Michael Weisskopf never intended to become part of his own story. The fifty-seven-year-old senior correspondent for Time magazine was in Iraq in December 2003 on a coveted assignmentto profile the American soldier chosen as Times Person of the Year. For three weeks, Weisskopf was embedded with a platoon of the legendary 1st Armored Division, which was based in Sunni-dominated northwest Baghdad. On the night of December 10, Weisskopf was along on the platoons routine night patrol when he heard a clatter inside the Humvee. As Weisskopf writes in his new book, Blood Brothers: Among the Soldiers of Ward 57,
At first I thought it was a rock, the specialty of the street urchinsa harmless shot against an armored Humvee. But the clanking sound that interrupted my thoughts couldnt be ignored … [I]t bounced off the steel blast wall behind me. I gazed down, then to the right, and spotted an object on the wooden bench two feet away. The dark oval was as shiny and smooth as a tortoiseshell, roughly six inches long and four inches wide … [S]omething told me there was no time to consult the other soldiers … I rose halfway, leaned to the right, and cupped the object. I might as well have plucked volcanic lava from a crater. I could feel the flesh of my palm liquefying … [I] raised my right arm and started to throw the mass over the side of the vehicle, a short backhand toss. Then everything went dark.
The grenade never made it out of the Humvee. Weisskopf took the brunt of the blast, saving the lives of everyone in the vehicle but losing his right hand in the explosion. I shook my right arm, trying to wake it up, he remembers. Still no response, I elevated it to see why … My wrist looked like the neck of a decapitated chicken. The wound was jagged, blood glistening in the light.
The week that followed was hellish: multiple surgeries were needed to clean Weisskopfs wound and relieve the pressure on his injured arm. A spray of shrapnel remained buried in his right upper thigh. An Army transport plane carried Weisskopf to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, where, during a routine procedure to clean the wound, Weisskopf ended up with heart arrhythmia, which landed him in the ICU. Finally, well after midnight on December 17, a week after his hand had been blown off, Weisskopf arrived at Amputee Alley, Walter Reed Army Medical Centers Ward 57, specially designated to treat amputees of the Iraq War. (Weisskopf, the Wards fifty-sixth amputee since the start of the war, was the first journalist ever to be a patient at the vaunted medical facility.)
Blood Brothers is not so much a book about the invasion of Iraq. Nor is it merely a paean to the much-praised staff and facilities at Walter Reed, though it is partially that. (Blood Brothers was published before the Washington Post carried, in February, a devastating expos of shoddy facilities leased by Walter Reed to house some patients and their families.) The book is, instead, a tightly written insider account of what has become an all-too-frequent experience of those serving in Iraq: losing a limb.
Doctors at Walter Reed could predict what to expect from the Iraq conflict. Because of advances in battlefield medicinetourniquets that can be tied with one hand, blood-clotting pellets made in part from volcanic ash, better life-support systems on medevac choppersmore soldiers lives could be saved. But that blessing would in turn mean that more would be coming back with multiple grievous injuries. Nurses were told to expect a new breed of patient: young, in chronic pain, traumatized, and long-term.
The predictions proved correct. In Iraq, the American military has lost one for every ten soldiers hit in combat, compared to a one-in-four fatality rate in Vietnam, and one in three during the Second World War. Because of the nature of the attacks on American soldiersprimarily from improvised explosive devices (IEDs)and more widespread use of body armor, the soldiers extremities have taken the greatest punishment. More than half the wounded in Iraq have injured or missing limbs.
My neighbor to the left was a twenty-six-year-old former all-state high school runner from New Jersey whose whole left leg was amputated above the knee and his right knee connected to his hip by a titanium rod. Down the hall, a twenty-four-year-old Virginian who loved to drive fast cars was missing both legs above the knee. Across from him a twenty-two-year-old expectant father from Pittsburgh, blinded and separated from both his hands … the litany of misery moved from bed to bed … I recognized the common plight of men whod come home with less than they had left withthe trajectory of a life stopped cold in a hospital bed.
Menand it was all men in Ward 57lived with a toxic mix of fear and pain; many could not perform the most basic tasks for themselves. Someone had to feed them, bathe them, and help them to the bathroom. It was humiliating. They worried that their women wouldnt want them back. They worried that they wouldnt be able to care for their kids when they couldnt even tie their shoelaces or use a fork.
