Impact of War: Injured soldiers face long road to recovery

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(Host) High-tech body armor and front-line surgery are saving soldiers in Iraq who would have died in other wars. But that means more survive with catastrophic injuries. The three Vermonters medivacked out of Baghdad this week began a journey down an already well-worn path.

In the third part of our series on the impact of the war in Iraq, VPR’s Susan Keese talks with the mother of a Bennington soldier who knows the territory.

(Keese) Wendy Greene Baker was working in her garden in Bennington when she got the phone call every mother dreads. Her 22-year old son Ricky Greene was badly hurt and might not make it. Baker hung up twice. She told herself it was a crank call.

(Baker) “The third time the lady called, she told me that I better calm down and listen to her because my son was not in good shape. He was in critical, unstable condition in Iraq. So I asked her to please hold for a second so I wouldn’t be alone and I got my neighbor to sit with me while she told me.”

(Keese) It happened in a battle on May 3. Greene, a former JV state wrestling champ at Mount Anthony Union High school, is a member of an elite special ops force. He was standing on a Humvee firing his machine gun. In the chaos of the moment, an armored tank beside him swiveled its gun turret and struck him in the face. Greene was unconscious and many of the bones in his face were broken.

(Baker) “I’d say the bones underneath his eyes, all the way down to his chin.”

(Keese) But after emergency surgery, soon he was able to be helicoptered to Landstuhl, Germany. The American military hospital there is typically the next step for the seriously injured in this war. Many soldiers from the Eastern part of the country go from there to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

Greene arrived at Walter Reed a week after his injury. His mother has been there ever since. Her two other boys are back in Bennington with family and friends. Baker and her own mother are living at Malogne House, where the military puts up relatives of wounded soldiers.

(Baker) “I have two beds in my room, a bathroom, a refrigerator and a microwave. And it doesn’t matter that it’s just a motel room because I spend most of my time at the hospital. I rub his feet, you know, and my mom does different things for him.”

(Keese) Malogne House is also a sort of halfway point for soldiers who no longer need 24-hour care, but still need daily physical therapy.

Baker says at first it upset her to lie in bed at night and hear the helicopters bringing in more soldiers. Now it makes her feel hopeful. She says that Walter Reed is a remarkable hospital.

(Baker) “But what I’ve seen here has not been a pretty picture. I’ve seen some pretty young guys around here with limbs missing and their faces all marked up and- you name it.”

(Keese) Army spokesman Jamie Cavasos says the latest body armor is keeping people alive by protecting vital organs.

(Jamie) “The fact is that the body armor has proven to save lives, but you do result in more injuries to extremities – arms, legs and the like.”

(Keese) Walter Reed has treated more than 3,000 serious war-related cases since operation Iraqi Freedom started. Baker says you don’t hear much about this aspect of the war. It doesn’t seem right, she adds.

(Baker) “I think everybody should know about this. I think that it is as important as knowing about the guys that are killed over there.”

(Keese) Ricky Greene isn’t ready yet to say what he thinks.

(Baker) “He won’t be talking to me for about six weeks because his mouth is wired shut, due to broken bones that were fixed in surgery.”

(Keese) Baker says Walter Reed hospital did an amazing job in the 18-hour operation. She’s brought in pictures of her son and the nurses say he looks the same. The full extent of his injuries isn’t yet known. But Baker says he seems like himself. His eyes light up when someone in a uniform walks in.

Baker says she worries about her son being in the military.

(Baker) “But if he recovers 100 percent, which I’m pretty sure he’s going to, and he wants to go back, I will be behind him 100 percent as I will with all three of my children. Because it’s his choice, I respect it and it’s for his future.”

(Keese) Baker says Green hopes to go to college after the military and become a physical therapist or trainer.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese.

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