Sam Dean | The Roanoke Times
Wednesday March 29, 2006
A long, frustrating summer of recuperation stretches into fall -- and an event that changes Jordan Sherwood's life.
Lying in a military hospital bed, Jordan Sherwood has nightmares -- but not about the war.
In one dream, he's a troubled teenager again, being pressured by older kids to join their gang. He doesn't want to join, but they still think he's cool, so he hangs around with them. He wakes up when another gang chases them.
The National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., is Jordan's first stateside stop after being wounded in Iraq in March 2005. Two weeks later, the 22-year-old Marine lance corporal arrives home on convalescent leave.
At the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Salem, he is evaluated for post-traumatic stress. All troops are now screened for physical and mental ailments before, during and after deployment -- a legacy of the Persian Gulf War.
The counselors quiz Jordan about his childhood, military life, sleep, appetite, dreams, feelings, wounds -- he was also hit by a roadside bomb during his first tour in Iraq. The counselors tell him his responses are normal, but offer him counseling if he needs it.
A month later, he's napping on the couch at home when a mortar round explodes in his consciousness. Jordan thinks it's real -- the distant thump, the whistling approach.
He opens his eyes. The telephone's ringing. He's sweating, heart racing.
As time passes, the war sometimes invades his thoughts. He thinks about his sergeant and the sailor who were wounded with him, who have since returned to duty. Jordan took the brunt of the blast, which shattered his leg, mangled his hand and slashed him with shrapnel.
One morning, he sits at the dining room table in his mother's Wasena house. Sunlight slants through the windows. A mockingbird sings insistently in the backyard. Suddenly, he says:
I remember this one guy, Cpl. Alvarez. He was from California. He was on his first tour. A lot of Marines have egos, but he was the nicest guy I ever met in a uniform. Two weeks before he was supposed to go home, he was in a Humvee and he was killed by a bomb or an IED. It cracked his head open and he bled to death.
He was the same age as me. He and his wife had all their plans worked out. He was putting her through nursing college. They made videotapes of each other, home movies, and sent them to each other. You know, just everyday stuff. They loved each other a lot.
Of all the people to get killed, he deserved it the least. He was one of those people you know would have benefited society somehow if he'd lived. I barely knew him, but I was dumbfounded when he died. He did everything right, and he still didn't get to go home to his family. It gives me chills sometimes.
At home, Jordan is frustrated. Things he mastered as a child -- dressing himself, holding a spoon, using the toilet -- are now complicated.
The first few weeks are the toughest, adapting to his broken body and to living at home again with his mother, Ginger Fitzgerald, a situation that exasperates him equally -- a grown man, a Marine no less, dependent on his mommy.
He can hobble a little on crutches, but he's mostly stuck in bed, so she brings him food, gives him sponge baths, kisses him good-night. He values her concern but feels smothered by it: "I'm a man, Mom. Let me figure things out."
Jordan is irritable, snaps at her sometimes. Ginger mostly tolerates it, sometimes gives it right back. He wants to be left alone, but one sunny day she insists on pushing him around their neighborhood in his wheelchair to get some fresh air.
"Come on, honey, it'll do you good," she says, but they struggle to get back because of the hilly streets, exhausting them both.
SOURCES: Department of Defense, Associated Press, Congressional Research Service, GlobalSecurity.org
He has trouble sleeping -- the damaged nerves in his feet tingle at night like stray electrical wires -- and he wakes up irritable. Ginger, who thinks of him as a "sleeping dragon," doesn't get him up until nearly noon many days.
One day, when she talks about her premonition he would be hurt in Iraq -- a motherly sense of foreboding that makes her feel closer to him -- he dismisses it. He says random chance, not fate, luck or providence, determines who lives and dies in Iraq.
"Nothing happens for a reason," he snaps.
Eventually, his mood improves. He catches up on sleep, gets the hang of his crutches, apologizes to Ginger for his moodiness. He regains some weight, eating his mother's sausage gravy, pizza and other homemade fare in her warm, cluttered kitchen.
Jordan takes his first shower in more than a month, wrapping his wounds in plastic bags. He learns to shave and dress himself again. He locks the bathroom door so his mother can't come in. She stands outside worrying.
"Are you OK in there, honey?"
As the spring passes, he returns repeatedly to Bethesda and the VA Center in Salem for surgeries, checkups and removal of sutures and pins from his wounds. Plastic surgery repairs his nose. He starts rehabilitation on his hand but not his leg because the bones need further healing.
Otherwise, his days are tedious. He's not a book reader, so he relieves the boredom by watching TV and movies, playing video games, surfing the Internet, visiting relatives. Ginger, who has taken time off from her job to be with him, returns to work.
One weekend, a friend from Arizona visits. Jordan and Christie Harris, 21, dated in high school -- they met in juvenile court before a judge -- and have stayed in touch. Both have turned their lives around, him in the Marines, her in college.
It is Ginger's 46th birthday, and she and some friends celebrate with drinks at the Brambleton Deli bar, their hangout. When Jordan hobbles in on crutches with Christie, they greet him warmly -- the decorated Marine and the pretty blonde at his side. They order his first drink since he went to Iraq, a Jack Daniels and Coke. They raise their glasses in a toast.
"To Jordan," one says.
"To Jordan," they say all around.
Summer of frustration
As the summer passes, Jordan's frustration worsens. He's impatient to start physical therapy on his leg, and his hand isn't improving. His right index finger is mostly gone and middle finger frozen, so he worries about how he'll fire his rifle and take pictures as a combat camerman. He worries he's getting soft from sitting around.
Still, he's insistent that nothing has changed, that he will be back to normal soon. He talks about how he will be do everything he did before the explosion -- running, jet-skiing, rock climbing and more.
