Among the Heroes

Robert Alt

July 29, 2004

Baghdad, Iraq—In the middle of the Multi-National Force occupied “Green Zone” in Baghdad sits the 31st Combat Support Hospital, a place where soldiers injured in combat receive care before rejoining the troops, or before returning to the States. I had the pleasure of visiting with the injured soldiers in the hospital on a few occasions. Here are two of their stories.

I first met Petty Officer Leo Geibel, a 21-year-old Marine from Kane, Pennsylvania. Leo joined the military in December 2001 straight out of high school, and already has logged in two trips to Iraq. He first came to Iraq from October 2002 through May 2003 for the primary military action, and then he returned in late February of this year.

Leo was deployed with a tactical movement team in the Sunni Triangle—a unit which provides security for transports across some pretty inhospitable territory. On day which began like any other in Iraq, Leo and his team were dismounted providing a security survey. Leo actually saw the flash of the mortar exiting the tube before it hit, shattering his left leg from the ankle to the shin.

At the hospital, Leo’s leg was heavily wrapped in gauze, but blood still made it through the dressing and onto the bed. The doctors told him that they thought they would be able to save his leg, but Leo was still understandably concerned. Even so, he showed a remarkable determination, emphasizing that whatever happened, he was happy to be alive.

Leo first wanted to thank “everyone who drug me out of there,” as well as the doctors and staff at the CSH, whose care made it feel like home. When I asked him if he was anxious to get back to his actual home, he reflected that, “I kind of wish I could stay.” He and his unit had spent a great deal of time training together, to the point that they understood how each other would react in tough situations. He knew that his unplanned departure created a hole, and that if someone else was brought in to fill his spot, it would take time to get the unit to click again the way it once had. He was nonetheless looking forward to seeing his family, and to enjoying the simple pleasures of hunting and fishing. He also hoped that his leg would heal well enough to allow him to play baseball again.

As I was chatting with Leo, the nurses were prepping him to be picked up by a medevac, which would take him to an airbase for transport to Germany, following which he would ultimately return to the States. As they lifted him from the bed to a wheeled stretcher, he visibly winced in pain. Before loading him on the chopper, one of the nurses came by with a large Ziploc bag containing the personal effects retrieved from his pockets after the doctors cut off his pants to work on his leg. As he looked through the bag, he noted that something was missing—his Bible. He explained that he normally carries his Bible in his back pocket, and that the day he was hit with the mortar was the first day he didn’t have it with him. The earnestness of his statements struck me as pure—not some talismanic attachment to the book for good fortune—but a devotion to his faith to see him even through the valley of the shadow of death.

I spoke with Leo a few days ago via telephone from his home in Pennsylvania. After our brief meeting, he was transferred to Bethesda for the more extensive surgery. In addition to inserting plates and pins, the doctors cut bone from his hip to graft to his leg. He is still recovering, and is not yet to the stage where he will start rehabilitation in earnest. Leo will be able to walk again, but he conceded that he will probably not see the baseball diamond again.

On another visit to the CSH, I met 19-year-old Pfc. Justin Cussans from Flint, Michigan. Justin joined the Marines because he wanted to come to Iraq to see combat, and he figured that the Marines would allow him to do this. Justin figured right. While operational security prohibited him from saying precisely where he was stationed, he could say that his unit was in the Sunni Triangle, where he had been for about two weeks. Their position was getting mortared about once a week, almost on a set schedule. On a fateful night, his unit received intelligence stating that a source had seen a truck with a mortar tube, and so they sent out Humvees and a 7-ton truck to check it out.

The mission was conducted at night with lights out, except for the lead Humvee which was driven by Pfc. Cussans. Justin drove with white lights, and therefore he was the only member of the convoy who was not wearing night-vision goggles. As they made their way down a dirt road, the Marines saw some men duck behind a berm. The order was given to stop the vehicles and to dismount. His unit began to take small arms fire from what appeared to be about 15 bandits. They returned fire with the M-16s, and the bandits volleyed back with rocket-propelled grenades, or RPGs.

The order was given to fall back, and the men took cover behind the 7-ton. Justin, whose eyes had not yet adjusted to the darkness, could hear the whoosh of the RPGs flying past, one of which hit the 7-ton. As he turned the corner to get behind the truck, he felt what he described as a sensation like being hit hard in the side and arm, and fell to the ground. When Justin got back to the Humvee, he thought that his Camelback—a large, canteen backpack—had broken, because his back was wet. He soon found that the liquid was blood, and not water. Justin had taken an AK-47 round to the side, and received what appeared to be a shrapnel graze wound to the arm. All told, four Marines were injured in the firefight, with one taking a bullet to the arm and fingers, and another taking a bullet in the leg.

The medics started to treat him in transit to a camp where Army doctors performed surgery. The doctors explained that Pfc. Cussans was very lucky: the bullet went cleanly through his side without hitting any vital organs, leaving a hole about the size of a dime. To Justin’s surprise, the Commanding Officer and the 1st Sergeant were there to see Justin in the field and at the camp where the surgery was performed.

Justin was then sent to the CSH to recuperate. He had very vivid recollections from the firefight, which he described as the first time he had been scared since arriving in Iraq. “I thought for sure we were going to get hit by an RPG,” he explained. Because Justin was driving, he was one of the last to dismount, and was not out of the vehicle for long before he got shot. This led to his one great regret: “I didn’t get to fire my weapon. That pissed me off!” He was anxious to get back out in the field, and complained that the rest of his unit was out there doing their job, while “I’m just here relaxing.” When I last checked on Justin’s status with the hospital, he had gotten his wish, and had recovered well enough to be redeployed with his unit.

At the conclusion of these interviews, I had what can only be described as a couple of awkward moments. My craft requires me to find the right words to say, and whether or not I am ultimately successful in that endeavor, I am generally not caught at a loss for words. Yet standing before these brave men, words simply fail. I thanked them, but the expression “thank you” is grossly inadequate. After all, how could a phrase commonly used to express politeness to a clerk for the act of making change adequately express the debt owed to a man who has taken a mortar or a bullet? I attempted to convey the pride and admiration of those back in the States, but again, the words seemed cheap. And that is because the men must be shown the appreciation and respect they have earned. The American people should welcome back these heroes and indeed all the heroes of Iraq and Afghanistan with the show of respect and affection that marked the return of men from WWII. After all that they have given, the least we can give them in return is the recognition they have earned.

Robert D. Alt is a Fellow in Legal and International Affairs at The John M. Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University currently reporting from Iraq. You can follow his daily progress at No Left Turns.