The Wounded Come Home

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STEPHANIE SINCLAIR FOR TIME/CORBIS

SSG Charles Gallegos, of the 720th Transportation is airlifted

For several seconds after the rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) drilled through the back of their armored M113 "battle taxi," the soldiers inside, mainlining adrenaline, continued firing. Then they started screaming. "It blew my leg clean off," says Private First Class Tristan Wyatt, who was standing at the rear of the armored personnel carrier (APC), unloading an M-240 machine gun at a dozen or more Iraqis who had ambushed them minutes before. He was the first to be hit. The RPG then passed through Sergeant Erick Castro's hip, spinning him violently to the floor. His left leg was still attached — but barely. "I picked up my leg and put it on the bench," he says, "and lay down next to it." Finally, the RPG shredded Sergeant Mike Meinen's right leg. "It was pretty much torn off," he says. "There was just some meat and tendons holding it on."

There is horror and there is luck, and in war they sometimes come together. The RPG that severed three legs in a fire fight late last August near Fallujah didn't explode, which probably saved the lives of Wyatt, Castro and Meinen. But even a dud traveling at nearly 1,000 ft. per sec. can slice through limbs like a meat cleaver. The three men were alive, but there

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was a real danger that they would bleed to death in minutes amid the smoke, dust and confusion. As troops on the two other APCs continued firing, the lone medic among the 15 soldiers on the patrol climbed up the back ramp into the compartment. "'Holy s___!' was the first thing out of his mouth, and it looked like his eyes were about to pop out of his head," Wyatt remembers. "That's kind of disheartening when he's talking about you."

The medic, the wounded soldiers and their comrades began a frantic race against the clock. Buddies pressed their hands into Castro's hip wound to keep him from bleeding to death. The wound was so massive that his tourniquet was useless. He handed it to Wyatt, who needed two to stanch the blood flowing from his femoral artery. Amid the mayhem, Meinen, who had been manning a 50-cal. machine gun, noticed that he didn't have any feeling in his right foot. "It felt like it had gone to sleep on me, so I picked my foot up and was trying to massage it, trying to get the feeling back," he says. "But then it dawned on me: it wasn't even connected. So I put it on the floor."

They tried to raise their wounded legs to slow the bleeding. "There was nothing to elevate my leg except for the piece of my leg that had been blown off from the knee down," Wyatt says. "So I took my leg and jammed it under the stump to keep it pointing up. It was kind of messy." It may have been messy, but it worked. Meinen and Wyatt held hands, trying to reassure each other. "We're not gonna die in this track," Meinen said. "We're not gonna die over here." He was right. About an hour after being wounded — thanks to their colleagues and a Black Hawk medevac flight — the three U.S. soldiers were receiving some of the world's best medical care at the 28th Combat Support Hospital, south of Baghdad. Wyatt and Meinen were back in the U.S. about three days later. It was a week before the more seriously wounded Castro landed on U.S. soil.

This is a story of the unseen war — and the grim, quiet battles that take place when wounded soldiers arrive home. What happened to members of the 2nd Squad of the 1st Platoon — who call themselves the War Machine — of the 43rd Combat Engineer Company is a tale that has never been told. Soldiers have been wounded in war since the beginning of time — a fact that armies never like advertising. The Pentagon, which makes terse announcements when U.S. soldiers die in combat in Iraq, doesn't inform the public about those who have been wounded or release month-by-month injury counts. The wounded are mentioned only when some other soldier has been killed in the same attack. "When you join the Army, they send your picture to your hometown paper because they want everybody to know that you're leaving for the military," says Meinen, a dark-haired practical joker from Grangeville, Idaho. "But if you're wounded, the military doesn't tell them, because they might be worried about the public getting negative about what's going on over there." Says the serious, quiet-spoken Castro, from Santa Ana, Calif.: "Nobody knows what happened to us, even though it was one of the biggest ambushes in Iraq. People are only finding out about soldiers who are dying, but American soldiers are getting injured too."

October was the bloodiest month yet for the U.S. military occupation of Iraq, and the number of wounded is plainly on the rise. Daily attacks against U.S. troops have tripled. The number of U.S. troops who have died in hostilities in Iraq from May 1, when President Bush declared "major combat operations over," through last week has topped the 114 who died in the invasion and its immediate wake. By week's end 122 U.S. troops had been killed in action in Iraq, for a total of 236. But the number of U.S. wounded since May 1 is 1,242, more than double the 551 injured during the war.

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