraq, and now Meyer would join them three days a week.
For someone shot eight times, Meyer's prognosis seems remarkable. He's expected to recover with few lasting physical handicaps. Tests show that Meyer's right hand is only half as strong as his left. He cannot touch his fingertips to his right shoulder or lay his right hand flat.
But Lt. Shanna Mitola, an upbeat therapist in a white lab coat, told him he should regain much of that flexibility and strength. How long that would take she could not say, but even the scars will fade in time.
Meyer has little to do at Pendleton besides physical therapy and cleaning chores. He tapped into someone's cable line so he could watch TV. He sleeps a lot in the dingy barracks he calls the "crack house." His main job is to show up at 7:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. for formations.
He is a seasoned veteran now and doesn't like hearing new Marine recruits say, "All I want to do is kill."
He tells them: You don't have the slightest idea what happens over there. If you did, you wouldn't want to go into that.
By now, he has boiled down his story to a sentence or two: I was wounded in Iraq, shot eight times by a Syrian terrorist. He gave the short version to a cafe worker who asked what happened.
"Oh," she replied uncertainly. "Sorry to hear that."
If he had an inflated sense of his importance, the Marines have worked to bring him down. One morning, a colonel found that a group of Marines leaving the Corps had trashed their barracks. Meyer and a handful of others had to clean it up. Meyer had to push a squeegee across the floor of one room to clear away sewer water. He had to carry bags of garbage out to a trash bin.
Even so, he wants to remain a grunt. If the Marine Corps decides he can do only a desk job, he wants a medical discharge.
He says he wants to go to college, maybe Texas A&M, and teach high school history. He would cover both sides of the war - the opposition to it and the "patriotic" side of what happened in Iraq.
History, he predicted, will conclude it was "a good war when it was a war, but started to get hairy afterward." He believes Saddam Hussein posed a threat to the United States even if he had no ties to the Sept. 11 attacks and no weapons of mass destruction.
As awful as the war was, he would go back: "If it wasn't for me and my fellow Marines, we wouldn't have a country like this."
It could be weeks before Meyer knows his fate. Doctors want to see how his body heals. They want to watch his mental state. A psychologist warned his mother that Mike may have emotional trouble, that the ordeal may "crater in on him."
It's a heavy burden. "This is the same kid," she said with a laugh, "who teachers were worried about giving a farewell address at commencement because they didn't know what was going to come out of his mouth."
Meyer understands that but said he feels fine. When he was in Texas after the war, he and a buddy spoke with a Marine who did two tours in Vietnam. What the veteran said stuck with him.
"He told me every Marine he's met who has gone through combat has gone through therapy. I don't know. Me and my friend were listening to this guy, thinking, Jeez, hope that doesn't happen to me."
Copyright © 2003, The Baltimore Sun
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