The Long Road Home From Iraq

<B>David Martin</B> Reports On Casualties Of The War In Iraq

Since the war in Iraq began, more than 5,000 U.S. soldiers have been wounded by hostile fire.

Last fall, as the casualties began to mount, Correspondent David Martin set out to meet some of the wounded and find out what the long road home from Iraq is really like.

When 60 Minutes checked back with them for this update, it found out that for some, the road still has a long way to go.

Lt. John Fernandez is home now, but shortly after the war began, he was leading soldiers on the race to Baghdad when an explosion, possibly from an American bomb, shattered his life.

"I pulled off my sleeping bag and looked at my feet and realized that I was pretty seriously injured. The first person who picked up my legs started to panic a little because he realized my injuries," says Fernandez. "I realize my injuries. I didn't have time to contemplate the full ramifications. But I knew at that point that my life had changed forever."

It wasn't until he got back to the United States that Fernandez realized the full extent of his wounds. Doctors told the former captain of the West Point lacrosse team that they would have to amputate parts of both legs below the knee. But that wasn't the worst thing that happened to the 25-year-old lieutenant.

"Three of my soldiers died. My platoon sergeant who I worked very closely, hand in hand with," says Fernandez. "My driver, who I was with every day, and my gunner … Knowing what happened to my soldiers, who are the true heroes in this war, I would never feel sorry for myself."

Two months after he was wounded, Fernandez was back at West Point as a guest of honor on graduation day. When they played the national anthem, his wife, Kristi, steadied him as he stood at attention for the first time on his new, artificial legs.

He stood for the entire anthem: "By the end, I was shaking. And it was a painful process but it was definitely worth it. It was kind of, like, standing on top of a mountain for me. It was the first real step."

Fernandez was wounded at the height of the fighting, but the guerilla war which followed continues to produce a steady and growing stream of casualties.

For most of the 5,000 soldiers who have been wounded in action, the first stop is the Army's Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, where they are taken in by the busload, still wrapped in their battlefield dressings, cradling plastic bags containing little more than the bloody clothes they were wearing when they got hit.

Last October, Martin met with Gary Boggs, a National Guardsman from Ohio, who was injured when his convoy was ambushed in Tikrit. He can't see out of his left eye: "I had shrapnel in my eye and they did some stitching under my eyelid and stuff."

A few weeks later, when Martin checked to see how Boggs was doing, he said doctors were not able to save his eye.

To Lt. Col. Susan Raymond and other members of the Landstuhl nursing staff, there seems no end to the procession of mangled young bodies.

"When the war was officially on, I was putting in 12-hour days, maybe five to six days a week," says Raymond. "And now that the war is over, I'm still putting in 12-hour days."

Did she think she would still be treating casualties at this late date?

"I felt like I was in a 'MASH' movie with Groundhog Day over and over again since February," says Raymond. "I mean, I still can't believe that this volume of patients is still here and it's gone on as long as it has."

Sgt. Christopher West uses Bible study and prayer to deal with the stress. Has some of the glory gone out of the war for him? "Some of the glory? It's a tragedy to see to me what war does to people and how it changes their lives," says West.

After 16 days in Landstuhl's intensive care unit, 23-year-old Michael Matthews was stable enough to be transferred to a hospital in the United States and to make room in the ICU for the next batch of wounded.

"I had shrapnel wound to my neck. . . Came in through my right and stayed in my left side and built up," says Matthews. "Missed every single, every single, thing."

There are lots of soldiers at Landstuhl with shrapnel wounds like Matthews' - wounds as one doctor put, neck up, shoulders out, waist down. That's because soldiers wear flak jackets and helmets to protect their vital organs, which gives battlefield medics a better chance to save their lives.

"The reason a lot of 'em are still alive is because of the progress of American medicine and the way that deployable American medicine is put right on the battlefield," says Dr. Ronald Place, chief of surgery at Landstuhl.

Place says he sees soldiers here who 10 years ago would have died. And that's good news, until you see the level of injury some of the soldiers have to deal with.

"You never really know as a physician or as a surgeon what would the person really would have liked. You never really know, did that guy really want to live that way? Or, or would he rather be dead from it," says Place. "All that we know is that we have the capability. We have the capability to take care of a really badly injured patient, to save their life, get them back closer with their family. And our hope is that's what they wanted."

For badly wounded soldiers, leaving Landstuhl is only the first step on a long and difficult journey home. The next stop is likely to be a place like Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, where the long-term treatment and rehabilitation begin.

Many of the wounded will be there for months, learning how to walk again, and learning how to live again. When Martin first met Spc. Aaron Coates, he was 12 weeks into his recovery from third-degree burns to his arms, face, and hands.

