Sam Dean | The Roanoke Times
Sunday March 26, 2006
Roanoke native Jordan Sherwood is still a young man but already a combat veteran. Twice wounded in Iraq, he wonders: Will I go back again?
Jordan Sherwood stares over the sandbagged side of his truck as it crosses the Euphrates River.
It's late morning, the sun nearly at its peak, baking the city and the desert beyond. A warm wind blows, leaving grit in his teeth. It's March 13, 2005, three weeks into his second tour in Iraq as a Marine lance corporal and combat cameraman.
(Courtesy Ginger Fitzgerald) Jordan Fitzgerald Sherwood
He holds his rifle easily, his photography gear by his side. He watches the roadside, scans the horizon, looks for things out of place among the palm trees and bullet-scarred buildings. His Marine buddies jaw beside him in the back of the 7-ton truck, its big tires rumbling up reassuringly through the soles of their boots.
The truck crosses the murky Euphrates, flowing through the cradle of ancient civilization and the heart of modern war. Ahead is the 1st Marine Division's headquarters, a base nicknamed Blue Diamond, in the city of Ramadi in Anbar province, a hotbed of the Sunni Arab insurgency about 70 miles west of Baghdad. Ramadi is a dangerous place for Marines, who have taken hundreds of casualties and inflicted even more in some of the most brutal urban fighting of the war.
At this moment, it's quiet. Civilians mill about. Merchants hawk cigarettes from ramshackle stands. A few Iraqi soldiers stand sentry listlessly.
Just after the Marines' truck leaves the bridge, a roadside bomb buried in the dirt explodes. They are slammed in a whirlwind of shrapnel and shock wave. Their muscles contract spastically, eyes shutting, jaws clenching.
The truck grinds to a halt, tires blown out, gas tank punctured. Dust billows up, rocks rain down. Someone screams: Man down, man down!
Jordan looks at his sergeant, whose neck is slashed open, pumping blood. Holy s--t, the sergeant gasps, then closes his eyes and slumps over. A Navy chief has shrapnel jutting from his arm, but he tries to help the others.
Jordan, a 22-year-old Roanoke native, is closest to the blast. It reverberates through his lanky body, scrambling nerves, breaking apart bones, tearing open muscles.
He tastes cold blood, touches his face and flings away shredded skin. His right hand is mangled. He glances around for his missing finger but can't find it. His legs look fine -- his camouflage pants and boots are undisturbed -- but he can't feel them.
The Purple Heart, America's oldest military decoration and the first available to the common soldier, was created by George Washington in 1782 during the Revolutionary War.
"The road to glory in a patriot army and a free country is thus open to all," Washington wrote in his orders creating the award.
Originally called the Badge of Military Merit, it was made of purple cloth and shaped like a heart. It was given to enlisted men and noncommissioned officers who displayed gallantry, fidelity or essential service. It is not known why Washington chose the color purple. Only three Revolutionary War soldiers are believed to have received the award, which permitted its wearer to pass guards and sentinels without challenge.
The award fell into disuse until 1932, when it was revived, redesigned, renamed the Purple Heart and redesignated as a combat award for troops who are wounded or killed by the enemy.
The modern-day award is a purple medal bordered in gold and hanging from a purple ribbon. On the front is a bust of Washington and the Washington family's coat-of-arms. The coat-of-arms may be the inspiration for the stars and stripes of the American Flag. On the medal's back is a raised gold heart with the words: For Military Merit.
Troops receive a Purple Heart each time they are wounded in separate actions. Troops who receive multiple Purple Hearts may wear all of them at once or one Purple Heart with a small gold star or oak leaf cluster on the ribbon for each additional medal they have received.
SOURCE: The Military Order of the Purple Heart
Someone's still shouting: Man down! And Jordan thinks: Are they talking about me?
There's confusion for a moment, scrambling, cursing, then order prevails. The Marines drag the wounded from the wreckage before it can catch fire. They radio for support. Jordan's ears ring from the blast, so the words are muffled. He spits blood through his reddened teeth. He looks at his friends, their rifles up, shouting orders, angrily looking for someone to kill. There's no one, just cowering civilians.
