Six months and counting, from Memorial Day 2006 — a day that is for most people, a distant memory of a horrible headline: A CBS camera crew killed, together with yet another American soldier, and his Iraqi translator, by yet another car bomb in Baghdad. Six more soldiers were badly injured, along with one CBS correspondent — who happened to be a woman.
These months later, I know the pain must be as sharp and devastating as it was that day for the families of cameraman Paul Douglas, soundman James Brolan, 4th Infantry Division Capt. James Funkhouser and his Iraqi translator — all lost in an instant, killed by an act of evil.
In the mornings when I wake and fight to work off the stiffness in my legs to stand, I remember it all too clearly. And then, thank God that I am here to remember it, and wish again my friends were here too.
Since then, with every report of a car bomb, or a roadside bomb, I hear the anchor say the line so often repeated, it has almost lost meaning: "X number killed, and Y (always higher than X) injured."
A short headline, and on to the next story. But I now know from painful, personal experience that instant of injury will lead to a months-long, nightmarish journey. That is, if the victims are lucky — if they have the care of the U.S. military.
The U.S. military treated me as one of its own, saving my life a few times over, with the best people, the best training and the best equipment. I was blessed time and again on my particular journey, with daily encounters with extraordinary people who helped put my body, and in some instances, my spirit, back together again.
But the U.S.-led coalition cannot scoop up every bomb victim, and whisk them across the globe like they did me.
I watch the near-daily video of Iraqi bombing victims, and study them as their crying family members drag them from the scene, or cradle them on a hospital floor, begging for a doctor. I see where the shrapnel ripped into their bodies, and think to myself: "Dear God. Those wounds are like mine. In an Iraqi hospital…they won't survive the night."
But the wounded can't all go to American hospitals — that system is running at full capacity, and many of the doctors, nurses and corpsmen I met are battling exhaustion, burnout, and just plain heartache to keep going. Not to mention, for those in Iraq, battling the threat of mortar and rocketfire or roadside attacks.
Those men and women worked the same kind of miracles on me that they do daily for thousands of injured servicemen: they repaired two shrapnel-shattered legs; moved skin around my body like a jigsaw puzzle, to cover burns the bomb left behind; and taught me to walk again, all the while, propping up my spirits in between.
I've spent the last few months doing physiotherapy while spending time with family in New Zealand, a country where Iraq is seldom mentioned. A blessing at a time I wasn't ready to dwell on it.
My shrapnel-shattered legs have made great progress, the doctors say. They use words like "phenomenal."
But here I am, still kicking myself — I'd mentally planned to be further along than this.
I spend 6-8 hours a week in the gym or at home with weights and a yoga mat, mostly doing things like trying to get my knees to bend. But my intention was to spend 10-15 hours a week working out.
My body did not agree. Three hours in the gym would finish me for the day… And the next day, I'd crawl out of bed with legs swollen from the effort.
In among all of that, I've been trying to track down the soldiers who were there that day more than six months ago, and touch base with just some of the hundreds of people who literally got me back onto my feet.
And I've been remembering my friends I lost that day. Cameraman Paul (if I dared call him "my cameraman" he'd always say, "I'm not your cameraman, I'm 'a' cameraman," so I'm still careful with that…) Anyway, Paul liked to work Christmas, then take his family on a wonderful holiday afterward — so he and I spent quite a few Christmases working together in Baghdad, and Bethlehem. He always brought silly gifts for all of us — usually brightly colored socks — and he'd cook us Christmas dinner.
When James was in town (soundman James, not "my soundman"), he'd sit at the kitchen table acting as sous chef to Paul's head chef-status, chopping a mountain of potatoes and carrots or whatever our Iraqi staff managed to find in local markets.
Over the resulting home-cooked meal, all of us pausing around a table to toast Chef Paul, James used to intone, mock-solemnly, that Paul's cooking was "the only reason he came to Baghdad." We'd all agree. The cook would beam his famous smile…and dish out seconds.
I miss them, and I wish their families some comfort, somehow.
As I look back to remember them, I'm also trying to forward to 2007. The thing I intend to salvage out of this nightmare: The story of those who helped me, through their work, or their letters, or just their prayers, to pull through. Many of them continue to fight on, for every injured body and soul that crosses their path.
A Web site, www.paulandjames.co.uk, has been created in tribute to Paul Douglas and James Brolan. In addition, those wishing to make contributions to their families may send them to the following address. Please make checks payable to "Trust for the Family of Paul Douglas" and "Trust for the Family of James Brolan."
Attention: Andy Clarke, Deputy Bureau Chief CBS News London
1st Floor, Building 10
566 Chiswick High Road
LONDON W4 5XS
By Kimberly Dozier