Humbled At Walter Reed

Team Infidel

Forum Spin Doctor
Boston Globe
April 21, 2008 By Kevin Cullen, Globe Columnist
WASHINGTON - In the rehabilitation unit at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where every day is Patriots Day, there are nine "Rehab Rules" on the wall and the first commandment is: Share Your Story.
And so they do.
"I was riding shotgun in a Humvee and it came right through the door," Sergeant Ken Butler, 82d Airborne, was saying. "My right arm was almost sheared off. The charge entered the right side of my chest and it came out the left. I woke up a couple of weeks later."
When he woke up, he was in Walter Reed, 6,200 miles from the road near Baghdad where he got hit, and his right arm was gone.
He is 28 years old. How he survived, nobody knows. A chunk of molten metal went right through him.
"I was kind of out of it at first," Butler said, smiling. "I thought they had my arm on ice and were going to put it back on."
It's easy to pick out the New Englanders. They wear Red Sox hats. Butler's from Braintree. Sergeant First Class Ceamus McDermott is from Barnstable, but he's SFG - Special Forces Group - out of Springfield. Five months ago, he was jumping out of a truck in Afghanistan with a 50-caliber round in his hand when he fell.
"Damn thing went off," McDermott said.
Even if they had been able to find his right index finger, they wouldn't have been able to reattach it.
"To be honest," he said, "I was more [expletive] they pulled me out of country than I was having my finger blown off."
McDermott is 30 years old. What happened to him was as threatening to his career as a concert pianist wrecking his hand.
But he shrugs and says he'll get better.
There are 160 inpatients at Walter Reed.
There are 700 outpatients, what they call the Warrior Transition Brigade, trying to get back to where they were before Iraq and Afghanistan. Captain Sarah Mitsch, a Weymouth girl, is an occupational therapist and works with amputees. She was in Iraq, as was Major Matt St. Laurent, a therapist from New Hampshire, and so they carry an unspoken bond with the wounded warriors they tend.
"Some guys, we start from scratch," St. Laurent said. "We've got young soldiers who can't dress themselves."
St. Laurent looked around.
"It's an honor to work with these guys," he said softly, almost to himself.
Off to the side, a young soldier, one leg missing, the other a mangled mess, tried to negotiate a tight space in his wheelchair. He kept backing up, then moving forward, like his car was stuck in snow. He didn't curse, but it sure looked like he wanted to. He looked like he was 15.
Coming face to face with the cost of war, it is easy to get angry.
Angry that so many honorable men and women will never be the same.
Angry that almost everybody in the White House and Congress who put these soldiers in a position to lose a limb or a chunk of their minds never had any intention of allowing their own flesh and blood to shed a drop overseas.
But anger isn't the emotion you feel walking around Walter Reed. Humility is a better word.
If you are not a soldier, if you don't love or know a soldier, you will never in a million years understand this, but many of the soldiers here would give anything to get back to their units.
Many have given an arm and a leg and they'd give the other one to get back.
McDermott talks like it's only a matter of time.
We were sitting in the cafeteria, having lunch, and I pointed out that his trigger finger was missing.
"What would you shoot with?" I asked.
Sergeant Ceamus McDermott smiled.
And then he flashed his middle finger.
If you're Special Forces, you can shoot.
Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist.