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Sunday, February 12, 2006

The cost of war

Flight medics prepare Lance Cpl. Matthew
Schilling for a flight from Iraq to Landstuhl
Regional Medical Center in Germany.

Healing, With New Limbs and Fragile Dreams


It was a victory for Lance Cpl. Matthew Schilling to walk into the upper gallery of the House of Representatives on Jan. 31 for the State of the Union address. He wore his dress blues and a prosthetic leg. Five months earlier, he had been carried on a stretcher, wounded and bleeding, into a hospital in Iraq after a roadside bomb exploded 10 feet from him.

The blast tore through his right foot and calf and blew a hole through his left hand. But hearing President Bush speak confidently of victory in Iraq, Corporal Schilling, a smooth-faced Marine reservist and college student from Portersville, Pa., who grew up on a cattle farm, again felt that his sacrifice had been worth it.

"I felt really proud when all those people I met that night thanked me for my service," said Corporal Schilling, 21, who attended with his wife, Leigh Ann, as guests of their congresswoman, Representative Melissa A. Hart, a Republican.

Yet when the Schillings returned to the Mologne House, a hotel at Walter Reed Army Medical Center for wounded soldiers and their families, Corporal Schilling found that wearing his prosthesis that night had taken a toll. Blood blisters had formed on his stump, and he was soon back in a wheelchair facing more surgery.

The next day, a member of Corporal Schilling's Marine Corps unit and a victim of the same blast, Lance Cpl. Mark Beyers, wheeled up to him at the Walter Reed physical therapy clinic. Corporal Beyers's right arm and leg were amputated in Iraq. "We should go into surgery together," Corporal Beyers joked. "They can give us a two-for-one discount."

A boisterous 27-year-old construction worker from near Buffalo, nicknamed Big Buck, Corporal Beyers has had his own difficulties.

Reality Creeps In

Corporal Schilling was rolled into an operating room the next morning. "Doc, please, I've got to keep my hand," he said before he was sedated.

The shrapnel that tore through the palm had severed bones and tendons. The tip of the middle finger was connected only by sinews. The tip of the ring finger was missing.

During the surgery, Dr. Paul Phillips, an Army reservist from Texas, inserted rods and pins to support the bones. "As bad as it looks, it's still fixable, and I'm not going to let him lose his fingers," he said.

Dr. Phillips amputated another inch and a half from Corporal Schilling's leg, so the wound could eventually be closed more neatly. He positioned a long wire with tiny teeth on it under the tibia, then the fibula, and sawed the bones. Fragments flew across the room and bounced with a ping on the tile floor.

In Landstuhl, a picturesque German town with green trees, rolling hills and beer gardens, the initial relief of surviving a blast or a firefight begins to fade for wounded soldiers. In a place that looks more like home, reality creeps in. Visitors told Corporal Schilling to stay positive. One of them was Maj. Gen. John J. McCarthy, deputy commander of the Marine forces in Europe.

But outside the hospital unit, the general looked grim. "There's not a kid in that unit who knew what they were getting into," he said. "When I asked them, are you ready to go?, they would say, 'Yes, sir.' But then I'd look at those 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds, two weeks out of boot camp, and thought, no, they are not ready for this struggle. I knew how scared they were, how reluctant they were."

He added, "Men like this one have shown more courage than we had the right to expect from them."

Corporal Schilling teetered between confidence and dread. The afternoon of the general's visit he took his first steps, balancing on a walker. He learned that his hearing would return; his eardrum had only been punctured. For the first time in a while, he grinned without forcing it.

But as the painkillers wore off, the horror of his injuries began to sink in. "Do you smell that?" he asked a reporter. "It's the blood from my stump. Can't you smell it? That's my own blood, right?"

Another Phase

But Corporal Beyers was calm when taken off the ventilator the next day. His first word was "Whammo!" which made his family laugh. Then he had questions: What does my face look like? Are my lips still there? Where is my other leg? Then he asked: How is Schilling?

The two shared a room for several days and exchanged fuzzy memories of the blast. They were separated when Corporal Beyers developed complications — pneumonia, infections in his wounds and pancreatitis, which made him weak and nauseated. He grew cranky, cursing at the medical staff. Corporal Lauck said he could not accept that his self-image as an invincible Marine was gone.

"I hate being here with all of these sick people," he said.

A few doors down, Corporal Schilling's mood was also declining. Marines from India Company who visited him said he seemed depressed. Leigh Ann Schilling, who described her husband as "the prettiest farm boy I ever saw," said he had become self-conscious about his injuries. "He even thought I wouldn't love him anymore because he had only one leg," she said.

He was also increasingly concerned about his hand. Doctors suggested amputating his third and fourth fingers and closing the gap in the hand, hastening his recovery. But he resisted.

