Sam Dean | The Roanoke Times
Thursday March 30, 2006
He's healing and back in uniform. But Jordan Sherwood still struggles for answers -- about the war, and how it's affected him.
On a bright October afternoon in 2005, Jordan Sherwood waits at the Roanoke Regional Airport for a flight to Camp Pendleton, his Marine Corps base in California.
He's smiling, surrounded by family, looking out the terminal windows at the mountains beyond, the leaves turning in the autumn sunshine.
People pass him in the terminal, taking no notice, just another passenger, a tall, handsome young man with a barely noticeable limp. You wouldn't take him for a Marine unless you saw him in his Purple Heart-pinned uniform, or unless you saw him naked -- his clothes hide most of the scars.
SOURCES: Associated Press; icasualties.org; Iraq Body Count; Unknown News; Marc Herold, University of New Hampshire
Pink and purple and white, the scars range from specks that resemble shaving nicks to long lines where shrapnel and concussion blew open his body and surgeons closed him up.
Jordan, 22, a Roanoke native, is eagerly returning to Camp Pendleton, where he will receive his second Purple Heart and resume his duties as a lance corporal and combat cameraman.
He has spent a long spring, summer and fall weathering red tape, surgeries, rehabilitation and boredom, waiting for his body to heal. He's also unexpectedly found a girlfriend, a fellow Marine whose life has become entwined with his and the war.
He will be back in a Marine uniform by nightfall. He's nervous, unsure of what to expect, but confident that his other family, the Marines, will take care of him.
From the tarmac, he calls his mother, Ginger Fitzgerald, on his cellphone and presses his palm against his plane window. She returns the gesture, pressing her hand against the terminal window, leaving a damp palm print on the glass when the plane rolls away.
"I've been fed up with him at times -- he can be so stubborn -- but I've been crying since last night watching him pack," Ginger says, rubbing her puffy eyes. She laughs: "This whole thing has made me old. I've got a lot more wrinkles. I'm going to charge the military for a face-lift."
Wounded twice by roadside bombs during two tours in Iraq, Jordan will be on limited duty at Camp Pendleton until he goes before a medical board, which will review his clinical records, physical condition and attitude. To qualify for full duty, he'll also have to pass a test that includes a three-mile run, sit-ups, pull-ups and marksmanship.
Jordan loves the Marines, wants to re-enlist for another four years, but he has grown frustrated with the military's medical bureaucracy, which he believes has hurt his recovery by not starting rehabilitation on his leg sooner.
He also doesn't want to return to Iraq, where Marine combat cameramen are needed badly. His unit -- Headquarters and Service Company, Headquarters Battalion, Combat Camera, 1st Marine Division -- leaves soon for a yearlong deployment. If he returns to full duty, Jordan might have to go with them, joining thousands of other wounded troops serving in Iraq, where the war has lasted for three years now.
"God bless him, he just wants to be a Marine, whether it's sitting at a desk or going back to Iraq," says his commander, Chief Warrant Officer John Giles. "We've all been there [to Iraq], and if he's in this unit, he may well have to deploy again. Unfortunately, it's not just a matter of sending somebody else."
But soon after he returns to Camp Pendleton, Marine officials change their minds, deciding Jordan has done enough. If he qualifies for full duty, they will try to transfer him to a stateside unit that won't deploy, where he would finish the last year of his contract and receive an honorable discharge.
As American battlefield medicine and body armor have improved, so have insurgents' choice of weapons. IEDs, or improvised explosive devices -- the military's term for roadside bombs and other explosives -- have made brain injuries and amputations the signature wounds of the Iraq war.
Four Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals have been designated as polytrauma rehabilitation centers to treat the growing number of troops with catastrophic and complex injuries, especially brain damage.
The Army has opened a new amputation center at the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio to support the existing amputation center at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
Explosions account for most of the head injuries and amputations.
About 6,000 troops have suffered head injuries, including more than 1,700 diagnosed with brain damage. Nearly 400 troops have had amputations.
SOURCES: Department of Defense, Congressional Research Service
If he can't qualify for full duty, he can take an immediate medical discharge or retirement, or he can stay on limited duty for the next year at Camp Pendleton and receive an honorable discharge.
Either way, he probably won't be sent back to Iraq -- although there are no guarantees -- and he won't be allowed to re-enlist.
It's a bittersweet decision for Jordan, for whom civilian life is an uncomfortable prospect. He was a troubled teenager, but he's thrived in the Marines -- he fits in, feels respected, proud, purposeful.
His life has come to revolve around the Corps, which has given him his identity.
During his seven-month convalescence, he was convinced that he would soon return to full duty, so he's only vaguely thought of life after the Marines -- maybe being a civilian photographer, maybe joining the Coast Guard, maybe college.
Jordan's family doesn't tell him -- it would only upset him -- but they worry he will be adrift without the Marines, that he doesn't have the confidence to go from the structure of the military world to the freedom of civilian life.
"The Marines are something he's just so proud of," Ginger says, "and then for them to say, 'Oh, well, sorry, you're out,' it will just crush him."
