Sam Dean | The Roanoke Times
Tuesday March 28, 2006
Jordan Sherwood returns to Roanoke patched up and determined to recuperate faster than doctors predict.
When he's 20 years old, Jordan Sherwood, a former high school stoner who's working in a bagel shop, decides his life is headed nowhere.
Two years later, he's a combat photographer with Headquarters and Service Company, Headquarters Battalion, Combat Camera, 1st Marine Division, based at Camp Pendleton in California.
He has a lance corporal's insignia on his sleeve, a scorpion tattoo on his leg, a Purple Heart from a first tour in Iraq and a clear direction to his life.
Then, on March 13, 2005, three weeks into his second tour in Iraq, he's crossing the Euphrates River when a roadside bomb explodes.
When his mother is notified, she screams, collapses crying to the floor. She can't bring herself to ask if he still has his arms and legs.
In less than 24 hours, Jordan is flown from a field hospital in Iraq to the U.S. military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, then to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.
He drifts in and out of a narcotic haze, lies in a firm hospital bed, on crisp white sheets, in the intensive care unit. His old wounds are pink and faded, the new ones like raw meat.
His left ankle, shin and knee are shattered: Surgeons slit open the leg on both sides to relieve the swelling caused by the damaged bones, which may cripple him if the leg doesn't heal properly. His right leg is torn open. His face and neck are cut, the jugular and femoral arteries barely missed.
His right index finger is mostly blown off, the middle finger shattered. His nose is torn open.
Nerves in his feet and right hand are damaged.
When Jordan's family rushes from Roanoke to the hospital, he lets his father, grandfather and uncle into his room but keeps his mother out for three days -- he knows she'll break down.
When Ginger Fitzgerald finally enters, she holds herself together at his bedside saying silent prayers. As the days pass, she feeds him and bathes him, the washcloth warm against his skin. She weeps only outside his room, her tears blackened by mascara.
In coming weeks, generals and politicians and celebrities visit the wounded ward, including the pretty blond singer Carly Goodwin. I don't like country music, Jordan thinks, but I do now!
As other Marines stop at his bedside to boost his spirits, he realizes he's lucky. He's not among the growing number of troops coming home with missing limbs, brain damage, paralysis, burns, mental trauma. A Marine who lost both legs several months earlier tells him he's already learned to walk, run and ski, and plans to become an occupational therapist. Look at him, Jordan thinks, I can't feel sorry for myself.
Roadside bombs, the insurgents' weapon of choice, have made amputations and head injuries the signature wounds of the war, but the vast majority of casualties are like Jordan, battered but whole and often sent back to the war.
The doctors tell Jordan, who's held together with stitches, pins, bandages and plaster, that he won't walk for six months. But his stubbornness prevails -- he uses a walker to take a few steps after 14 days. He inches across the hospital linoleum like a man walking across a barely frozen pond. He beams: No one tells me what to do!
War becoming personal
On April 1, Jordan comes home to Roanoke on convalescent leave. It's dusk when he arrives at the Roanoke Regional Airport, the sky darkening above the mountains, the rain spitting against the terminal windows. He winces as he comes down the plane's wet steps, sitting on each one, bumping downward until he reaches the bottom, where his wheelchair waits on the tarmac. Blood seeps from his wounds, which are aggravated by the trip. But he's happy to be home.
In the terminal, his family and friends wave excitedly. Media photographers ready their cameras.
A stranger comes up to Jordan's mother. "Who's the important person?" he says.
"My son," Ginger says, smiling. "He's a Marine."
The man nods. "There's no one more important," he says, and walks on.
"Tell him we appreciate his service," another stranger tells her.
SOURCES: Department of Defense, Associated Press, Walter Reed Army Medical Center, National Naval Medical Center
When Jordan rolls inside, his family and friends cheer. His mother's eyes get shiny again. His 5-year-old cousin, Kyndall Fitzgerald, hides her face -- she's frightened by his appearance. He's always been skinny, but he lost 25 pounds in the hospital, leaving him pale and bony. Still, he's upbeat.
"Wow," he says, seeing the fanfare. "This is great."
They drive through the storm to his grandparents' house, where he sits on the sofa and tells them about the explosion. The Iraq war is on the television news, but his family ignores it. They are riveted by his story. The rain beats on the windows. He doesn't remember the first week in the hospital, but he has a flashbulb memory of the explosion.
"It was a big boom under my seat like a garbage can was hit with a baseball bat "BOOM!" he says. "And I thought: Who's going to be OK, who's not?"
Going into his second tour, he tried not to think about being killed or maimed.
"I guess maybe to keep myself sane," he says. "You can't think about that kind of thing too much or you can't do your job. Until the second IED [improvised explosive device] , I thought if you were that close to one, it would kill you, so I was kind of shocked I wasn't because we were right on top of it."
