I haven’t met Sgt. Chuck Bartles and wouldn’t know him if I ran into him on the street. If he introduced himself, though, I’d stop, salute, and tell him what an honor it was to meet him. You would, too.
Sgt. Bartles, like many American workers, left his family and job last year, packed his footlocker, and headed to Iraq as a member of the Army Reserves. He was assigned to a civil affairs unit — the 418th Civil Affairs Battalion based in Belton, Mo. — a designation that encompasses everything from directing traffic to teaching to helping restore roads and water systems.
This is tough duty for anybody, but especially tough for reservists and guardsmen who haven’t built their lives around military careers; their careers point in other directions. Yet, like thousands of others, Bartles answered the call and did his duty.
Everything proceeded normally for a while — that is, if anything in Iraq may be described as “normal.” Bartles contended with hot weather, culture shock and the normal privations of war. Bartles and his colleagues helped provide medical care for citizens in Tikrit, the hometown of Saddam Hussein. He wrote home regularly and called when he could.
One day in October 2003, Bartles and some buddies were driving through Tikrit when a roadside bomb went off. Bartles helped two colleagues to safety — another died in the assault. He received a Bronze Star for that act of valor. He also lost the lower half of his right arm: Shrapnel destroyed everything below the elbow.
The sergeant returned home, received extensive treatment, recovered from the psychological shock of losing a limb, and began thinking about what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. Anybody who works in a military hospital will tell you that even the best soldiers have a tough time coping with drastic change. They imagine flexing the old limbs. They feel the pang of losing a part of themselves. They entertain rage and an occasional bout with self-pity.
Soldiers who suffer such injuries invariably leave the military, mainly because they no longer can perform the physical tasks they once took for granted. Furthermore, the uniform itself seems to serve as a cruel and mocking reminder of what once was, but is no more.
But Bartles was different from the start. The day after his amputation, Bartles received a visit from his commanding officer, Lt. Col. James Suriano. The colonel recalls, “He was already talking about learning how to shoot left-handed because he didn’t want to miss the deer season.”
Bartles, 26, started a Russian language course, and now is taking courses in Russian and Eastern European Studies. He’ll graduate in December from the University of Kansas, and wants to enroll in law school afterwards.
This is where patriotism enters the picture. Sgt. Bartles may not have a chance to attend law school right away because he may be in Iraq.
Here’s why: When the Army handed him retirement papers — standard procedure for amputees — he declared that he wanted to stay. The Army said no. Then he appealed the decision, and the Army said yes. Col. Suriano agreed, citing the sergeant’s unique leadership qualities.
To put this in perspective, no amputee has even asked for military reinstatement since the Vietnam War. Not one. Chuck Bartles not only asked, he wouldn’t take “no” for an answer.
So last Thursday, Bartles took his oath to serve at a re-enlistment ceremony and received his Broze Star as well. He had to use his left hand to lift his right arm into a saluting position, but didn’t mind. “I’m not bitter at all,” he told a reporter. “I’ve been in the military my whole adult life and I really enjoy it.”
We all owe this guy a salute — and much more.
Share your thoughts with Tony. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.