Still in the Fight: A New RealityBy MICHAEL D. FAY
Home Fires features the writing of men and women who have returned from wartime service in the United States military.
This is the first of a three-part series.
I’m sketching Lance Cpl. Tyler Huffman in his room at McGuire Veterans Administration Hospital in Richmond, Va. He’s volunteered to allow me and my fellow war artist Richard Johnson an intimate look at his wounds and rehabilitation. We first meet Tyler after lunch. He’s had his physical therapy sessions for the day, and everything that can hurt, does. As we draw, he shares and occasionally nods out as weariness and pain meds overwhelm him.
For the next two days Richard and I will sketch battle wounded Marines rehabilitating at this sprawling V.A. hospital, surrounded by some of the grittiest neighborhoods in Richmond. We are charter members of the International Society of War Artists (ISWA); the chairperson of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History’s Armed Forces History Division, Jennifer Jones, has asked us to start documenting wounded warriors with our reportage drawing.
We introduce ourselves simply. We’re war artists and have been out in the fight multiple times with you guys; living under the same conditions and capturing your combat experiences in art. We then give them our basic vision of why we’re here: You guys are still in the fight and what you do every day to recover and make the absolute best of your new reality is important to your fellow Americans. The wounded Marines get it.
The three Marines we’ll draw over these two days will allow us to observe and record them in what most would consider the worst possible conditions. One is paralyzed from the waist down; one has had 30 surgeries in the last nine weeks to put his face back together; and one has lost both legs mid-thigh and his right hand is virtually unusable. But, we know these Marines are consummate warriors, and we watch them attacking their disabilities and wounds with the same dogged determination they used every day humping the hills and fields of Afghanistan.
As we start sketching Tyler, he launches into a moment-by-moment account of being wounded on Dec. 3, 2010, in the Sangin district of Helmand Province in Afghanistan. He remembers everything. Everything. First, hit by two shots. Feels like two punches to the chest. Second, in slow motion, his body kicks backwards. Immediately upon hitting the ground he notices his feet flopping open. He can’t feel or move his legs.
The training kicks in and he instinctively starts undoing his own gear; he knows they’re going to have to work on him. Corporal Albright gets to him first, followed by Hospital Corpsman Second Class Miller. Sergeant Castillo helps carry him to a trailer attached to a Humvee, and they lay him on top of another corpsman. For the next hour, during a torturous ride to the battalion triage, the corpsman under him wraps his arms firmly around Tyler, acting as a combination cushion, back stabilizer and pressure bandage. (In the retelling of some of these incidents, first names of the soldiers on hand were not always available.)
Another Marine is also shot, a sniper, but his wound is far less serious; a through-and-through at the shoulder. The sniper holds Tyler’s hand during the bone-jarring ride to the triage. He’s glad to be alive, and grateful to have these guys as buddies. There’s never any taint of “why me?” in his words or the tone of his voice.
Two other Marines in his company over the last three months have been killed, in almost the exact same spot. Tyler saw both Lance Cpl. Sparks and Lance Cpl. Cinceros get shot. He feels lucky to be alive; the alternative is much worse. The Taliban snipers shoot from what the Marines call “murder holes,” a small opening chiseled into the wall of family or village compounds with pre-determined fields of fire. They know the Marines can only return fire or level a suspect building after confirming it has no civilians inside. That doesn’t happen often. The Talib snipers often get to fight another day, but on this day his buddies locate the sniper and kill him.
Eventually Tyler is moved to a hospital in Germany and gets the news he didn’t want to hear: he’s paralyzed from mid-thigh down. After ricocheting off a couple major organs and collapsing a lung, the two rounds exited his back, but only after shattering a vertebra at the base of his spine. His spinal cord is severely bruised. “Two holes in, but only one hole out,” Tyler tells us with bemused amazement. Pulling up his sweatshirt and T-shirt, he shows us a sternum to crotch scar and one of the entry wounds.
