Part II: Lives Changed Forever

Medics Credited For Saving Soldiers' Lives

Robert Acosta, Alan Lewis and David Pettigrew credit the medical care they received in Iraq in those first few hours with saving their lives.

At the combat support hospital in Baghdad, the largest of four such facilities, they say the key to that success is speed.

"We rarely get more than 30 seconds, 60 seconds, heads up on a patient coming in," says Dr. Ben Gonzalez, a world away from his peacetime job as deputy chief of emergency medicine at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.

The trauma room, which is now the main trauma center for all of Iraq, is certainly busier than in the days when it was Saddam's personal clinic. And for the past eight months, Gonzalez has lived within shouting distance of the ER. The work is intense and constant – there are routine 12-hour shifts - and so far, more than 9,000 patients have come through the center.

"I think I've seen pretty much a lifetime of trauma in the past few months," says Gonzalez.

Most days, the bad seems to outnumber the good. "You get to a point where in a case you know someone's going to die despite what you do," says Gonzalez. "People die, despite what we do. Young people. It's hard to see that all the time."

On Nov. 2, 16 Americans died when a Chinook helicopter was shot down. The injured were rushed to the center.

"That was a rough day. You still get these emotions of knowing that there's a lot of people out there that are going to get hurt, and that was a rough day for everybody," recalls Gonzalez. "Thirty plus soldiers in a Chinook, flying off to go see their loved ones, flying off for their leave, to go home, get shot down. We received more than half that here."

Doctors here dismiss their own heroics as routine. They simply save lives, and there's plenty of work these days - roughly seven soldiers are wounded for every one killed in action in Iraq today.

At Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, these young soldiers have discovered challenges that can be as great as combat itself.

Spc. Robert Acosta takes the first painful steps to his new life. His lower arm is gone and one foot is mangled. "This is the hardest thing I've ever done. Ever in my life," he says.

Alan Lewis is battle-scarred but there are no tears, no anger and no regrets -- even though his arm was shattered in six places, and he's lost both legs below the knee. "You'll never see me cry," he says. "I'd rather not have my legs and be alive than not have my legs and be dead. I'm thankful just for being here."

And somehow, David Pettigrew is also able to stay positive, despite the loss of his entire leg: "I'm not dead. I will be fine, eventually. Everything that makes me who I am is still here."

Within just days of being injured, the three men were brought to the center, which prides itself on providing top-flight services for amputees. More than 350 soldiers wounded in action have passed through there since the war began — dozens of them missing limbs. So at Walter Reed, the war's true costs can be measured in plastic and titanium, in computerized arms and legs.

It's part boot camp, part tough love at the center, says physical therapist Isatta Kanu: "I want them to feel like nothing has changed much. Acceptance is success to me. When they learn to accept themselves for who they are and what they can accomplish and be proud of themselves."

Acosta finds it hard to believe he's making any progress, since he's in so much pain.

And the reality of losing a leg is finally beginning to sink in for Pettigrew. "Everything they're making you do is stuff that you need to do, stuff that's good for you, ultimately things that will make you stronger, make you better able to be yourself again," he says. "I've always been a very independent person and able to do most near anything, and now it's humbling, to say the least."

But there are challenges for everyone involved. "There's been two or three times that I've broken down crying because it's just been too much to deal with," says Pettigrew's wife, Ann, whose law practice waits in Colorado.

Lewis' inspiration is his daughter, Destiny, who was born while he was in Iraq. "That's why I want to get home so fast. I want to be with my daughter," he says, admitting that this experience has made him a stronger person. "Nothing can come close to this, so I have changed. I'm a more mature, more mature man."

Today, Lewis is being fitted for two new legs. Technicians custom make his legs at the hospital, and remarkably, just 48 hours later, Lewis stands up for the first time in two months. "This is the first step to a new beginning," he says.

Meanwhile, Acosta is getting used to his new, artificial arm, but he hates needing it. Like every other soldier here, Acosta has one immediate goal: "I'm really trying to get outta here. I'm sick of this place. I just want to see my family and be able to spend time with them."

Finally, after eight weeks, Acosta goes home to California. He's decided to surprise his dad, so his mother picks him up at the airport. It's after midnight when they arrive at home. His father hasn't seen him since he got hurt. "It's good to see you," says his father, Robert Sr., crying. "So glad to see you."

"We worried about him every single day he was over there," says Acosta's mother, Patricia. "Every time we heard a soldier got hurt, we worried about him. It isn't just him; it impacts the whole family. It changed him forever; it changed us forever."

Part III: Coming Home

More Information: Help GIs And Their Families