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The War After the War

"I woke up. My legs were numb," he recalls. "I took off the sleeping bag and I screamed." His feet were bloody pulp. The Humvee was in flames, spewing fuel. Patches of fire burned around the wounded soldiers. "I crawled away, calling for my gunner. He called back. His legs were bad, pretty much blown off. So I threw my flak vest down on him, put my M-16 on his chest and started dragging him." Help arrived, and the gunner was carried off. Two more soldiers -- just kids, John thought -- appeared through the smoke. The Humvee exploded, throwing all of them to the ground again. His rescuers began to panic.

"Calm down, it's okay," John remembers telling them. "Just grab my legs, not my feet." At the mobile Army hospital, one of the senior sergeants burst into tears. "Don't worry about it," John heard himself saying. "I'm okay."

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)

_____In This Series_____
Part II: Moving Forward, One Step at a Time (The Washington Post, Jul 20, 2003)
_____Photo Gallery_____
The Soldiers of Ward 57

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Arriving at Walter Reed, feet swathed in thick bandages, he figured he was in for some serious reconstructive surgery.

But the wounds were grievous, and infection set in.

Twelve surgeries later, John Fernandez is a double amputee.

Surgeons sawed off one leg just below the knee, the other a couple of inches above the ankle. His wife of three months insists that nothing has changed between them, and talks about dancing together at the big wedding postponed by war. The surgeons agree: Anything is possible. People climb mountains, ski, run marathons on state-of-the-art artificial legs. John had always been an avid athlete -- lacrosse, basketball, soccer, hunting, fishing, you name it.

Kristi had been waiting at the curb when they unloaded John's stretcher at Walter Reed. She remembers seeing his smile first, running to kiss him, to say "I love you" over and over through happy tears.

The honeymooners in Room 5711 quickly became the darlings of Ward 57. Encamped in the small room, they crack jokes in their Long Island accents and beg visitors from back home to bring fresh bagels. They draw a cartoon of John on the nurse's dryboard, with the proclamation: "I am the Spanish Thunder." That was his nickname as captain of the Army lacrosse team. John used to have legs like tree trunks.

The swelling is going down on his two stumps, and doctors hope to start fitting him for artificial limbs soon. The rehabilitation specialist, Jeffrey Gambel, says that John should eventually be able to bear weight on the longer stump, which will mean he won't have to put on both prostheses to get to the bathroom in the middle of the night. "It will be very hard to walk on," Gambel cautions, "like a cone."

"Like a pirate," John suggests. He and Kristi burst into laughter, sharing the same ludicrous thought:

"Halloween!" they hoot almost simultaneously. No need to worry about a costume this year.

Celebrity City

America is sending cookies and Hickory Farms baskets to Ward 57. Orioles tickets and NASCAR passes arrive. Sheryl Crow brings her guitar and sings for each soldier. Michael Jordan is as fast on hospital linoleum as he is on the basketball court: Here's an autographed cap and whoosh, he's gone. Kelsey Grammer pulls up a chair bedside. They are too young to remember Bo Derek; ("What's '10'?" a soldier asks after being introduced to the movie star.) But they thoroughly appreciate Jennifer Love Hewitt.

The staff on 57 worries about the attention being showered on the soldiers. What happens when they are no longer in the spotlight? Gambel watches as country singer Chely Wright and her entourage give each soldier a yellow rosebud. "They are told they're heroes, and they get home and they don't feel like heroes," Gambel says. "They feel like some dumb guy who stepped on a land mine."

So many celebrities and politicians arrive that a 28-year-old Special Forces medic whose left leg was amputated hangs a NO VISITORS sign on his door. The phrase "Thank you for your sacrifice" has lost its meaning, he says. "It's like someone saying 'Happy Birthday' or 'Merry Christmas.' "

One Sunday afternoon, the nurse's station on 57 gets word that Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld is coming for a visit. Counters are scrubbed, a hot rod magazine on the front desk gets stashed and nurses patrol the halls, making sure patients and rooms are presentable. An hour later, Rumsfeld cancels. He has a cold.


Of all the specialists who puzzle over Garth Stewart, of all the expensive drugs dripping into his veins, nothing brings relief. The stomach cramps and constipation persist. Instead of getting better, he's getting worse. And then his magic bullet arrives.

The remedy comes from an unlikely deliverer known as the Milkshake Man. Jim Mayer is a veteran who lost both legs in Vietnam. Several times a week, he brings McDonald's milkshakes to the amputees on Ward 57. The visits are just an excuse to talk and counsel. Mayer arrives this Saturday afternoon but Garth refuses the shake. Too rich. Any chance of a Mountain Dew, he asks. Mayer heads downstairs to the commissary.

The super-caffeinated soda does it. Caffeine! The next day, Garth is sitting up in bed. His blinds are open. "Mountain Dew saved my goddamn life," he says, his voice deep and robust. Suddenly, he is ravenous. "Domino's keeps showing this commercial for Cinna Stix," he says. "You dip them in icing. Man, I want some."

When six Washington Redskinettes push through the double doors of Ward 57, wearing maroon sparkle bras and hot pants, Garth is waiting. "You guys are so cute," he practically shouts. One of the cheerleaders touches his stump. Garth says, "So many people look at this as you are less of a man. You should see the dignity of the guys who come in here to visit me. They roll up pants, and they are standing on plaster."

A day after the Redskinettes visit, Walter Reed's highest commanders come to bestow military honors. After the VIPs leave, Garth sits in bed, a gold medal pinned to his pajama top and an empty delivery box on the sheet beside him.

"Quite a day, man," he says. "Pizza and a Purple Heart."

The next morning, he's wide awake when the doctors arrive for rounds. Freshly barbered, he looks like a soldier again, which is what he wants to be as soon as he can escape the captivity of Walter Reed. He has one question: "When can I get out?"

"I think a week is certainly feasible," a physician, Ken Taylor, says, checking for signs that the skin flap is healing.

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