Monday, December 26, 2005

Bringing the War Home: ''Trying to Heal''

"As his gun truck rolled through 110-degree heat toward a pedestrian overpass in western Baghdad, one-time Columbia River High School quarterback Brian Radke swiveled his .50-caliber machine gun right and then left, clearing traffic, looking for hostile fire.

A veteran gunner, he didn't see any insurgents there on the Route Vernon Highway, a known "hot area" where enemy fire was frequent. Exactly a week earlier, his comrade from the Arizona National Guard's 860th Military Police Company, Sgt. Howard Paul Allen, had been killed by a roadside bomb at this same overpass.

That improvised explosive device, or IED, was a "platter charge," a small bomb fired by a hidden trigger man. It blew molten metal straight through the Humvee cab's armor and killed Allen, a 31-year-old father of three from Mesa, Ariz.

But on this day, Radke didn't see anyone anywhere on the two-lane highway, other than the other three soldiers in his Humvee, which was cruising at 35 mph.

But he had a "weird feeling" about the overpass and about roadside bombs of the kind that had narrowly missed Radke and his crew nine times in the previous nine months.

Radke ducked inside the Humvee, his left hand gripping his M4 carbine and his right gripping the machine gun handles up through the turret.

Then he heard a click.

Then, in a great flash of fire that rocked him hard, his world went white.

Through the smoke he saw the outline of the driver, his best friend, Army Spc. Jeremiah Robinson, 20.

First, he saw the driver's seat. Then, he saw Robinson's shoulders. Then he realized Robinson's head was missing.

He looked down. His protective vest was covered in brain matter and blood. A piece of shrapnel as big as a football was stuck in it. He couldn't move his legs. It felt like his legs had been blown off. Blood poured into his eyes. He couldn't talk. He looked down and saw his legs were gushing blood. He thought he was dead.

Then, out of a white fog drifted the image of his wife, Nova, talking.

"You are going to be OK. Stay there and fight, Brian," he heard her say. "You'll make it. You're going to be OK. You'll be OK." Then he imagined Robinson, the driver whole again also telling him to fight.

Radke felt like his arms were missing, replaced by a blast of pain. His legs seemed to blaze. His vision came and went. The truck kept lurching forward, then it hit a pillar and stopped.

Medics pulled on him, talked to him, moved him, cut his clothes off, carried him, threw him onto the hood of a truck, charged toward a Medivac helicopter, climbed on top of him to protect him, to keep him from falling off.

"I kept saying: 'I'm effed up, I'm effed up. Oh, my God, I'm effed up,' and I tried to get them to roll me on my side, so my blood would flow out of my eyes."

The chopper arrived. "I'll never forget the sound of the helicopter blades cutting through the wind, and that's pretty much all I remember."

Nearly 8,000 miles away

At the same time, in Chandler, Ariz., 7,580 miles away, Brian's wife, Nova, felt their Parson Russell terrier, Lucy, stir on her bed, then sit up and whimper. It was still dark, early morning. Then, she felt Brian's presence walk into the room. He was warm.

"I want to sleep," he told her. She wouldn't open her eyes.

"No," she said. "Don't lie down! Go back to where you were and fight. You'll be all right."

A minute later, the phone rang. It was Col. Debra Spear from the Arizona National Guard.

"Brian's been in an accident," the colonel said. "He's been hurt."

"Is he alive?" Nova asked.

"Yes," said the colonel.

"Then I'll call you back in a minute," Nova said. "I can't accept this."

As if in a dream state, she called back, then she was patched through in a phone call to Iraq and was told specifically of Brian's injuries.

His jaw was fractured, and he had head lacerations. He'd lost his right index finger. His left arm was broken in four places, his left wrist shattered. The nerves of his right arm had been ripped away. His carotid artery had been severed. He'd had a stroke and a concussion. His legs were ripped with shrapnel. He had a punctured lung. He had lost a lot of blood. A team of eight doctors worked on him for 12 hours, and then said he would live. He was in a coma and was being sent to the Landstuhl Regional Medical center in Germany.

"I was dead," he said. "The crew at the 86th CASH (86th Combat Army Support Hospital ) brought me back from the dead."

He was one of nearly 16,000 American troops who have been wounded so far in action in Iraq.

Back home

In Vancouver, Brian's parents, Lynne and David Radke, were at home when Nova called. She talked first with Lynne, about the weather and pleasantries, not wanting to break the news, but then she asked to talk to David.

By the pattern of the talk, David knew his son had been hurt. Nova said to call Col. Spears, and she couldn't tell him much. She gave David an 800 number, and he called the casualty affairs office in Washington, D.C., who patched them through to Baghdad, where they also learned the details of his injuries. They were told to get passports in order in case they had to go to Landstuhl, Germany, where Brian was being sent.

"You don't want to go to Germany," Lynne said, "because if you go there, you know they think he's going to die."

"His survival was not in danger, and the doctor told Nova that he would look like Brian," Lynne said.

On Oct. 11, the Army then flew the parents to Walter Reed, where they were picked up by a limousine and taken to see Brian, who had arrived Oct. 10. They met with Nova at Brian's bedside.

"When I saw him, I just fell to my knees and prayed in thanks that he was alive," Nova said.

Lynne and David were appalled by the tubes in Brian, by his unconsciousness and his shrapnel wounds, his bandaged arms and legs.

"My initial thought was, 'How can we hate each other so much that we can hurt each other this badly?'" said Lynne. "I knew he had hurt hands and a wounded jaw, but I wasn't prepared for what the shrapnel did."