Jordan doesn't consider grabbing his camera or rifle. He can't stand up and his trigger finger is gone, so he lies on the warm ground, legs splayed out. He looks at the sky, feels himself breathing moistly, in and out, in and out, through the blood. He's suddenly cold, shivering in the acrid air, which smells of gasoline and smoke.
After several minutes, Jordan is loaded into another truck that retreats across the bridge, its steel girders flashing overhead in the sunlight. He wonders about the sailor and his sergeant. He's freezing now, his teeth chattering. He tries to move his throbbing legs -- the right one flops over woodenly, the left one doesn't move. But he doesn't think of dying, of being paralyzed, of being an amputee. He thinks: I'm all right, I'm all right.
The Marines can't get an IV going because of the lurching truck. They keep him conscious by asking urgently pointless questions: How are you, where are you from, what do you like to do at home? He can tell from their eyes that it's bad, but he manages a joke: Sir, I don't feel like answering your stupid-ass questions, sir.
They laugh, tell him to hang on. At the field hospital, a big soldier scoops Jordan up gently and lays him on a stretcher. The doctors and nurses and corpsmen cut off his clothes and drape him in a paper sheet. They take off his St. Christopher's medal, which his mother gave him for protection, and his dog tags -- two around his neck, another on his boot lace. They try to stop the bleeding, keep the shattered bones in place. Another millimeter, they say, and he would have been dead, at least lost his legs. When a nurse mentions he'll need extensive surgery on his nose, he wonders if it's been blown off.
He lies naked on the table, trembling, feels them pulling and prodding and poking. It feels as if they're working on someone else, talking about someone else. He looks at the ceiling, at the bright lights, at the serious faces hovering. He glances through the doorway, at the sunlight beyond, reflecting brilliantly off the sand as if each grain is electrified. He hears boots on gravel, a distant rumbling, the war going on without him. He drifts away.
Hours later, he awakens on a cot in a tent, the sun setting, the cold night coming on. His sergeant and the sailor lie next to him, and he thinks: We're alive. Then he closes his eyes and slips away into darkness.
A rebellious youth
For all the love she showers on Jordan, for all she tries to protect and guide him, Ginger Fitzgerald has never known where her only child would end up in life.
She is 23 when he's born in 1983, a self-described party girl, staying out late, not interested in college, working odd jobs, still living with her parents. Jordan's father is Rob Sherwood, 29, a Navy veteran and cabinetmaker.
Both come from conservative, middle-class, churchgoing families in the Roanoke area. They never marry and split up when Jordan is 2. They argue over his custody and he ends up spending time with his mother in Roanoke and his father, who moves to Arizona.
Four years later, Ginger marries Steve Price, a Roanoke County restaurant owner. They divorce five years later, although Jordan remains close to Price's parents, Fred and Betty Price, as well as his mother's parents, Ralph and Betty Fitzgerald, and his father's parents, Jack and Jackie Sherwood.
All three older couples, who live in the Roanoke area, have a hand in raising Jordan: baby-sitting, teaching him to play checkers, make a snowman, taking him to church, fishing, Cub Scouts, for walks in the woods. He is an easy child, auburn-haired, happy and talkative.
SOURCE: Walter Reed Army Medical Center; National Naval Medical Center; New England Journal of Medicine; Journal of the American Medical Association
In elementary school, Jordan likes sports, art, music, gets good grades. He looks out for his two older half sisters, stopping bullies who might pick on them. He's compassionate, too -- he gives his favorite Redskins hat to a homeless man he passes one day on a Washington, D.C., street.
When Jordan turns 13, he starts to rebel against his mother, who over the years works long hours waiting tables, tending bar, managing a restaurant, other jobs. She sets strict rules for him, but he ignores them. He talks back, dresses in black, gets piercings, listens to Marilyn Manson, dyes his hair in leopard spots.
In middle school, his grades go from average to bad. He doesn't fit in anymore, gets picked on for being different, hangs out with other misfits.
