|June 04, 2004|
Honored with a bronze star, Cpl. James Wright sets his sights on healing
By Laura Bailey
Times staff writee
Spc. Harvey Naranjo leads Wright through occupational therapy. Naranjo says Wright pushes his recovery to the max without extra encouragement. — Alan Lessig / Times staff
As he talks about his recovery at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, Cpl. James “Eddie” Wright is distracted when a loose eyelash falls into his eye. Unable to brush it out himself, the 28-year-old politely calls on his occupational therapist to check it out.
Spc. Harvey Naranjo, a cheerful Army reservist with an Ecuadorean accent, attentively lifts Wright’s eyelid and reports that he finds nothing. Wright blinks, accepts the answer and moves on.
It’s been two months since Wright’s hands were blown off in a fierce firefight in Iraq, and depending on others for help with tasks as basic as brushing his teeth or getting a drink of water has become routine for this elite reconnaissance Marine.
Wright’s arms are still in bandages and he awaits prosthetic replacements. But despite his wounds, Wright sees a bright future ahead.
“I’m just glad I’m alive,” Wright said, reflecting on the injuries that brought him to Walter Reed. “I don’t think I was dealt a bad hand at all. It’s nobody’s fault that this happened to me. War is war.”
He has months of physical therapy ahead of him, but intends to remaster all the tasks of everyday life with prosthetic hands. After Wright does that, he wants to stay in the Marine Corps.
The Marine Corps says it’s this sort of composure that got Wright through the ambush that took his hands and almost his life — and the same composure for which he was awarded the Bronze Star with combat “V” device.
Living the dream
On April 6, Wright was in the midst of his second tour in Iraq, this time living his childhood dream as a recon Marine. The 28-year-old was finally doing the kind of missions for which he longed. He planned to make a life in the Corps.
On April 7, all that changed.
That day, Wright and his fellow Marines with the Camp Pendleton, Calif.-based Bravo Company, 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, now based at Camp Fallujah, were called to escort a 15-vehicle convoy of Humvees and 7-ton trucks on a 10-mile trek to a supply point, where they would hunt for enemy mortar teams.
As the company rolled toward its destination, the commander of Bravo’s 2nd Platoon, Capt. Brent Morel, sensed something was wrong. The road was bare of traffic, a clear sign of nearby danger — possibly an ambush, an IED or a mine. The Marines dismounted and swept the area, but found nothing.
Soon after, Wright and his team moved forward in the convoy’s lead Humvee and learned it wasn’t a false alarm, after all. An incredible maelstrom of fire broke out, as enemy machine-gun rounds, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars exploded around the convoy.
Bullets were whizzing through one window out the other, Wright recalled.
“It’s a miracle nobody got shot in the face or the head.”
As the corporal opened fire with his M249 Squad Automatic Weapon, a machine gunner manning a weapon in the Humvee’s gun turret above took a round in the leg and groin. He passed out with his head exposed to the hail of fire. But before Wright and his fellow Marines could get the gunner down from his exposed position, an explosion rocked the vehicle.
Wright never saw it coming, but the RPG slammed into his SAW, blowing his helmet and safety glasses off and rupturing his left eardrum.
That was the least of his injuries, he realized a moment later.
“I opened my eyes and looked at my hands and I saw they were both blown off,” he said. “I remember thinking, ‘damn, both of them?’.”
The explosion also ripped Wright’s thigh wide open and broke his femur. With the thigh bone sticking out, his leg was bleeding wildly and his hands gone, Wright knew he had to get medical attention fast.
What happened after that would earn Wright the Bronze Star.
As junior Marines in the Humvee began “freaking out” about Wright’s gruesome injuries, the noncommissioned officer knew he needed to keep his cool. Wright’s team leader Sgt. Eric Kocher was also hit in the arm by a bullet, leaving the team three men down.
According to his Bronze Star citation, Wright “was the epitome of composure.”
“Understanding the severity of his own injuries, he calmly instructed others on how to remove the radio, call for support and render first aid,” the citation states. “He also pointed out enemy machine-gun emplacements to his fellow Marines assisting in the demise of 26 enemies killed in action.”
Wright instructed one of his lance corporals to put a tourniquet on his wounds.
“I had to stay calm. If I freaked out the younger Marines would freak out. The Marines without combat experience would freak out,” Wright recalled.
Kocher, unable to operate his weapon with one arm, jumped in the driver’s seat and another Marine took his place on the right to provide security as they drove out of the kill zone.
Meanwhile Wright helped direct fire at machine gun emplacements as the battered Humvee sped away.
All together, Bravo Company faced at least 40, perhaps 60, enemy insurgents, that day.
Although Wright’s Humvee made it out without fatalities, the company would lose Capt. Morel, who died after being hit in the chest by machinegun fire.