At the end of our first day with Tyler, his wife Mauricia and 18-month-old son Matthew arrive. They’re staying at the Fisher House on the hospital grounds. Mauricia stands shyly off to the side, leaning against a big red and gold Marine Corps flag hanging on the wall, and grinning ear to ear as we sketch. Richard gives little Matthew a pencil and sheet of paper to draw on. Matthew’s broad face watches Richard with wide eyed interest. He talks with the demeanor of a professor in an alien language just starting to sound remotely like English. Richard switches pencils and puts the swapped one in his mouth, and, to his parents’ laughter, Matthew mimics him.
Dinner arrives for the whole family and we arrange to come early the next morning to sketch Tyler during his physical therapy sessions.
Our second visit is with Cpl. Zachary Stinson. While leading his squad on a foot patrol, Zach stepped on a pressure plate mine just beyond the entry control point of Patrol Base Beatley, an outpost of Marja. It was Nov. 9, 2010, one day before the Marine Corps birthday. He credits one of the corpsmen, “Doc Friend,” with saving his life. His squad mates used up most of their tourniquets staunching the blood gushing from two shattered legs and a mangled arm. Like Huffman, he remembers everything up to the moment they put him under on the operating table.
Today he’s splayed out on a hospital bed surfing the Internet. His wife, Tesa Renee, sits at his left texting friends. I sit on the other bed next to his mom, Tracy Shuman, and start sketching. Tracy has been by her son’s side since he arrived stateside. A couple of cold grilled cheese sandwiches from lunch stare up at Tracy and me from a small rolling table.
Tesa Renee is pregnant with their first child. Zach is shirtless and a half filled colostomy bag is fully exposed. He doesn’t seem the least fazed. Unlike Huffman, his eyes are alert behind a classic pair of Marine Corps issued glasses, otherwise known as B.C.D.’s — birth control devices. In stark contrast to his bandaged stumps and heavily scarred right arm, Zach has the classic peaches and cream complexion common among the Pennsylvania Dutch of his hometown in Central Pennsylvania, Chambersburg. I tell them my daughter, Ainsley, went to Shippensburg University, in the neighboring town of the same name. They smile at this mildest of coincidences. Zach is thinking of going to Ship after his therapy is completed, in another two and half years.
Even as I draw, I write down as much as I can. I have to write stuff down. Somewhere back in either Iraq or Afghanistan, I left my short term memory. Zach left both legs from mid-thigh down. They tried to save one, but an infection set in and it had to be amputated. He’s looking forward to walking again, yes, walking again. Eventually he’ll be fitted with artificial legs and taught to walk. Amazing.
I finish my first drawing and ask Zach to sign it. His wife helps him, his dominant right hand and arm are still unusable, and he hasn’t mastered using his left hand. They were able to repair some of his fingers with bone and tissue from his lost legs, but the healing is incomplete, and the therapy to gain use of new digits is still a way off. They laugh as Tesa leans across him and guides his hand as he writes a crude ZACH.
Just as we’re ready to leave, one of Zach’s doctors comes in. He’s there to take out one of the internal monitoring probes. He tells Zach it’ll feel strange but won’t hurt as it’s withdrawn from his right arm. Next thing we know, the doctor is holding a wire about a foot long. Zach stares in amazement. He had no idea it was that long. This particular piece of gear snaked up his arm to a point at the top of his heart. Zach asks how they knew how long to make it. “Easy”, the doctors says, as he lays it from the point of exit on the arm to a spot center sternum, “we just cut it to length”.
Zach is making great progress. The steel rods that held his shattered pelvis together were removed last week. Serious physical therapy is going to start tomorrow. The small muscles, connecting thigh to the remains of his femurs, will be called upon to perform more than nature ever designed them to do. We arrange to observe a therapy session the next afternoon.
Next: On Thursday, “Still in the Fight: Scars”