When Jordan turns 15, he and Ginger have had enough of each other. He moves to Tempe, Ariz., to live with his father, an easygoing, self-educated man who loves books and working with his hands. Rob cuts his work hours to spend more time at home and lets Jordan make his own decisions, thinking it will help him mature.
Jordan behaves for a while, but soon goes back to his old habits. He ignores school, smokes, drinks, gets high, gets arrested for shoplifting.
Jordan knows he's floundering, doesn't like where he's headed, knows he's squandering a chance at a good education.
"I was such a punk," he says, looking back. "I knew I had to choose between grades and friends, so I chose friends. I thought I'd never get the chance to make good friends again."
Before his sophomore year, he switches to a charter school for at-risk teens, where he's more comfortable, the classes smaller, the cliques fewer. He gets decent grades, mostly stays out of trouble, has an after-school job at a bakery, Fairytale Brownies. He still doesn't know what he wants, just that he doesn't like being told what to do -- by his parents, teachers, cops, anybody.
In early 2001, when he's 18 and one class away from graduating, he quits. He's tired of school and his friends, who are getting stoned on marijuana and hallucinogenic drugs.
A chance encounter
An hour after he decides to leave home, he drives away with his suitcase, his $2,000 debit card and his father's bottle of Jack Daniels. His father is stunned, but just says: OK, be careful, son, as though he's heading out for the night and not the rest of his life.
Jordan considers Mexico, which sounds exotic, but he doesn't speak Spanish, so he heads toward Missouri, where he hopes a friend can get him a job.
During an ice storm, his car breaks down near Olathe, Kan., an old stagecoach stop on the Sante Fe Trail and the birthplace of the cowboy hat. He decides to stay for no other reason than he's running out of money and the people there seem nice, the prairie city welcoming.
It's another stop on his restless, impatient path; he has grown up in Roanoke, but also lived for a time with his father or mother in Arizona, North Carolina, Richmond, and now he's alone in Kansas. He knows no one there, in the middle of nowhere, midway between his loving parents, one with too many rules, one with too few.
He gets an apartment, a job at a bagel shop in a shopping mall and enrolls in another charter school. One day, a Marine recruiter walks by the bagel shop.
U.S. casualties in Iraq since March 2003:
SOURCE: Department of Defense, Associated Press, Congressional Research Service, GlobalSecurity.org
Jordan looks up: Damn, he thinks, look at that guy, look at that uniform, he looks sharp. Jordan, who's now 19 and debating what to do with life, hasn't considered the military until this moment, even though his father, grandfathers and uncles served hitches from World War II to Vietnam.
In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, many young Americans are enlisting for patriotic and practical reasons. Jordan likes what he hears from the recruiter -- the job skills, college aid, tradition, respect -- so he joins the Marines' delayed entry program. After years of adolescent floundering, he finally feels connected to something beyond his own angst.
As the months pass, the recruiter pushes him to do better in school, to be more disciplined. When Jordan misses a meeting, the recruiter leaves a note on his windshield: Do you want to be a Marine or not? Quit being stupid and focus!!!
Jordan thinks: Whoa, three exclamation points -- this dude's serious.
A year later, at 20, Jordan graduates from high school. He laughs at the ritual of his cap and gown: Thank God this part of my life is over.
He enlists in the Marines for four years of active duty -- starting pay of $15,600 a year -- and another four years of inactive duty. He doesn't tell his parents beforehand. He knows his mother will just worry and tell him not to be impulsive.
In May 2003, two months into the Iraq war, Jordan leaves for boot camp. He thinks he may go to Iraq, but the Marines tell him there's little chance of that, given how quickly Saddam Hussein's regime collapses.
Jordan doesn't give the geopolitics of the war much thought. He doesn't care whether they send him to Iraq, Afghanistan or Timbuktu. Being a good Marine is what matters to him now.
That same month, President Bush declares major combat is over in Iraq.
But a guerrilla conflict is emerging, threatening to draw in more U.S. ground forces, including Jordan.