The Marines have given Jordan more than pride -- they've also given him love. In July, he met Randi Foust, 24, a Marine lance corporal and combat videographer, in a multimedia class at the Pentagon's Defense Information School.
Randi grew up a tomboy in Michigan, where she had a troubled childhood. She left home at 16, supporting herself with odd jobs until she graduated from high school, the first from her family to do so. She joined the Marines almost two years ago and eventually hopes to become a forensic psychologist and a federal agent.
In October, as their romance deepens, Randi and Jordan hope he will be transferred to where she's stationed at Camp Smith in Hawaii. But then she and several other Camp Smith combat cameramen are ordered to join Jordan's Camp Pendleton unit when it deploys to Iraq in early 2006 -- without him, now that it's been decided he probably won't be ordered back.
It will be Randi's first tour, and Jordan is uncomfortable with the idea of remaining safely behind while his girlfriend and his buddies go to war. But he doesn't consider volunteering for a third tour. He thinks anyone who volunteers for Iraq is crazy.
Still, his family worries that he'll change his mind and volunteer for another tour. They put his destiny in God's hands. Back in Roanoke, his grandmother Betty Fitzgerald says: "Lord knows the roads we have to travel to get where we're going." She holds a Christmas gift that Jordan gave her -- a glass cube with a three-dimensional hologram of his face inside. It makes a ghostly image when she holds it up to the sunlight.
A hurried union
At Camp Pendleton, Jordan feels at home on the nation's busiest military base, 125,000 sprawling acres of shoreline, caramel-colored mountains and sunshine north of San Diego. It's the home of the 1st Marine Division, the oldest and most decorated division in the Marine Corps.
Jordan rejoins the rhythm of military life, keeps his head freshly shaved, uniform crisp, blending in with the other Marines, many of whom have scars from Iraq and Afghanistan. They all go about their daily lives, doing everything from live-fire exercises to sipping cappuccinos at the base Starbucks.
Jordan stays busy, taking photos on base, doing office work, going to rehabilitation three times a week for his leg -- his limp is mostly gone, but his ankle is still swollen, stiff. In his free time, he tries to play paintball, surf in the chilly Pacific, even touch football once, but his ankle won't hold up.
Jordan doesn't like limited duty -- leathernecks don't look fondly on anyone not pulling a full load -- but his commander considers him a model Marine.
"When you think of young Marines, you have a picture of Jordan in mind," Giles says. "I wish I had 100 of him in my unit. He's got a lot of fire in his eyes."
Beneath the surface, though, Jordan's frustration is growing. His hand is improving, but when he tries to run, he wobbles painfully like a pirate on a peg leg. His medical review is postponed again.
Still, he finds reasons to be heartened. Just before Christmas and his 23rd birthday, he gives Randi a diamond engagement ring and they get married on a Hawaiian beach. It's too short notice for their families to be there, so Ginger listens happily over a speaker phone: "All I heard was the waterfall," she says, laughing. "I knew they'd get married the moment I met her."
In January, Jordan starts requalifying with his rifle. He uses his old M16A4, which has a shrapnel mark where his trigger finger was blown off. Now he fires using his damaged middle finger or his ring finger.
He can't shoot as well as he used to -- "We're not throwing hand grenades. Close isn't good enough," a staff sergeant barks -- but Jordan still scores decently on an electronic simulator firing range.
By late January, his impatience is peaking. He, Randi and Ginger believe his case has been mismanaged -- he had only one physical therapy session on his leg during his seven-month convalescence, which they think may have permanently affected the leg.
They also think he should be meritoriously promoted to corporal and transferred to Hawaii to be with Randi, whose commander decides she isn't needed on this deployment to Iraq. Jordan also can't get answers about what kind of disability compensation he would get if he takes a medical discharge or retirement.
"He's going 'round and 'round like a dog chasing his tail," Ginger says. "Once they saw he wasn't going to die, he's no longer a priority. He didn't lose his leg or arm, but he served his country and he deserves some straight answers."
With Jordan's support, Randi sends a forceful letter to the Marine Corps commandant and to a U.S. senator's wife in Washington, D.C., who does advocacy work for servicemen and servicewomen. The letter, which pleads for Randi and Jordan to be together in California or Hawaii, says he is "rotting in the system & being treated as an irritation rather than a hero."
When Jordan's commanders hear about the letter from their superiors, they say they didn't know the extent of his problems. They pull Jordan aside and chew him out for several hours for going outside the chain of command. They threaten to take him out of the rifle requalification class, which he needs to get back on full duty and transferred to Hawaii to be near Randi.
The next day, Jordan is allowed back into class, but he's fed up. He and Randi decide that whatever happens, they will leave the Marines. His contract expires in just over a year, hers in two and a half years.
He isn't sure what he will do after leaving the Marines, other than joining Randi in Hawaii, but he starts thinking seriously about his civilian prospects -- maybe studying multimedia in college, working for a multimedia company, starting his own company one day.
In late January, Jordan scores lower than he used to on the firing range, but he still requalifies as a marksman. That leaves his medical review and fitness test as the last hurdles for returning to full duty.
