Returning to her camp near Baghdad, Sgt. 1st Class Juanita Wilson's last supply run turned out very differently than the other missions in her seven-month tour in Iraq.
"We got everything we needed and [were] on our way back … about an hour from our camp … that's when something happened to our vehicle," recounted Wilson, a full-time member of the Army Reserve whose unit deployed to Iraq in March of 2004.
That 'something' was an improvised explosive device (IED) that wounded her and several members of her convoy in August of 2004. The explosion cost Wilson her left hand and some of her arm.
"My driver kept saying, 'Something's wrong with my leg, something's wrong with my leg!' … I didn't know anything was wrong with me. I was trying to figure out what was wrong with him," she explained.
Wilson knew they had been attacked and told the driver to get them out of the "kill zone" — the area where attackers expect to kill many of the enemy. Once the vehicle was in a safer position, she started to realize something else was wrong.
"I started to feel this tingling in my hand … I looked down and that was when I realized OK, I don't have a hand here,'" Wilson said. A combat medic rushed over and began patching her up but the attack wasn't over. The U.S. convoy then got hit with small-arms fire. Other soldiers with Wilson began returning fire and radioed for helicopter gunship support.
Wilson and her driver were severely wounded and could only wait for the medical evacuation team to arrive. To Wilson, listening to the battle and waiting for the MEDEVAC seemed like "the longest amount of time."
Over the next four days, Wilson made her way to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., where she spent the next year in intensive therapy and making many decisions about her medical care and the type of life she wanted to live.
Wilson was a unit supply specialist with the 411th Engineer Battalion, an Army Reserve unit from Hilo, Hawaii. The unit had been building roads and infrastructure such as schools around Iraq since its deployment.
While recuperating at Walter Reed, one option Wilson would not consider was leaving the Army, despite the long road to recovery that lay ahead of her.
"From Day One, my decision was, 'I'm not getting out,'" Wilson said, adding that she still has things she wants to accomplish in the military. "My support channel has been there for me and I'd like to give that back to the soldiers of the future."
Wilson underwent a year of both occupational and physical therapy before a medical review board cleared her for further service. She explained that an individual isn't even considered to appear before the board until at least a year of therapy.
"They want to see if you're really ready to return, which is a good thing," Wilson said. "It's really great at Walter Reed. They don't want you to leave there with the idea that 'nobody helped me or asked me what I wanted to do.'"
Wilson, originally from Clarksdale, Miss., now lives in Maryland and works at Walter Reed. The 32-year-old volunteers as a peer visitor for other soldiers in situations similar to hers.
More than 600,000 patients a year pass through the Walter Reed Army Medical Center and its clinics; it’s the Army’s largest healthcare facility. Walter Reed boasts more than 1,600 full-time physicians, nurses, and other health care providers. Its Orthotic and Prosthetic Appliance Laboratory constructs artificial limbs, correction braces and other devices
Now, nearly two years after the IED attack in Iraq and after therapy, numerous operations and a new prosthetic hand, Wilson made good on her decision to stay in the Army. She and 37 others re-enlisted in a ceremony held on the steps of the U.S. Capitol on April 6. Wilson wasn't the only veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom who re-enlisted, nor was she the only wounded soldier among them.
Wilson understands the circumstances that have drawn media attention to her, but doesn’t consider herself to be that special.
"I hope to represent every soldier in the Army Reserve — and my daughter — in a positive way. If you put your feet in Iraq or Afghanistan, your service is just as meaningful and just as appreciated," Wilson said.
Michael Lawhorn contributed to this report.