Honors at Iwo
After the ambush, Wright was evacuated first to Germany, then on to Bethesda Naval Medical Center in Maryland. From there, he moved to Walter Reed, the military’s specialty hospital for amputee recovery.
Two months later, Wright is healing and rebuilding his strength. On June 1, he journeyed from the hospital to attend a ceremony in his honor at the Marine Corps War Memorial in nearby Arlington, Va.
There, under the 78-foot bronze statue depicting the famous World War II flag-raising on Iwo Jima, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz awarded Wright the Bronze Star.
“We’re here to honor his courage and his coolness under fire … we’re here to honor his extra determination and his sense of will as he faces a new life,” Wolfowitz said.
The ceremony was also attended by Assistant Marine Commandant Gen. William L. “Spider” Nyland and Col. Daniel O’Brien, commander of Marine Barracks Washington. Wright’s father, Air Force Col. Jim Wright, also attended.
The corporal chose the location for the ceremony, but said he had no idea such a fuss would be made over him.
“I thought it was too much for me. I wasn’t expecting anything like that,” he said.
At the ceremony, the noncommissioned officer was quick to downplay his actions.
“We had to do what we had to do to get out of the kill zone,” he said.
“I guess it’s like anyone says, ‘I was just doing my job.’”
Reunion and recovery
The strain of his injuries and recovery are evident in Wright’s 6-foot, 2-inch frame. Since being admitted, Wright has lost much of his muscle mass, dropping 35 pounds to a lean 185. His skin is pale, almost gray and his leg injury makes walking an ordeal.
It was a sight his girlfriend of 2½ years, Donette Mathison, found shocking when she first arrived at the Intensive Care Unit.
“My heart was broken,” said Mathison, a 26-year-old Air Force staff sergeant who works as a medic at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.
“Everyone told me be prepared for the worst,” that he would be angry or in denial, said Mathison, who already has traveled across the country three times to visit Wright.
But Mathison says he is too positive to become bitter about his situation.
“I thought that’s just not Eddie … He just has that attitude where he doesn’t give up.”
The two met when Wright was pulling security duty at Kadena Air Force Base, Japan, and plan to marry when he gets back on his feet.
Mathison says Wright, who planned on making the Marine Corps, his career, misses his battalion more than anything else.
“He doesn’t get upset about his hands so much,” she said. “He misses his friends.”
Now, Wright has his sights on healing. He wants to be as much like his old self as he can.
“It’s not like I get sad. I get frustrated because I’m impatient.”
With a heavy limp and his arms still in bandages, the once-avid rugby player is working to recover his strength and learning to live life without his own hands.
In May, Naranjo began teaching Wright to use a plastic cuff device to help him perform everyday tasks such as brushing teeth or picking up a fork. The cuff fits around the end of an arm and has a slot that holds small objects such as eating utensils. Wright uses another cuff to lift weights and rebuild his muscles.
In a few weeks, Wright will get three types of prosthetic hands — an older-style mechanical set for fine-motor skills and heavy activities, a new, less cumbersome state-of-the-art electric set that looks like real hands, and a “passive” set used strictly for cosmetic purposes.
Naranjo, who has worked with many war amputees during the past year, said Wright is an exceptional case. Most amputees go through a longer period of mourning for the loss of their limb, he explained.
“He doesn’t need to be pushed,” Naranjo said. “When we got him here, he wanted to get out of bed and get on with his therapy.”
But whatever attitude a patient has in the hospital, the roughest part of recovery can be returning home, Naranjo said.
“They get back to reality,” he said, noting that amputees then are no longer surrounded by others in their same situation and will not receive the same level of support they get at the hospital. “They’re going to see that life isn’t the same.”
Working on everyday skills, such as brushing his teeth and shaving on his own. He doesn’t have prosthetic hands yet, but they have outfitting him with a special arm-band that he can use to insert forks or other small objects.
Also working on upper body strengthening with special weight straps.
The Seattle native will graduate to outpatient status in a few weeks and predicts his spirits will remain high even after he leaves the hospital.
“Don’t get me wrong. It sucks to have your hands gone,” he said. “But I’ve been able to focus on what I’m going to do — what I’ve gotta do.”
Wright wanted to be a Marine since he first heard leathernecks calling cadence calls as a kid and he wants to stay in the Marine Corps, despite his injuries.
Wright and his therapist agree that if he works hard enough, he will be able to do almost anything required of him except pulling the trigger of a weapon.
“I think the Marine Corps will give me a fair chance. I just need to demonstrate I can do it,” he said. “If I could stay in my battalion that would be great.”
Most of all, Wright wishes he was still in Iraq helping his unit.
“I’d trade that medal for a chance to go back there.”