"I already am missing a leg, so I was a little disappointed that they wanted to chop two fingers off, too," he said.

It will take at least eight operations over years to rebuild the bones in his hand and reconstruct the arteries and veins, said Lt. Col. Romney Andersen, an Army orthopedic traumatologist. "If this is what Matt thinks is best, this is what Matt will get," Dr. Andersen said. But he's taking a lot of risk." With each procedure, Corporal Schilling could lose function of his good fingers, he said.

While Corporal Schilling was dealing with his recovery, Corporal Beyers surged ahead. In early October, weighing 146 pounds, down from 195, he joined dozens of other amputees in rehabilitation at Walter Reed, one of two military amputee care centers. The second opened in January 2005 at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio to meet the rising demand.


Making Adjustments

By January, both Corporal Beyers and Corporal Schilling were in rehabilitation, back at Walter Reed. Corporal Beyers got his prosthetic leg on Jan. 4, but a few weeks later, the skin on his stump started to blister and bleed. He was back in his wheelchair.

"Some people think amputees just put on their leg and get up and run," he said. "But we don't. It's the worst feeling in the world."

A few weeks later, he was fitted with an electronic prosthetic arm that weighs about 12 pounds and attaches to his torso by a harness. By flexing muscles in his back and chest, he can open and close the hand and bend the elbow. But he said he was not likely to use it because it was too cumbersome.

He said he was looking forward to getting a nonfunctional, cosmetic arm. He wants it made to match his left arm, which is muscular again. He even plans to get a Marine Corps tattoo on the fake arm to complement the one on his real arm. He plans to marry Corporal Lauck on a Caribbean cruise in April. Eventually, he hopes to resume working with his family's construction company.

Although he and Corporal Schilling had been buddies in Iraq, they do not socialize much anymore.

"We're not just a bunch of guys living for the minute," Corporal Schilling said. "We have new lives now."

He still thinks about his time in Iraq. He had volunteered to replace a marine in his unit who had been killed, and he does not regret his decision to fight in the war. "It's just something we have to do to keep our own country safe," he said.

The Schillings are trying to look ahead. Corporal Schilling plans on finishing college to get a teaching degree. He and his wife were married in a rushed ceremony before he shipped out to Iraq, and during his tour they exchanged letters about their dream wedding. They have booked a church and reception hall for May 27.

But first, another surgery. Last week, doctors removed bone from Corporal Schilling's hip, inserting it into the hole in his hand and securing it with titanium rods. It will be another year before doctors can replace the tendons. Nerve transplants will follow. Right now, his middle and ring fingers are numb, as is part of his hand.

His leg also poses problems. After the State of the Union outing, when the blisters developed, Corporal Schilling saw Maj. Donald Gajewski, an orthopedic surgeon at Walter Reed, who told him the closure wound on his leg was not healing properly and that he needed an operation to correct it.

Hearing that, Corporal Schilling and Leigh Ann looked at each other and turned pale.

"Are you going to have to take any bone?" Leigh Ann asked.

Corporal Schilling interrupted: "My biggest concern is how long after the surgery will it take for me to be walking again?"

Three weeks, the doctor said.

"Sir, as long as I'm going to be ready to dance at the wedding," Corporal Schilling said, reaching for Leigh Ann's hand.

Why do I hate warbloggers and chickenhawks?

Because when they see articles like this, they never post them. They think it's all some kind of game, and they get to cheer people on doing what they will not.

Well, war has a price, even the good, needed wars. When they are bad and unneeded, the cost can seem almost unbearable. How do you look Cpl. Shilling in the face and tell him about one more operation? How do you not walk up to the first smug young Republican and drag his ass down to Ward 57 and tell him what he's really supporting.

I'm tired of the Risk playing mentality of these people. Oh, lets invade Iran, Muslims are all bad, Islamofascism has to be stopped.

Well, let's take Chris Hitchens to Bethesda and let him spout that bullshit.

I bet the scene would rival the time the late William Manchester, wounded on Okinawa, was in a Stateside hospital and John Wayne showed up ,and they booed his phony ass.

Bush's daughters do God knows what, they don't even volunteer at the military hospitals, and these young men and women have to rebuild their lives. And people talk about how can you expect the daughters to serve in their father's war?

Easily. If Cpl. Schilling can walk on a stump, someone as rich and privleged as the Bush daughters can spend a weekend a month volunteering there. We demand nothing from the people who benefit the most, to the point smug little assholes think holding a straw man debating society is the same as serving in combat. Well, it ain't.

And this will never end for him. This is his life until he dies.

posted by Steve @ 6:00:00 AM

6:00:00 AM

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