Beyond the Purple Heart

Beyond the Purple Heart


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Estimated read time: 10-11 minutes

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Darci Marchese, special to KSL NewsradioVirtually every day, we tell you about members of the military killed in Iraq.

But when a soldier or Marine is killed in combat, you can probably assume many more men and women were injured that same day.

I wanted to tell that story.

Beyond the Purple Heart

The lives of these brave men and women are changed forever when they are injured. The injuries they sustain are not broken bones -- they are left paralyzed -- without legs, arms, hands and feet; severely wounded by improvised explosive devices (IEDs) or sniper fire. Some have lost their sight, others their hearing.

The road to recovery for these men and women is grueling and remarkable.

The medicine, equipment, personnel and facilities that help military members recover from their injuries is astounding.

Talking to men and women who have lost so much was very difficult. But at the same time, it was extremely rewarding because these men and women are so strong, committed, and surprisingly positive, something I hope to convey in this 20-part series, "Beyond the Purple Heart."

'Extreme Heat'

I begin our journey by taking you to the battlefield of Iraq. Lance Corporal Corey Smith of the Third Battalion Second Marines, Second Marine Division, 19, will always remember Sept. 11 -- but for a different reason. Smith was in Iraq for three months, looking for weapons caches near a large factory near the Euphrates River. His squad then got on the roof, to secure the factory for mechanics. At that time, they started taking sniper fire and mortar rounds from the north. He heard a loud whistle, then a boom and the blast knocked him forward.

Shrapnel struck him, blowing up his legs and severely wounding his side. Smith describes the pain as an "extreme heat." The first thing he did after being hit was say a prayer, he says. Thoughts of his family and girlfriend trickled into his head and he was unsure if he would make it. Smith knew he was in trouble when his squad leader found him and uttered "Oh my God" when he saw Smith's side. Smith's squad leader put a tourniquet on his legs and somehow gathered his blown up legs.

Smith never looked down at his injuries. He covered his eyes with his hands, so he wouldn't see his wounds. He needed blood immediately, and had several bags of blood transferred into him.

About 30 minutes later, a helicopter arrived. His squad had a lot of fire power, so he was able to safely get inside the helicopter. Smith then had emergency surgery in Iraq. One of his legs was repaired. But he lost his left leg, and is now battling pain every day.

But his will, strength, determination and faith is remarkable and vows to walk one day -- and soon.

Leaving Brothers Behind

#Kachmar

Sgt. Daniel Kachmar, 23, with Headquarters Company 6th Marines was wounded on Aug. 25, 2005 north of Fallujah, Iraq. (Darci Marchese/WTOP Photo)

Sgt. Daniel Kachmar with Headquarters Company Sixth Marines, carried out four missions in Cuba and Afghanistan, before he served just north of Fallujah. Kachmar was in the Marine Corps for a little more than four years, but found himself on missions traveling from country to country. On Aug. 25, 2006, the 22-year-old's military career changed forever when he was told to find a roadside bomb. As he puts it, "it found him." His hand was blown apart. His leg was mangled.

Kachmar was Medevaced to Camp Fallujah, where he had emergency surgery. He says at that time he was taken off the battlefield, he wasn't thinking about his injury, but leaving behind his brothers -- his squad. He says he was supposed to take care of his men, now he was leaving them behind. For him, that was the toughest part.

By helicopter, Kachmar was flown to Ballad, Iraq. That night, he was flown to Germany to Ramstein Air Force Base. After being there for four days, he landed on American soil at Andrews Air Force Base. Since he's been back, he's had 18 operations and many more to come. If it was up to him, he'd be back in Iraq "getting his revenge." But he's turned his injury into hope for other Marines and their families. I'll tell you more about that, later on.

'Gutted Open'

Chief Warrant Officer Jason Forgash with the Marine's

#Forgash

H and S company was attached to a military transition team in Ramadi, made up of a 10-man Iraqi patrol along with some U.S. Marines. His team was focusing on small arms fire on July 22, when a sniper shot the 37-year-old from a different location. The sniper had good aim. He shot Forgash in the one-inch space between where his protective gear ended. The bullet struck him in his lower abdomen, hitting virtually every organ -- his liver, stomach, bowel, scrambled his pancreas. The pain was intense and immediate, Forgash says, like a 300-pound man kicked him in the stomach. Since his team was busy focusing on that small arms-fire, no one noticed Forgash was hit. So, he used his radio to call in help for himself. Forgash says his radio "didn't always work," but luckily it worked that day.

