For someone who signed up for four years of regimen and order, Garth was unusually iconoclastic. Tattooed on his chest was a line from the novel "Fahrenheit 451" by Ray Bradbury: "If they give you ruled paper, write the other way." And yet he loved the discipline of Army life. At Fort Benning, he competed on the martial arts team. Because he was a Minnesotan who called sodas "sweet fizzies," some of the guys nicknamed him "Sweet Fizzies, King of Fighters."
Garth was so eager for the fight in Iraq that he bought a high-powered custom scope for his rifle. He used it only once, to shoot out some factory windows. But Iraq turned out to be messier than he thought. He saw charred bodies, and a grotesque assemblage of dead Iraqi soldiers who had barreled their car into an American tank.
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)
On April 5, his unit was on the Karbala highway when some of the guys stopped to pose for a picture in front of a sign that said "BAGHDAD." Garth and a buddy decided to inspect a nearby bunker. The explosion blew both of them down. Garth's left boot was a wreck, and a chunk was missing from his lower leg. His other leg had a softball-size hole in the calf. A medic told him he'd probably lose a big toe.
He had surgeries in Kuwait and Germany, each time losing more of his foot. At Walter Reed, the orthopedic team decided that his leg needed to be amputated at mid-shin so he could fit into the highest functioning prosthesis.
Now, Dilaudid drips through his intravenous line, along with so many other drugs that he is too sick to eat anything but crackers.
Scenes from the war drift through his head. When he was in Iraq, an Army general came up to his company and said, "Man, we gotta stop Saddam. He boils little girls in acid." The statement struck Garth as "hilarious propaganda."
But lying in bed, he can't stop remembering all the Iraqi people who came out of their houses to shake the hands of the American troops.
Garth tries to make sense of things. "Any beautiful and scornful poem you read about war, it's about the horrible randomality of war," he says. The same Special Forces medic who treated Garth and his buddy after they stepped on the land mine was shot by a sniper two days later south of Baghdad. Now that same medic is on Ward 57, minus his right leg.
Ironies of War
Even with the war officially over, Ward 57 is filled to capacity. Officers are forced to share rooms with enlisted soldiers. "I've got a full-bird colonel in with a private," the charge nurse says one morning, scanning the room assignments with frustration. "Out of respect, he should have his own room."
"Oh, cry me a river," another nurse says.
The famous POW, Pfc. Jessica Lynch, is in a private room at the end of a hallway on 57, with a military police officer seated outside her door. In the rest of the ward, doors are open, visitors flowing in and out. All day long, soldiers buzz the intercom at the nurse's station.
Yeah, when you get a chance, I just spilled something over me.
Yes, ma'am, I need a Percocet.
Uh, can I have a blanket, please?
Yes, ma'am, I was using the urinal and . . . I need a new pair of pants.
In his room, Danny Roberts squints through eyeglasses that survived Iraq without a scratch. The aspiring English teacher in him has to appreciate such irony, same with the half-finished copy of William Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying" he had in his truck the day his feet got blown to pieces. Reading helps break the boredom now. Danny props himself against the pillows and jots reminders in a green spiral notebook: Call bank to replace the ATM card blown up in Iraq with his wallet; order tickets for the Red Hot Chili Peppers concert; get checked for anemia.
He's always been pale and skinny, not the brawny soldier pictured on recruiting posters. Still, he loved the Army so much he had a replica of his dog tags tattooed around his neck after leaving active duty and going to the reserves. Civilian life was a tough adjustment. Danny managed a band for a while, then moved to Hollywood, then New Orleans, partied too hard, went home to Wisconsin and started tending bar and going to college part time. Then his reserve unit was activated, and 26-year-old Danny was en route to Iraq.
He was part of a supply convoy, hauling food and water. He went through his brief war listening to New Age music on his headphones to tune out the ugliness around him. There were wild dogs, that searing white heat, enraged Iraqi boys who would mob the slow-moving convoy, hurling bricks at the hated American faces. Danny never so much as chambered a round in his own weapon. And then one afternoon, he stepped on a land mine.
At Walter Reed, surgeons operated four times just to clean out the wounds. Danny's right heel had been torn off and was replaced with a metal plate. Two toes were missing on his left foot, and the others had to be amputated. As he was healing from that surgery, doctors delivered more bad news: The explosive had destroyed tendons, too, causing the left foot to flop uselessly. He would never be able to walk on it, and it would lose circulation and eventually have to come off anyway. A prosthesis would give him far more mobility. It was up to him whether to amputate now or wait it out. Go ahead, Danny told them, then wept alone in his room that night.
Danny is now the model patient, always chipper and polite. Thank you so much, he tells the nurse bringing pain medication. "Awesome work," he congratulates his surgeon. He urges the bleary-eyed residents to get some sleep.
One morning, an intern unwraps his bandages, causing Danny to grip the bed rails in pain. "Oh, Danny Boy," she begins to sing, trying to distract him. He manages an appreciative smile even as he winces.
By the time he reached Walter Reed, John Fernandez had made a vow. "I'm not going to feel sorry for myself," he swore. Not when three men around him, including the gunner he tried to save, came home in body bags. "I'm here and I'm alive and I'm going to walk out of this place."
His hospital room is the first home he and his 22-year-old wife, Kristi, have shared as husband and wife. Kristi has moved a cot into his room. They hold court bedside, John recounting his story to visiting dignitaries, buddies and hospital staff. "I don't have any problems talking about it," he reassures the curious. His 13th Field Artillery unit was pushing toward Baghdad when an explosion blew John from his cot as he slept by his Humvee the night of April 3, less than 20 miles from the Iraqi capital.