Weisskopf uses his own trials and the experiences of three other men to tell the story of this wars wounded. For Peter John Damon, a Massachusetts National Guardsman and helicopter technician whose hands had been sliced off in a freak accident, recovery at Walter Reed was about relearning how to perform the most prosaic tasks. Soaping himself in the shower meant lathering up a hand towel or terry-cloth mitt between his stumps and washing thoroughly. Cleaning his behind after using the toilet meant carefully laying baby wipes around the seat and sweeping the wipes into the bowl after he was finished. Going outside for a smoke was also a carefully planned maneuver: Pete would drop the pack in a baseball hat that lay on his bed, bend over, put the hat on, go outside, drop the hat off his head, pry a cigarette out of the pack, and cadge a light off another smoker. The sight of Pete attached to an IV pole and a Marlboro became part of Ward 57 lore, notes Weisskopf with amusement.
After the attacks on the Twin Towers in September 2001, Damon was sent to Fort Bragg. A whiz at almost any kind of repair, he decided to become a helicopter mechanic. In October 2003, he was inflating a tire on a Black Hawk in Iraq when the metal rim around the tire exploded. The pieces tore into Damon, cutting one arm off below the elbow and the other just above. His hands were gone, but he was still alive, and for that Damon was grateful.
Corporal Robert Blan Isaacs III joined the Army after the 9/11 attacks. The sunny, sweet twenty-two-year-old from North Carolina was in a Humvee idling yards away from the 101st Division headquarters in Mosul when a roadside bomb exploded nearby. The blast killed his squad leader and shattered both Isaacss legs so badly that he lost nearly all the blood in his body and had to be fully transfused. By the time he got to Walter Reed, it wasnt at all clear that he would make it. Two amputations and forty-plus surgeries later, Bobby returned home to North Carolina, a hero to his mother and his community. But to him his loss was not a great sacrificeit was simply the price he willingly paid for service to his country. Id do it again, he told Weisskopf.
For Sergeant Luis Rodriguez, a medic, coming to terms with the loss wasnt about country, it was about familyhis brothers in arms and his platoon of medics. Rod, as he was called, grew up in a low-income suburb of San Juan, and the only thing he ever wanted to be was an Army medic. And he became one of the best, earning a Bronze Star, an honor rarely given to a medic. But like dozens of the men he saved in Iraq, Rod became a casualty of a bomb in his Humvee. In the explosion, he lost his right leg at the knee. The bomb severed more than a limb, says Weisskopf. It dismantled Rods identity.
Blood Brothers also deals in meticulous detail with the facts of Weisskopfs own injury. We are taken step-by-step through explanations of multiple surgeries to remove what was left of his useless right hand to ready it for the prosthesis. We are led through physical and occupational therapies, the real and the phantom pain (the severe discomfort amputees suffer from nerves that continue to tell the brain that the lost limb is there). We are told of the authors increasing doses of narcotics, to get him not only through the day but through the next hour. Finally, there is the fitting of various prosthetics, their repeated failures, and, finally, Weisskopfs decision to give up the idea of using a high-tech, upper-extremity prosthetic like a myoelectric arm and to rely instead on a simple hook. The process is harrowing. Technicians spent hours tweaking the prosthesis, writes Weisskopf, curving plastic here, cutting it there. Nothing worked. Easing the pressure from the elbow loosened the suspension. Either it pinched or it slipped off. The best they could do was reach an unhappy medium. It hurt some and it slipped some.
The issues for amputees largely remain the same as theyve always been: how to tie your shoes in less than fifteen minutes, how to walk up the stairs, how to hold on to a job, how to find a date or keep a wife from going AWOL. Stumps atrophy. Bone spurs develop that necessitate repeated surgeries. Ulcers form on skin surfaces and run the risk of infection. The $50,000 state-of-the-art, computer-programmed CLegs and prosthetic arms have to be constantly readjusted. And there is the ever-present pain: as one of the physicians at Walter Reed tells amputees in regard to their phantom pain, It may go away. It may stay the same, and it may get worse.
But with time and therapy, Weisskopf and his fellow patients overcame many of these hurdles: Pete Damon, once a talented artist, learned how to draw all over again with a pencil clamped in his prosthetic hook. Luis Rodriguez became a teacher of an advanced course for the medics in training at the Fort Campbell Rascon School of Combat Medicine. Bobby Isaacs dreams of being a physicians assistant. As for Weisskopf, he has returned to his perch at Time. With the help of a waterproof prosthesis, he is able to go swimming. He can open a bottle of wine, and write on a computer using voice-recognition software. What happened to Weisskopf was a piece of terrible luck. But he has put his experience to good use, and given the rest of us a real insight into the private worlds of the injured soldiers who are coming back from this war in the thousands.
Ronald Glasser is an author and physician assigned to Camp Zama during the Vietnam War. His most recent book is called Wounded: Vietnam to Iraq.