First, he was taken to a hospital at Camp Ramadi made up of some Army and Navy staff. He says he was "gutted open" and basically repaired on the spot. He was given 20 pints of blood. Forgash says he would not have survived if it wasn't for that immediate surgery. His doctors told him he wouldn't have survived this injury in 2003. Since then, technology and surgical techniques have improved, because these types of emergency surgeries are being perfected as the war goes on, Forgash says.

Chief Warrant Officer Jason Forgash with the Marines H and S company recovers at National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda with his wife, Maria, at his side. (Darci Marchese/WTOP Photo)

As a result of his injuries, Forgash has not had anything to eat since July 22. A tube that goes up from his nose to his torn up stomach feeds him, and he gets his fluid from an IV. Forgash says he's not hungry but "craves food like crazy" like pizza, burgers and bean burritos. He's hoping a future surgery will enable him to eat.

Despite his extensive injuries, Forgash has an amazing attitude, saying there's a lot of guys on his floor at National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda that don't have arms or legs. He says he feels very fortunate to even be alive and has his wife, Maria, at his side all day and night.

A Miracle

Specialist Crystal Davis with the 54th Engineer Battalion has one unbelievable story to tell. When I met her, she was sitting upright on a mat at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. I was immediately taken aback by the loss of her one leg and the condition of her other leg. It looked mangled, almost put back together like a puzzle. And while what she was telling me was horrific, her voice was strong as it could be.

Davis was hit with a remote controlled improvised explosive device, or IED, on Jan. 21, 2006. She was driving in the suburbs of Ramadi when the device went exploded. After she realized what happened, she was all blown up. Davis found one leg was on top of the steering wheel of her vehicle, hanging on by muscles and tissues. Her other leg was crushed beneath the seat.

When medics arrived, one of the women in charge told her, "We don't know how we're going to get you out of the vehicle." Davis replied, "Let me try." She gathered up her legs and placed them like they should be. Someone else placed her foot on the door jam. Trying to get out, Davis fell on top of her own body parts and medics had to scoop her up.

When she arrived at the hospital, Davis realized she could no longer see. It was no surprise. Doctors pulled out inch-long shards of glass out of her eyes from the blast. Davis says it was a miracle that she was able to see when she needed to help get herself out of the vehicle. And she has no vision loss today.

Davis did lose one of her legs. And as I mentioned, her other leg was put back together again. She had every bone broken in her surviving leg, lost her heel bone and many nerves were crushed. It took her several months just to be able to put her foot down squarely on the ground.

This part of her story is just amazing: Davis says she hadn't seen her brother in seven years. But ironically, he was a Marine stationed in Iraq about 20 minutes away from her. Davis asked a Marine liaison if it would be possible to see her brother before flying out of Iraq. But she got the surprise of her life: Her brother received permission to leave Iraq about a month early, and was on the airplane with her all the way back to the U.S. Davis says having her brother to support her was just incredible.

But her road to recovery is grueling. Yet when I asked her if she will one day walk again, she replied "Yes Ma'am. I'm going to walk, run, dance." Davis says she'll do everything she used to be able to do.

'Not the Same When You Go Back'

Dr. William Liston, a trauma surgeon at National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda knows a lot about battle. He's seen injuries fresh from combat and has helped put hundreds of lives back together again. When we sat down to talk about his experiences, he was still wearing his surgical gear, right out of surgery. He paused momentarily, to eat a single pretzel -- his lunch -- before his next surgery right after our interview. Liston is soft-spoken, compassionate and dedicated. He even broke down a time or two, talking about treating these very young victims of war.

Liston spent seven months in western Iraq with the Marine Corps, working out of a makeshift hospital, treating the wounded. The pace was hectic, he says. Sometimes, the wounded arrived on a Blackhawk helicopter one patient at a time, other times, eight or more would arrive. Some had IV's started, but many did not. He says he would try to decide within five to 10 minutes, which patients needed surgery. There was an orthopedic surgeon on staff, along with a heart surgeon. There were a total of 120 workers at the hospital. Up to 70 percent of the injuries were from improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, Liston says. The rest were gunshot wounds. And out of the 172 operations Liston performed in seven months, no one died. Everyone survived, at least on the operating table. Liston says he benefited from the medics in the field. Nobody bled to death because of their severe wounds. He says Marines were teaching each other a buddy-aid course and that gave fellow Marines the know-how of what to do correctly after a fellow Marine was wounded.

The constant pressure on the battlefield was difficult, Liston says. Nearly every day, he was performing surgeries on young men and women who would otherwise be healthy. He forced himself to be strong because he was in a leadership role and wanted to provide good morale for everyone. In a tender voice, Dr. Liston told me "You're just not the same when you go back." It took many months for him to adjust to life after war. But life now isn't a breeze for the surgeon. He saves young lives in Bethesda every day, just farther from the battlefield. But not much.

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