His occupational therapist stretches his hand daily, trying to prevent scar tissue from forming. Jordan is used to the pain by now, closing his eyes until the worst is over. He learns to open jars, put pegs into holes, hold a pen.
"Hey, look at that," he says, smiling one day after spelling his name, the pen wobbling slowly across the paper like a second-grader learning to write. "Not bad."
One morning, he's sitting restlessly on the front porch at home. A little Marine Corps banner is stuck in the grass under an old crab-apple tree. He's spitting tobacco in the sunshine when the mailman hands him an envelope from Iraq.
Inside are his dog tags, no get well card. He stares at them, two thin pieces of metal summing up his identity: name, Social Security number, USMC, blood type, religion ("No preference"). He slips them back in the envelope. He sighs, spits again.
In May, Bethesda doctors replace his leg cast with a Velcro rubber ankle boot. In June, X-rays show his ankle is still broken. By July, Jordan and Ginger think physical therapy on his leg should be starting -- leg lifts, stretching, tentative walking -- but Bethesda doesn't issue the rehabilitation orders.
The doctors tell him not to put weight on his leg, but he hobbles a few steps anyway -- he can't help himself. He tries weaning himself off his pain medications.
Jordan knows he's lucky, that many troops are amputees, brain damaged, disfigured, but he's still self-conscious. When he goes to the mall, he turns away when people stare at his scarred hand and nose, his limping gait.
The summer drags on, sticky humidity settling over the city. Jordan tries anything to break the monotony. He grows a goatee, then shaves it -- "I'll get in trouble. It's not regulation."
He tries to teach himself Spanish with "Spanish for Dummies," laboriously conjugating verbs into a notebook. He goes on eBay and buys a customized 1971 Volkswagen Beetle with a stereo big enough for an outdoor concert. He wears his Marine dress blues to his half-sister's wedding in Miami and returns with a sunburn.
One day, he gets word that his new $2,000 laptop computer, Swiss Army knife and St. Christopher's medal, which his mother gave him for protection, are missing from his footlocker in Iraq. He and his mother are furious that a fellow Marine may have stolen them.
In July, Jordan enrolls in a digital multimedia class at the Pentagon's Defense Information School at Fort Meade, Md., to sharpen his combat cameraman skills. Several Marines from his home unit are there. They greet him warmly, barely noticing his wounds.
"It's just a little speed bump for him," Staff Sgt. Timothy McMann says. "I wish we had 100 guys like Jordan. He's real squared away."
Jordan relishes being back among his fellow Marines, the regimented way of life, the sense of purpose, the camaraderie. His buddies call him "Sticks" because of his crutches, which leave him with a cut chin one night returning from town when he drunkenly stumbles on some steps. He laughs it off, studies hard, gets good grades in class. Other Marines treat him respectfully when they learn he's a battlefield veteran.
One of Jordan's classmates is Randi Foust, 24, a Marine lance corporal and combat videographer from Michigan. She's serious, with a pretty smile, brown hair. She finds Jordan mature, handsome, wise.
It isn't love at first sight: "He thought I was weird, so I had to pursue him," she says, smiling. But a relationship quickly grows, their lives becoming entwined to a degree that neither envisions happening so soon.
For Jordan, being an able-bodied Marine is important to his pride. One afternoon at the Fort Meade gate, a civilian security guard jokes about his being crippled. Jordan, who's limping in his walking cast, glares at her.
"I'm not crippled," he says, sternly.
"I'm just kidding," she says.
"It's not funny," he says. "There's nothing funny about it.
Not ready for civilian life
When autumn arrives, Jordan's leg is shrunken, the muscles atrophying, leaving him frustrated that rehabiliation has not started. His hand remains painfully stiff despite more therapy and surgery.
Still, he's confident he will return to active duty soon. He's certain he'll be able to run, shoulder a heavy pack, pull a rifle trigger with a different finger when he returns to Camp Pendelton in California.
"I'm going to be gung-ho when I go back," he says. "I don't know -- I could be an even better Marine."
(Sam Dean | The Roanoke Times) Randi Foust Sherwood, wife of Jordan Sherwood
He doesn't like to think about the possibility of being forced out of the Marines, which have given him direction in life and job skills. He doesn't feel ready for the civilian world -- he's only vaguely thought about life out of a uniform. He loves the Marines and wants to re-enlist for another four years, although he no longer wants to make it his career. He thinks the repeated deployments are too hard on Marines' families.
Although he's only known Randi briefly, family life is something Jordan starts to think about. After their class ends in August, Randi joins Jordan and Ginger at their Roanoke home, where she lives for several weeks before returning to her Marine base in Hawaii.
She quickly becomes part of their family, falling in love with Jordan and doing "girl things" with Ginger like shopping and getting a manicure and pedicure. Jordan goodnaturedly cautions his mother not to make Randi "prissy," given that she wears combat boots for a living.
Ginger likes Randi, has a motherly sense that she and Jordan will marry one day, which makes her worry even more -- not just a son but a daughter-in-law who may go to Iraq.
By fall, Jordan also starts to think about the Catch-22 he will encounter when he returns to Camp Pendleton to face a medical review board: If he stays in the Marines, which he wants, he could be sent back to Iraq, which he doesn't.
He hopes his two tours and two Purple Hearts will be taken into consideration, that he will be given cushy duty as an embassy guard, maybe in Europe. But he knows he may end up in Iraq again; the Marines have relatively few combat cameramen, only about 400 out of 178,000 total Marines, and they are needed badly on the battlefield.
He thinks: If it happens, it happens. I don't want to go back and I don't feel guilty about it. I worked my ass off over there.