Lynne, David and Nova were put up in a hotel at Walter Reed along with other families of the wounded. They stayed for six weeks, visiting Brian as he gradually regained consciousness and began to get well.

Every day they were thankful that he didn't seem as bad off as the dozens of soldiers with missing arms, missing legs, missing pieces of their heads.

Not enough heavy firepower

Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., pulled a chair up next to Brian Radke's hospital bed in Walter Reed Army Medical Center Hospital a few days ago. Murtha, a decorated Vietnam vet who advocates an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, asked Brian if his unit had the right weapons to fight the war.

The company didn't have enough heavy firepower, Radke told him. Good armor was on the trucks, but they didn't carry enough heavy weapons.

"When I go into battle, I want killing power," he said.

Murtha did not ask for Radke's opinion on the war or his support. He simply asked how Congress could help give the troops what they need. He thanked Radke, gave him a pocket knife as a gift, said it was an honor to meet him.

Three days before, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld also came into Radke's room, sat down to chat with him, and appeared to be moved when he looked at the photos of Brian's injuries as they looked when he came into Walter Reed from Landstuhl.

"I think he was shocked," Brian said. "He seemed moved. He thanked me for my service and was shocked that I hadn't got my Purple Heart medal. He said it was an honor to meet me and to keep fighting."

A couple of days later, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., pinned a Purple Heart on Brian in a ceremony at the nation's Capitol.

Many generals have visited, including Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Schumacher.

Nearly 90 percent of Brian's body has been riddled with shrapnel, which is working its way out through his skin. On Dec. 12, he was having his 31st birthday dinner when a piece of shrapnel came up his throat and out his mouth. He bit down on it. Every few days another piece of metal works its way out of his body, through his mouth or skin. Doctors don't want to dig the shrapnel out, figuring it's less damaging to the body to let the metal just work its way out.

Radke has several vials of shrapnel for souvenirs.

He's lost about 55 pounds now. Instead of muscular as he once was, now he's trim and on the mend, scarred from head to foot but getting healthier.

Nova, living in an apartment at Walter Reed, shows off the vials. "I knew he was going to make it," she said. "I never doubted it."


"I have weird memories," he said. "Things that I thought happened, but my family tells me they didn't. I thought I was in an Iraqi hospital, and Iraqi people would come in and try and touch me, and stuff. I keep seeing Jeremiah with no head."

He also has "silent seizures," when he begins to tremble, apparently as the result of the stroke he suffered while in shock. Or he will "zone out," suddenly appearing to be in a trance or sleeping until someone wakes him up.

It's troubling, he said, that he has short-term memory lapses and may not remember what happened yesterday. He may not remember friends he used to know.

"Sometimes I'll imagine my family wearing clothes that are weird, that they don't own," he said. "And I don't deal well with change. I get upset, frightened and anxious."

Some of those effects he hopes will wear off as time goes by.

The other night, when he left the hospital to spend the night with his wife at the apartment, he couldn't sleep.

That was because the spinning ceiling fan looked like the blades of a Medivac helicopter, he said. And he couldn't get that anxiety out of his mind.

"But my family has just been unbelievable," he said. "They'd do anything for me. Nova is my rock."

He and Nova expect to remain for at least another year at Walter Reed, where he will undergo physical and occupational therapy, and surgeons will attempt to repair the nerves in his arms. In a series of four to six surgeries, surgeons plan to take nerves and tendons out of his legs and place them in his forearms to try to regenerate feeling and function in his hands. He can use his thumb and little finger on his right hand, where his index finger is missing. He has but little movement in his left hand. He has no sense of touch.

He never expects to throw a football again, or play defensive back, or play second base as he did at River, where he graduated in 1993. Or play second base as he used to at Green River Community College, where he graduated in 1995, or at Western Oregon University where he also went to school.

"It's a struggle getting dressed," he said. "I need help with everything. I can't cut my own food."

Was it all worth it?

"I don't know about that," he said. "Time will tell if what we are doing in Iraq is worthwhile. I think we had good intentions. We may have gone there for the wrong reasons, but that is not for me to say. As a soldier, I was asked to do my duty, and I did it to the best of my ability, and, unfortunately, this happened. I know it wasn't worth the loss of my best friend."

"Maybe I'll take up golf," he said.

He had wanted to be a police officer, but now he thinks he may be able to become an investigator for a government agency.

He's already had a tentative offer from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

"But I'll never, ever, ever get over the image of Jeremiah, headless. He was such a great kid, my best friend. He would do anything for you, and I was supposed to drive that day but he took my turn instead because he didn't want to gun. It could have been me who was killed instead. I won't forget that."

Dean Baker covers history and military issues. Reach him at 360-759-8009 or


Previously: Army Sgt. Brian Radke, 31, a Vancouver native, suffered extensive wounds when a roadside bomb exploded in west Baghdad on Oct. 5. He quarterbacked the Columbia River High School football team in 1992 and then was assistant River football coach for three years.

What's new: After two months at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., Radke, son of Lynne and David Radke of Vancouver, is walking and talking and going out to dinner with his wife, Nova, of Chandler, Ariz. His hands and lower arms, however, are so badly injured he can barely use them.

What's next: He'll remain at Walter Reed for a year or more, housed with his wife in an apartment on the campus, doing physical therapy and undergoing several surgeries to repair shattered nerves in his arms."-from today's article in The Columbian (Vancouver, WA).

No comments: