First of two articles
The taxicab pulls up to the curb of Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and Pfc. Garth Stewart slides into the back seat. A nurse stows his duffel bag in the trunk, offering her last advice. "Move your leg around on the flight," she says.
The American flag hangs slack on the flagpole. Garth lays his crutches across his lap. The lanky 20-year-old soldier from Minnesota rubs the place where his leg was amputated. The throbbing alternates with jolts that feel like electrical shocks. Two Percocets are in his pocket for the plane ride home.
Pfc. Garth Stewart undergoes therapy daily to try to regain strength. He lost 20 pounds and part of his left leg.
(Michael Lutzky/The Washington Post)
As the cab cuts through Rock Creek Park, Garth rolls down the window to smell the forest. After weeks of hospital food and disinfectant, he breathes deeply. He rips the plastic hospital ID bracelet from his wrist and crumples it in a ball.
The bed that Garth left behind on Ward 57 will be filled by day's end. Even though major combat operations in Iraq are over, the wounded keep arriving. Twice a week, transport planes land at Andrews Air Force Base, bringing fresh casualties. Accidents, ambushes, pockets of resistance. Nearly 650 soldiers have passed through Walter Reed during Operation Iraqi Freedom, more than half of them since the conflict was officially declared over.
On TV, the war was a rout, with infrared tanks rolling toward Baghdad on a desert soundstage. But the permanent realities unfold more quietly on Georgia Avenue NW, behind the black iron gates of the nation's largest military hospital.
Here, the battle shifts from hot sand to polished hallways, and the broad ambitions of global security are replaced by the singular mission of saving a leg. Ward 57, the hospital's orthopedics wing, is the busiest. High-tech body armor spared lives but not necessarily limbs.
The night President Bush declared the end of major combat, the soldiers on Ward 57 slept, unaware of victory.
Garth Stewart was curled in a miserable ball of blue pajamas.
First Lt. John Fernandez, the West Point graduate, was beginning married life from a wheelchair.
Pfc. Danny Roberts was wishing for Faulkner instead of a glossy guide about adapting to limb loss.
Their war was not yet over.
Walter Reed has been treating wounded soldiers since the beginning of the century, expanding and contracting with the rhythms of war. During World War I, the number of patient beds grew from 80 to 2,500 in a matter of months. Three generations later, the soldiers from Operation Iraqi Freedom arrive, some so fresh from the battlefield they still have dirt and blood beneath their fingernails.
Each morning, across the sprawling grounds of the 147-acre compound, reveille is sounded at 6. But up on the hospital's fifth floor on Ward 57, the fluorescent dawn is indistinguishable from the fluorescent night. Two long halls flank the nurse's desk, the command center of the ward. Doctors begin their morning rounds at dawn.
In Room 5714, Garth Stewart is sleeping when three doctors arrive. One of them reaches for a light switch, and before Garth can shield his eyes, his room is flash-blasted in white.
"Can we take a look at the leg?"
Garth flips back the bedsheet. His desert tan has gone sallow. His GI buzz cut is a woolly disgrace. Even in this condition, he wishes for a decent soldier's haircut. The drugs have made his stomach cramp so much that he stays curled on his side. Now, with the doctors hovering, he tries to straighten out his 6-foot-4 frame. His amputated leg won't lie down. It trembles in midair.
A doctor works quickly, unwrapping the bandage and then the white gauze. Garth watches as they probe the black caterpillar of sutures on his bulbous stump. He moans. The stump begins to shake violently. "I'm gonna get sick," he says.
"You want your bucket?"
Garth reaches for the container. "I can't do this much longer," he says, holding his hand over his eyes.
"We're almost finished," the doctor tells him.
"No," Garth says, "not that, everything. I can't take it any more."
They leave him in darkness, with his bucket. Only four weeks earlier, Garth was a mortar man with the 1st Battalion of the 3rd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division. "You get out of high school and you join the Army, or you get out of high school and live in your parents' basement," he says. He chose Fort Benning over Stillwater, Minn.