The Survivors

For the severely burned and near-fatally wounded soldiers who arrive at Brooke Army Medical Center, in San Antonio, the war in Iraq is over. But their fight has just begun.

When it was time for Dustin Hill to receive his Purple Heart, he was wheeled from an aisle in the packed auditorium up a ramp and onto the stage. He wore glasses, warm-up pants, unscuffed running shoes, and a U.S. Army cap, under which was a white gauze bandage. His face was red with scars from the fire that had destroyed his Humvee in Iraq four months before. The smooth, red, round ends of his arms poked out of the sleeves of his jacket. There was a pink hollow where his right eye used to be.

Specialist Hill is from Wyanet, Illinois,” said General C. William Fox Jr., the emcee. “In September, Specialist Hill sustained extensive burn and shrapnel injuries in the Green Zone in Baghdad when, on patrol, a vehicle-born improvised explosive device was detonated next to his Humvee. Specialist Hill is single and is accompanied here today by his mother, father, and two brothers.”

 There is more to Hill’s story. He joined the National Guard in 2002 and was deployed in 2004. He was the only member of his squad in the Humvee; the rest were investigating an abandoned vehicle. A suicide bomber had pulled his car behind a passing convoy and, when he’d reached Hill’s stopped vehicle, blown himself up. Hill, on fire, was  thrown free. He suffered third-degree burns over one third of his body. His entire right hand and the fingers on his left were burned so badly they would be amputated. He also had a broken femur, kneecap, and ankle. He is 22.

The applause for Hill lasted a full twelve seconds. He was the fifth of five wounded soldiers, or warriors, as they were called, to receive the Purple Heart at this ceremony, held at Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston, just outside downtown San Antonio. It was January 14, and most in the audience wore camouflage. The ceremony was a charged prelude to the official occasion that morning, the opening of the Army’s second amputee care center. The first had been opened at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, near Washington, D.C., in 2004. But with the violence in Iraq increasing, demand was high. This new facility at BAMC is 29,000 square feet, with state-of-the-art prosthetics and occupational and physical therapy rooms. To showcase what doctors at BAMC had already been doing with amputees, nine soldiers, each of whom had lost a limb, walked or were wheeled to the stage. Some, like B. J. Jackson, who stood on steel legs hidden under khaki slacks, had reentered civilian life. All nine held a long yellow ribbon, which Army Vice Chief of Staff General Richard A. Cody and Sergeant Major of the Army Kenneth O. Preston cut with a pair of oversized scissors.

At the reception afterward, men with hooks for hands mingled with men who still had all ten fingers. A four-piece military band played World War II—era Glenn Miller songs, and people milled about chatting. I watched Jackson walk among the guests, and I had to look closely to see any unsteadiness in his step. No one stared

More Texas Monthly

Loading, please wait...