Associated Press | June 11, 2006
MAHMOUDIYA, 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
remembers little of that day last November except someone warning him
that when he woke, his foot might
After five months and six surgeries, the foot remains intact but
causes Skidis haunting numbness and searing pain
caused by nerve
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
"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
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
His friends have nicknamed him "Bullet Magnet" - but he won't
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
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
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
"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."