Three days after an Iraqi grenade shattered two of his limbs and nearly ended his life, Cpl. Mark P. O'Brien found himself in intensive care in the National Naval Medical Center, with a tube down his throat and his head swollen to the size of a basketball.
Looking up at his parents for the first time in months, the young Marine from East Aurora grabbed a marker and scrawled a note, using a hand that had never before been used for writing.
In awkward shaky letters, it said: "I have no regrets."
A week later, O'Brien, 21, looks and feels much better. And if he has a regret now, it's that he can't go back to Iraq and continue the fight for a cause he sees as just, continue the fight alongside his buddies.
"I'm doing great, I really am," O'Brien said in an interview in his hospital room last week. "I'm relieved and I'm sad at the same time. I'm out of Iraq, but . . . it's hard to explain. I still want to be there. All my friends are there, and I'm really worried about them."
Of course, O'Brien has plenty to contend with on his own.
During up to six months of rehabilitation, the former lacrosse star at Iroquois Central High School will learn to use a prosthetic right arm and prosthetic right leg.
He will learn to write all over again. And he will begin to build a future he never could have imagined four years ago, before 9/1 1, before a buddy talked him into joining the Marines.
If he's like every other combat veteran, it won't be easy. Experts say that virtually everyone who has seen combat experiences a great level of stress, sometimes months or years later.
But so far, O'Brien seems to be facing it all with an old Marine Corps slogan in mind.
O'Brien's story is by no means unique. As of Friday, 8,956 American troops had been wounded in Iraq. That's more than seven times the number who have died and nearly 16 times the number who were wounded in the first war against Iraq in the early 1990s.
More than half of the Iraq War wounded have been unable to return to duty. The Pentagon does not announce their names, so most often their stories go untold.
Yet those stories unfold daily here in the Naval Medical Center's surgical ward, O'Brien's temporary home. Countless baby-faced, broad-shouldered young men pass by on crutches, in wheelchairs, on stretchers. Parents, their faces lined with worry, linger in the hallways or curl up on the sofas in the lounge at midday to catch a few minutes of sleep.
O'Brien's parents, Erie County Sheriff's Deputy David M. O'Brien and his wife, Gale, have stood vigil in the hospital since their son arrived Nov. 10. And they along with their son agreed to speak at length about his experiences nine days after his mission in Iraq turned tragic.
Sunday, Nov. 7, was a sunny, humid day in Ramadi, a provincial capital in the insurgent-infested Sunni Triangle. To O'Brien and his buddies, everything seemed so different than it did on their first tour of duty in Iraq in the spring of 2003, when his Marine unit swept up the Euphrates Valley toward Baghdad, encountering little resistance.
The war seemed all over then, when Saddam Hussein's dictatorship fell, but it had really just begun.
And by this September, when O'Brien and the other men of Golf Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, returned to Iraq, they could feel the danger all around them.
Working in a truck assigned to evacuate casualties, O'Brien and his good friend, Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Nathan "Doc" McDonnell, lived through several firefights. Then, several weeks after they arrived, one of O'Brien's best buddies, Lance Cpl. Sean Langley, died when his Humvee hit a roadside bomb.
And as O'Brien and his comrades worked to clear a major supply route in Ramadi two weeks ago today, they drove headlong into an ambush.
Convoy in cross hairs
O'Brien and his comrades took sniper fire as soon as they relieved another Marine unit, which had already been engaged in a firefight. O'Brien, in the lead car in a convoy of about 18 vehicles, sat in back on the passenger side as his comrades decided to drive toward the sniper, hoping to get him within grenade range.
A few minutes later, O'Brien heard a deafening boom! A shock wave jolted him back in his seat, and suddenly all he could see was the color black.
The Humvee had hit a roadside bomb. And as the smoke cleared, O'Brien could see that the side road he was driving down, code-named "Ice Cream," was lined with explosives.
"You could see the wires sticking out all over the place," he recalled. "It's a pretty bad area. Ramadi's a pretty bad city."
While the bomb didn't damage O'Brien's vehicle, it disabled the second Humvee in the convoy and brought the line of vehicles to a halt.
Worse yet, the unit's gunnery sergeant saw a bunker 200 meters away -- and muzzle flashes just above it. The gunner took aim and waited for the sniper to show his face.
O'Brien, meanwhile, was assigned to check out an alleyway to the right of the Humvee. As he sat in the vehicle with the right passenger-side door open, he peered through his rifle scope and saw the enemy.
A figure in a cream-colored robe between 300 and 450 feet away was taking aim at him with a rocket-propelled grenade.
O'Brien pulled his trigger.
And all of a sudden, boom!
O'Brien felt himself blasted back into the Humvee. All around, his world went white.
"It was like slow motion, sort of like in 'Saving Private Ryan' -- you know, the shell shock?" he said. "I looked down and saw my rifle exploded, the butt end melted onto my left shoulder. I reached to knocked it off and saw that my right arm was shattered."
Looking down, O'Brien saw that his right leg was gone, severed above the knee, the bone sticking out from bleeding flesh.
