Some Wounded GIs Opt to Stay in Iraq

Parallel scars running down 1st Sgt. Rick Skidis' calf tell the story of how he nearly lost his leg when a roadside bomb blew through the door of his armored Humvee.

The blast shredded muscle, ligament and tendon, leaving Skidis in a daze as medics and fellow soldiers rushed to help him. Skidis remembers little of that day last November except someone warning him that when he woke, his foot might be gone.

After five months and six surgeries, the foot remains intact but causes Skidis haunting numbness and searing pain caused by nerve damage.

CountryWatch: Iraq

Skidis, 36, of Sullivan, Ill., fought through the surgeries and therapy to return in April to Iraq, conducting the same type of patrols that nearly killed him.

He is not an exception.

Nearly 18,000 military personnel have been wounded in combat since the war began in Iraq more than three years ago, according to Defense Department statistics. Some have lost legs and arms, suffered horrific burns to their bodies and gone home permanently.

But the vast majority have remained in Iraq or returned later — their bodies marked by small scars and their lives plagued by aches and pains.

"I wear my scars proudly," said Skidis as he gingerly lifted his pant leg to show the railroad-like tracks where doctors made incisions to save his foot. Why didn't he stay home? "I felt guilty because I wasn't sharing the same hardships that they were," Skidis said shyly, while another soldier nodded at his side.

For some soldiers in Iraq, it was a roadside blast that muffled their hearing or peppered their body in shrapnel. Others have been ripped by gunfire, sometimes leaving them with jabbing pains in their limbs and compromised movement.

Their wounds are often similar but there are many reasons for remaining at war when their wounds are a ticket home.

Some can't imagine any other job than being a soldier. Some know no other life. Others, like Skidis, feel the guilt, an obligation to their fellow soldiers.

Staff Sgt. Katherine Yocom-Delgado, 28, of Brooklyn, N.Y., lost 70 percent of the hearing in her left ear weeks ago when an artillery shell landed just a few feet away from her. Her teeth still hurt and she has frequent headaches, especially in the morning.

Yocom-Delgado tilts her head when she listens to people talk.

But she hasn't considered leaving — the wounds are not as important as the mission.

"I'm alive and I'm happy to be alive," she said with a smile. "I don't hurt every day."

As a woman, Yocom-Delgado represents just two percent of those injured in Iraq, a figure she quotes and has read in new articles. It's an odd distinction, she said, just her luck.

Spc. Steven Clark's luck is worse. The 25-year-old has been shot three times and wounded by shrapnel from a grenade that tore into his legs and back. He has been awarded three purple hearts — a fourth is on the way — and a bronze star with valor.

His friends have nicknamed him "Bullet Magnet" — but he won't consider leaving.

Clark, of Fitzgerald, Ga., says getting wounded was a mistake and his pain is punishment for letting people down. He won't show the scars on his calf or shoulder or back. He calls the attacks "incidents."

"I have pains. I have numbness from nerve damage. But it's just something I'm going to have to live with," Clark said. "I'm not going to change what I am just because it's dangerous."

Soldiers in the battalion, the 502nd Infantry Regiment of the Army's 101st Airborne Division, have been struck by more than 230 roadside bombs since they arrived in Iraq last October, leaving 15 dead. They've discovered about 350 more on the roads that crisscross their swath of desert.

More than 100 of the soldiers have been wounded, mostly on patrols in their sector south of Baghdad where Shiite and Sunni Arab tribes often clash with coalition forces. Twenty-seven of those wounded were evacuated from Iraq and remain at hospitals in the United States.

Pfc. Salvadore Bertolone, 21, of Ortonville, Mich., was injured when a roadside bomb blew glass shards into his face and arm. A scar curls down his cheek, but he dismisses his injury.

There are perks to staying in the fight after an injury, he said.

"I get free license plates for the rest of my life," Bertolone said. "And I've got people who are definitely going to be buying me drinks when I get home."

Though proud of their fellow soldiers, medics fear long-term health problems lie ahead.

"The soldiers here are so focused on staying in the fight that they suck up the pain and push through," said Capt. Dennison Segui, 33, a medic and physician's assistant from Browns Mills, N.J. "I know I'm busy here, but I'm nowhere near as busy as I will be when we get back."

Many of the injured soldiers have begged their commanders to let them come back. One soldier was sent home after a bomb exploded in his face and damaged his eyes. He likely will never return to Iraq, but still asks. Another was sent home because of a heart condition, but returned to Iraq three times, according to Lt. Col. Thomas Kunk, a commander in the 502nd Infantry Regiment.

Kunk, who is not a doctor, decides every week which wounded soldiers can return to duty. Often the soldiers research regulations and argue endlessly, he said.

It's heartbreaking when he has to say no, but he does.

"Sometimes there's too much 'Hooah!' in us guys," Kunk said. While he doesn't want to dampen that enthusiasm, he said, "I don't want to hurt the guy the rest of his life."

Kunk has injuries of his own, so he understands a soldier's conviction to fight. His leg swells and throbs by the end of the day, the lingering effect of a roadside bomb that damaged nerves and muscle. But he, too, won't think of leaving.

"I'm a father. Heck, I'm a grandpa to be honest with you. So I just kind of look at it from that perspective," said Kunk, 48. "I want to do right by them."