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Veterans Day With a Difference

Life Goes On, but Outlook Has Changed for Soldier Wounded in Iraq

By Timothy Dwyer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 11, 2004; Page B01

When he dreams, it is never of that terrible day in April when he watched a man in an alley in Tikrit, Iraq, press a tiny button on a remote control automobile key and set off an explosion that sent shrapnel into his spinal cord and shattered nearly every bone in his right leg.

No, when he dreams, it is of basketball. Of course, the ball is in his hands, and he is about to take the winning shot. Because, Army Staff Sgt. Eugene Simpson Jr. of Dale City was a shooting guard in high school. He played quarterback and ran track, too, but basketball was his love.

Army Staff Sgt. Eugene Simpson Jr. of Dale City suffered paralyzing wounds. Now when he plays basketball in his dreams, he plays in a wheelchair. (Michael Williamson -- The Washington Post)

"When I wasn't working and you couldn't find me at home," he said yesterday, his 28th birthday, "you could find me at the gym playing basketball."

He was sitting in the basement of his parents' home -- a home that has been modified since that terrible April day in Tikrit.

The basement's sliding glass doors were widened to get him in and out, and a ramp was added to get him from the deck to a new concrete sidewalk that winds from the back yard to the driveway.

He was sitting in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the waist down, talking about how that day changed his life and how he has totally accepted the change. If he had any doubt about that acceptance, it was confirmed in his dreams. Now when the ball is in his hands and he is getting ready to shoot that dream shot, he is in the wheelchair.

This morning, Simpson will be at Arlington National Cemetery to observe Veterans Day. He will be the guest of the Paralyzed Veterans of America and be in a VIP box to watch a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknowns, which will be followed by a remembrance ceremony at the Memorial Amphitheater. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Anthony J. Principi is scheduled to host the event.

Simpson never paid much attention to Veterans Day before. He had seen some of the events on television, but never gave more than a moment's thought to it before going about the business of his daily life. Even after he joined the Army, after spending two years at Dean Junior College in Franklin, Mass., on a football scholarship, Veterans Day had no special meaning to him.

That has changed.

"Veterans Day in the past," he said, "I was just like, 'Okay, it is Veterans Day.' Now I really understand how those soldiers who have died or who have been wounded or injured have sacrificed for their country. Veterans Day is much more significant to me now that I am in their shoes. I am a veteran. I really understand what it means to fight for your country and die for your country or get injured for your country. I really know the meaning of that now."

He will never walk again, never take another jump shot, never be able to show -- not just tell -- his four sons the proper footwork when they go to the hoop with a killer cross-over dribble.

"I will be more of a mental mentor to them," he said of his sons, who are 8, 5, 3 and 2.

His sons and wife, Shirley, are still living in Schweinfurt, Germany, where he was stationed with the 1st Battalion of the 77th Armor Regiment. They are planning to move to Virginia in a few weeks, and Simpson is looking forward to building a house.

For now, he is getting used to life in a wheelchair. He is waiting for his discharge papers, which he expects "any day." Then he plans to go back to school, and he eventually wants to work with children at a boys or girls club or become a coach. Basketball, naturally, is his first choice.

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