His uncle, Ralph Fitzgerald II, tears up.
"This war's become very personal to me now," he says.
Jordan tells them about the toughness of the Marine amputees in the hospital.
"Look at them," he says. "I can't even be worried about myself."
Two days later, he goes with his family to the Church of the Holy Spirit-Orchard Hills, where the parishioners pray for him, lay hands on him. He says: Thank you, I feel better already.
The next day, he has his first appointment at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Salem, where he's to undergo checkups, physical and occupational rehabilitation, and a post-traumatic stress evaluation.
The first steps
It's a cool, sunny morning when Jordan and his mother pull up to the VA Medical Center, a sprawling, red-brick complex on green grounds that resemble a college campus. They're late, unaccustomed to how long it takes him to do mundane things now -- brush his teeth, use the toilet, get dressed, walk to the car, get in the car, get out of the car. They're frustrated with each other, having forgotten and left some of his paperwork at home.
She pushes him inside in his wheelchair, where sunlight streams through a glass atrium. Dozens of veterans are waiting, reading magazines, dozing in the disinfectant-swabbed lobby. Most are old men, battered by age and ailment. They use wheelchairs, walkers, crutches, canes, motorized scooters. Jordan sits among them, frowning -- he wants his old legs back.
Soon, his physical therapist fits him with crutches and helps him take his first steps. Jordan wobbles around the room, balancing himself as though on a tightrope. In less than a month, he's gone from bedridden to a wheelchair to a wheeled walker and now crutches.
"Yeah," he says, grinning. "Sweet!"
Later, after Jordan swallows his daily fistful of pain pills and antibiotics, doctors check and clean his wounds, which are held together by bundles of black sutures. Larry Lipscomb, a physician, cuts the camouflage-colored cast off his left leg. It looks raw, but its pulse is good, the X-rays promising, the swelling down, no infection showing. He swabs a dime-size hole in the ankle and sends it off for testing.
Lipscomb and a nurse use tweezers to start removing the sutures, which resemble long zippers up and down his leg. They work gently, but the damaged nerves feel like they are on fire. Jordan groans, bites down on his fist. It feels like they're pulling rope through his skin.
They apologize, keep gently teasing the sutures out. Jordan stuffs his sweat shirt in his mouth to stop his cries, then covers his whole face as if he's an ostrich hiding from the pain. His mother tries to comfort him when they reach his ankle, the worst spot.
"It's going to hurt," she whispers.
"Don't say that!" he snaps. "How'd you like it if they said, 'That baby's going to hurt when it comes out?' "
Ginger touches his shoulder tenderly.
"Don't touch me!" he says.
Ten minutes later, it's over. Jordan is exhausted, trembling. Lipscomb puts on a new cast, then rests his hand on Jordan's shoulder.
"Do me a favor, son," he says. "If you're going back again, take better care of yourself."
Jordan smiles, reaches out to shake hands, but the doctor bends down and hugs him in his wheelchair.
"I appreciate what you've done," Lipscomb whispers, his eyes welling up. "The war, the war..."
"I appreciate what you do, too, doc," Jordan says. "We're on the same team."
They go their separate ways down the hallway. Jordan waits silently for the elevator. He's still thinking about the doctor.
"He got a little teary and his lip quivered," he says. "It surprised me. I don't know if he's against the war or just -- I don't know. Maybe he's just hurting for me. I don't cry, but I almost did when he hugged me. I almost couldn't take it."
Jordan's first day of rehabilitation is a big step toward his recovery, but it's still uncertain whether he will return to the Marines -- and face a third tour in Iraq -- or a civilian world he doesn't feel ready for. Either way, he considers himself lucky he hasn't come home in a coffin, isn't disfigured, isn't haunted by nightmares.
Many Marines and soldiers are serving multiple tours as the U.S. military copes with its lowest troop level in modern history, no draft bringing in fresh ground forces and no firm timetable for ending the war. Some troops are starting to question why they have to keep returning to Iraq, arguing that chaos will descend whenever U.S. forces pull out.
Jordan still sees the war as a worthwhile cause, although he doesn't think deeply about its causes and effects --his biggest concerns are bettering himself and helping the Marines "fight the good fight" as he understands it.
Like many, he joined the military not so much for patriotic reasons, but for practical ones -- including the self-discipline, job training and college aid.
He doesn't consider himself a hero, sees nothing noble in his choosing to enlist, nothing tragic in the arc of his life, just an ordinary guy helping himself and his country.
"I can't even say I've paid my dues just because I was blown up twice," he says. "Half the Marines don't want to be in Iraq, but I've never regretted it for one second, joining the military, going over there.
"But back home now, some people look at me and say, 'What happened to you?" And when I say 'The war,' they don't know what to say. They just say they're sorry and change the subject. They don't want to talk about Iraq. I don't know if people really realize what's happening over there."