Friday, October 15, 2004

Paralyzed, a Soldier Asks Why

The New York Times
October 15, 2004

Paralyzed, a Soldier Asks Why


Sunlight was pouring through the doorway to the furnished basement of the neat two-story home on Reardon Lane. The doorway had been widened to accommodate the wheelchair of Army Staff Sgt. Eugene Simpson Jr., who was once a star athlete but now, at age 27, spends a lot of time in his parents' basement, watching the large flat-screen TV.

I asked the sergeant whether he ever gets depressed. "No," he said quickly, before adding, "I mean, I could say I was sad for a while. But it didn't really last long."

Sergeant Simpson's expertise is tank warfare. But the Army is stretched thin, and the nation's war plans at times have all the coherence of football plays drawn up in the schoolyard. When Sergeant Simpson's unit was deployed from Germany to Iraq, the tanks were left behind and the sergeant ended up bouncing around Tikrit in a Humvee, on the lookout for weapons smugglers and other vaguely defined "bad guys."

He said he felt more like a cop than a soldier.

One evening last April, Sergeant Simpson was the passenger in the lead vehicle of a four-vehicle convoy on a routine patrol in Tikrit. "It was a little housing area," he said. "We were just there to show a presence."

Iraqi soldiers were in the second vehicle of the convoy.

"I looked back and the Iraqi truck had stopped for some reason," Sergeant Simpson said.

He waved the driver forward, but the truck remained motionless. "That was odd," he said. "They wouldn't follow us. Then I happened to look down between two houses and I saw an Iraqi guy standing in the alley with like a remote control key for a car. And that was odd because there were like no cars in the whole little housing area."

Sergeant Simpson had been taught that key remotes can be used by insurgents to set off explosives. "So I knew right then something was wrong, and I raised up my gun to fire at him. But before I could get my weapon all the way up he pushed the button."

The bomb hidden in the road exploded with terrific force just a few feet from Sergeant Simpson.

"When I saw the explosion go off, I tried to jump back into the center of the Humvee for more protection," he said. "Everything went in slow motion for about 15 seconds. I saw scrap metal and dust and everything flying by me, and I felt it hitting me all in my legs and my back. It felt like hot metal burning my skin everywhere."

The driver of the Humvee fired at the attacker, who vanished. Sergeant Simpson was in agony. "It hurt so bad, I couldn't cry," he said.

The sergeant's spinal cord had been severed. On the short drive back to their home camp, he felt as if he was dying. "I would open and close my eyes," he said, "and all I could see was my family."

Sergeant Simpson is paralyzed from the waist down. He said he remembers hearing, as he was airlifted from Baghdad back to Germany, the moans and the cries and the weeping of the many other wounded soldiers on the plane. And he remembers the grief of the severely wounded soldiers in the military hospital in Landstuhl, where most of the evacuees from Iraq are taken. He saw amputees, and soldiers who were paralyzed or had suffered brain damage or other crippling injuries.

"Some of them never wanted anybody to come into their room," he said. "They never wanted to talk to anybody. The ones with the lesser injuries - you know, maybe got shot in the arm, that kind of thing - they were more upbeat."

Sergeant Simpson is married to a German woman, Shirley Weber, and they have two children. He is trying to get his family into the U.S., but the red tape is formidable. "The separation from them - that's the hardest thing to deal with," he said.

His feelings about the military, at the moment, are ambivalent. "Of course, I still wish I could walk and still be in the military," he said. "That's what I love to do."

But when I asked if he still loved the military itself, he paused and then said:

"Not as much. That's basically because we were over there, all these young guys, doing our jobs, but we really didn't know why we were there. I ask myself, 'What was our purpose?' And to this day I still can't figure out our purpose for being there."

He said he accepted his obligation, as a soldier, to fight. He is not resentful. But he would have appreciated a little more clarity about what he was fighting for.