"I was driving the fuel truck – had 1,000 gallons of fuel. And there was a roadside ambush," says Coates, whose truck went up in a ball of fire.

He said he stayed with it, driving it away from the rest of his convoy: "I was more afraid of it exploding in the middle of the street and hurting other soldiers. So I was trying to get it out of the way."

If he hadn't driven that truck out of there, there would have been a lot more patients. Coates adds that the truck behind him was also carrying troops.

The last thing Coates saw in Iraq was a fireball. The first thing his mother saw was a bandaged body she could barely identify as her son.

"I didn't know the severity of it," says Coates' mother, Carol. "That was hard. The only way I could recognize him was by his big feet. That was it. And when I saw him, I first saw him through a glass, and I just thought, 'Oh my God, I can't do this.' That's hard just seeing your child like that in an absolute helpless situation."

Coates was kept sedated for 12 days. His mother had to learn how to change his dressings, since he can do little for himself.

"At first I got sick, when I first saw my arms. Because they were still raw from having the skin grafts put on them," says Coates. "A couple weeks later, after I had woken up, they told me they had to amputate the fingers. Everything was burnt, all the way to the bone. They said when they amputated even the bone was burnt. It was cooked all the way through."

Coates hopes to be able to drive a truck again, but he's not sure who would hire a truck driver missing all the fingers on his right hand.

"You have to basically adjust your life," says Sgt. Rashaan Canady, who had his right arm ripped off below the elbow by a rocket-propelled grenade.

He says he's had to learn how to write with his left hand, and do things that others take for granted, such as tying his sneaker and putting his pants on.

Canady said that he's still thirsting for life, and if it weren't for that missing arm, you'd think he was as good as new. But not so.

"I have good days and bad days," says Canady. "A good day is glad to be alive and be productive. To feel a sense of independence. Bad days are usually at night, you know. Even now I have nightmares about what happened. And some days, on bad days, I might get only two or three hours of sleep."

For a young man disfigured by war, there are psychological as well as physical adjustments that have to be made - especially for one as severely burned as Spc. Jose Martinez.

Martin talked to him seven months after his Humvee ran over an anti-tank mine.

"The doctors have told me I've had about 22 surgeries – 22 or 23 surgeries, as far as just skin graphs. I've had broken body parts. Had six eye surgeries. So, I've had a pretty good amount of surgeries, and I'll still have a lot more to go ahead," says Martinez.

"When I seen my face, the only thing that was going through my mind, I never had doubts of living. I never said I wanted to go. I always said, 'Why did this happen.'"

Why did it happen? Martinez believes he was chosen so that he could use his outgoing personality to help other soldiers deal with the trauma of their burns.

"A lot of guys just have-- one arm burned, not-- and they would feel that-- it's-- it's over. You know, that there's no point of going on. And I would say, 'Man, you know, look at me. You know, I have more visible scars, or, 'I catch more looks, and I've made it. I still go out. I still have fun. I still live life,'" says Martinez. "I'm only 20 years old. You know, why am I gonna sit there and act like there's no point of living? There is."

Martinez, who's single, says he's looking for a girlfriend. And he believes that his physical condition will not be a problem.

"Not at all. Now I can't, you know, depend on the looks. If I see a girl somewhere, and I want to approach and talk to, can't just go, 'Hey, look at me. This is what you're going to get,'" says Martinez. "No, it's not that no more. It's more of, you got to get to know me, I get to know you. And that's what you like now. That's what you get. If you like who I am on the inside, that's who I'm going to be."

All the soldiers we talked to have decided that life goes on, even though it will never be the same. When Lt. John Fernandez returned to West Point, he realized that he had embarked on a far different life than the one he had imagined when he had graduated from there two years ago.

"It's done pretty much a complete 180. I think the important question is have I changed? And I haven't changed," says Fernandez.

Four months after standing for the first time, Fernandez walked down the aisle at his wedding. He and his wife, Kristi, finally held the ceremony the war had forced them to postpone. When Martin talked to them in November, they were expecting.

"It just goes to show you how life goes on. You know, last April he was getting his feet amputated," says Kristi. "And this April, we're going to have a baby. So very excited."

Madison Grace Fernandez was born on April 29 of this year, and both the parents and daughter are doing fine.

After this story ran last winter, Spc. Jose Martinez received hundreds of letters from viewers. He's been dating, but says the only special woman in his life right now is his mother. Martinez, who just turned 21, still faces major reconstructive surgeries that will take a year and half to complete.

Spc. Aaron Coates, who wanted to drive trucks again, received several job offers after this story first ran. He's had five more operations on his hands, and is still undergoing daily therapy. But he's living on his own, and focused on going to college.

Since we met these wounded soldiers seven months ago, another 3,000 American service men and women have been wounded in Iraq, and are on their own long road home.