Meanwhile, his three dozen fellow combat cameramen start shipping out again to Iraq. In the unit's office, there's a large Purple Heart-shaped plaque with the names of their six brethren who have been killed or wounded in Iraq. Jordan's name is the only one listed twice. The plaque has space for many more names.
With the 1st Marine Division shipping out, there isn't much for Jordan to do on base, no promotions or changes of command or other ceremonies to photograph: "I'm the senior man in the office," he jokes. "Actually, I'm the only man."
He'll spend the next year providing support services to his fellow combat cameramen in Iraq, and learning everything he can about multimedia before he takes off his uniform for the last time.
In his quiet moments, lying in his bunk, driving back roads, sitting on a bench in the winter sun, Jordan is conflicted about his time in the military. He's proud of his service, thankful to the Marines, but disillusioned with a system he believes has failed him.
It's a marked difference -- not only from when he enlisted as a gung-ho teenager nearly three years ago, but also from just a few months ago when he returned to Camp Pendleton full of hope.
In the end, the frequent deployments, being wounded, the medical bureaucracy, being apart from his new wife, who may face an Iraq deployment of her own -- it's all too much for Jordan.
"It's a lot for us to deal with," he says.
In February and March, Jordan gets good news. Randi's request to be transferred to Camp Pendleton is tentatively approved for this summer. He has more surgery on his hand. And his leg suddenly starts feeling better, so he's put in a "return to readiness" program, the last step before his medical review. When he runs on a treadmill, his knee and ankle crackle like an old man's joints, but his spirit is buoyed: He's running for the first time since the roadside bomb tore into him.
Jordan is hopeful but realistic.
"Since April of last year, I've been saying it's going to be next month, it's going to be next month. But I've learned the body doesn't heal as fast as the mind does, I guess."
'Do something great'
Early 2006 is a crucial time in Iraq, where secular civil war looms. The Bush administration says security is improving, but a Pentagon-commissioned report finds U.S. forces are stretched thin and that troop deployments can't be sustained long enough to defeat the insurgency.
American troop levels have dropped from about 160,000 to 138,000 and may decrease further this year, but it's not soon enough for many Marines and soldiers who are weary of the war.
Jordan, who joined the Marines both for patriotism and practical benefits, has never thought deeply about the war, about its causes and effects. He's never paid much attention to the news coverage, never had a righteous belief in the mission. But now he concludes that it's a worthwhile fight, which so far has killed or wounded nearly 20,000 U.S. troops, mostly young men of his generation.
He knows he probably won't see Iraq a third time, but he's mentally prepared for that possibility now that he can handle his rifle and camera again and may soon return to full duty.
"They wouldn't think twice about sending me back if they needed to -- I know that,' he says. "When I first went to Iraq, I had no expectations, only that we'd fight it on our turf if we didn't fight it there.
"But after a while, I realized how important it is to stop a dictatorship. The insurgents don't want to empower the Iraqi people like America does. Iraq's been a Third World country for centuries and the people don't know any better. The United States should be there."
SOURCES: Department of Defense, Associated Press, Columbia University
Jordan's mother is saddened he'll leave the Marines on a down note, but she's glad his military experience has matured him, helped him meet his wife, given him the chance to serve his country and get a free college education. She's relieved he won't have to "return to that horrible place," that he never had to kill anyone.
"In the last three years, he's been through more than most people have in a lifetime," Ginger says.
"I want him to take everything he's learned and do something great with his life. I've always said he would."
At 23, Jordan is more reflective than a year ago. He still believes in God, or rather some undefinable higher power, not some cardboard version of Jesus or Allah or Buddha.
And he still believes in fate, although he's confused by what he's seen in Iraq, where he came to bitterly believe that randomness, not predestination, determines who lives and dies.
He's especially troubled by a fellow Marine whom he knew only briefly but who impressed him as a good soul -- Cpl. Nicanor Alvarez of San Bernadino, Calif., who like Jordan was 22 years old and married, who unlike Jordan didn't survive the roadside bomb that exploded beneath him just before he was scheduled to board a plane for home.
"Before Iraq, I was a big believer in fate, but there's something about fighting a war that pushes your belief in fate aside," Jordan says. "I still can't understand why Cpl. Alvarez would die. There's no lesson in his death."
"But because of the war, of being wounded, I did end up meeting Randi and falling in love, so maybe in the big picture, there could be fate."
He pauses again: "I guess I'm torn. I guess I don't really know what to believe." He's sure of one thing, though.
"We have to be persistent in doing what makes us happy," he says. "Being wounded, it's simplified everything for me, just being here and being alive and sharing time with people you love. There's always something to look forward to."
He's outside his barracks now, a hopeful young man, walking along, putting one foot in front of the other, his bad one laced up tightly in a dusty camouflage boot. He limps no more than a man with a pebble in his shoe.
It's sunset, the cool night coming on, helicopter gunships thumping in the distance. He smiles broadly in the darkness.
"Like the Marines say, adapt and overcome. That's what I'm going to do for the rest of my life."