"When I saw my leg, at that point I wanted to die, the pain was so much," O'Brien said. "I told Doc: 'Just let me die.' He said: 'Oh, you're going to be fine.' "
A friend, a savior
The medic nicknamed "Doc" did more than comfort his friend. He saved O'Brien's life.
McDonnell and other Marines dragged O'Brien to the sidewalk behind the Humvee, where McDonnell treated him for a collapsed lung. The men then quickly loaded O'Brien into the bed in the back of another Humvee and raced toward a field hospital.
With sniper fire coming in from all around, McDonnell turned to the greatest danger O'Brien faced: the torrent of blood gushing from his leg.
O'Brien felt his friend's hand reaching up inside of what was left of his leg, struggling to find the artery that was gushing blood. Within seconds, he found it and tied it with a tourniquet.
"If that artery hadn't been tied off, he probably would have been gone in a matter of minutes," O'Brien's mother said.
At that point, the bleeding had stopped, but the pain hadn't. O'Brien still kept thinking: "I want to die . . . I'm going to die."
After O'Brien arrived at the field hospital, a Medevac helicopter came to take him to Baghdad.
"I rolled over and saw the most beautiful nurse -- and I told her so," O'Brien said. "Then they flew me away, and I don't remember anything after that."
O'Brien woke up briefly in the helicopter, and again in Baghdad, and again on the plane that flew him to a military hospital in Germany.
But his first clear memory came three days later, as he woke up vomiting on another airplane.
He felt horrible, but he heard what you would think would be sweet words.
"You're all right," the nurse said. "You're in the United States now."
Inspired to serve
And yet O'Brien isn't so sure he wants to be here. After all, he's a Marine, and there's a war going on half a world away, and his buddies are fighting it without him.
For O'Brien, the call of duty seems very much to be a call of friendship. In fact, his best friend from high school, James Mulak of Elma, joined the Marines before him and is now a lance corporal serving in Fallujah.
Once O'Brien saw his buddy at his boot camp graduation in late 2001, he was hooked himself.
"I was just stunned at how much he had changed, how grown up he was," said O'Brien, who was in his first semester studying criminal justice at Erie Community College at the time. "By that point, 9/1 1 had happened. I wanted to do something, and I thought about it, and I joined the Marine Corps."
He's glad he did. He said that he was proud to be fighting for Iraq's freedom and that he cherishes the friendships he made while fighting.
"People think we're there (in Iraq) for the oil or something, but we're not. We're fighting for freedom," he said. "What we're doing is driving out terrorists. I don't think people really understand that."
People also might not understand what happens to men and women who live to talk about the firefights they survived together.
"I wish I could be out there with my boys," O'Brien said. "You really get to bond with somebody out there."
You get to bond with your boot camp drill sergeant, too which is why O'Brien chose the man who made him a Marine, Gunnery Sgt. William Bodette Jr., to give him his Purple Heart. The commandant of the Marine Corps could have done it, but O'Brien wanted to see Bodette.
"He's the most intimidating man I've ever met," O'Brien said. "When things got tough, I would always think: 'What would he do in that situation?' . . . He made you grow up."
Tough road ahead
And when the drill sergeant and the corporal were united in O'Brien's hospital room Thursday afternoon, the two men looked hard and deep and knowingly into each others' eyes. Bodette pinned the Purple Heart to O'Brien's tank top and then grasped his left hand.
"This is the proudest moment of my career," said Bodette, a 16-year veteran.
O'Brien's parents and assorted family members looked on, crying yet somehow beaming at the same time.
"He's my hero," O'Brien's father said earlier.
O'Brien will no doubt get a hero's welcome, too, when he comes back home in a few months. But he probably has a rough road ahead of him first, including months of rehabilitation at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.
On top of that, virtually every combat veteran experiences some degree of post-traumatic stress disorder, said Katherine Smythe, behavioral health program manager at Buffalo Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
Among returning Iraq War veterans, "I haven't seen gross physical injuries," Smythe said. "But I have seen gross mental health injuries."
So far, though, O'Brien seems bent on proving that the grenade did no damage to his soul. He's already longing to get out of his hospital bed, and Friday, briefly, he did just that, heading out to buy a new pair of sneakers and for lunch at McDonald's with his parents.
His old drill sergeant, for one, is impressed with how O'Brien is coping.
"I am in awe right now about his strength and spirit and character," Bodette said.
O'Brien, in turn, noted that the Marine Corps -- and especially Bodette -- taught him to be strong and self-sufficient, strong enough to look toward the future. He said he's thinking about rehab and about college, though he doesn't know what he wants to study yet.
He's thinking about moving back with his parents but has told them not to renovate the house to make it easier for him to move around. He said he will manage just fine with the stairs. And besides, he plans to move out and find a place of his own within a couple of months.
"I just want to get out of here and do something," he said.
In other words, much has changed in the two weeks since that grenade left O'Brien battered and bleeding and longing for death.
Back home in America, he's longing for life and looking forward to it.
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