By Peter Carlson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 10, 2005
"So we're driving down the road and it's midnight, so it's pitch-black, and when you're driving at night, you don't use any lights," says Terry Rodgers, "but we can see fine because we've got night vision goggles."
He's sitting in the living room of his mother's townhouse in Gaithersburg, telling the story of his last night in Iraq. He's still got his Army crew cut and he's wearing a T-shirt with an American flag on the chest.
"We're driving down this road and there's this tiny bridge over a little canal," he says. "They had rigged up this bomb and they had a tripwire running across the bridge and we hit it and it blew up."
Like the rest of the 13,877 Americans wounded in Iraq, Rodgers has a story to tell. He tells it in a matter-of-fact voice, like he's talking about making a midnight pizza run or something. He's sitting in an armchair with his right leg propped on an ottoman, the foot encased in a soft black cast that reaches almost to the knee. His crutches are lying on the rug beside the chair.
"The Humvee finally comes to a stop and the right side is just torn apart and I hear my squad leader screaming, 'I think I lost my arm!' And my best friend Maida was in the front passenger seat where the bomb went off and he was screaming, 'Where's help? Where's help?' And then he went quiet.
"And me, I'm trying to crawl out of the Humvee and I get most of my body out and just this leg is stuck and I thought it must be caught on something in the twisted metal. I look back and I see it's just laying there on the seat, so I'm like, 'Why is it stuck?' So I try to lift my leg up and it won't lift. I just had to pick up my leg and crawl the rest of the way out."
He mimes the action of picking up his leg with his hands, then he continues the story.
"I started patting myself down and that's when I noticed that my face took some shrapnel," he says. "It was all swollen on this side, so when I'm patting myself down, my middle finger went, like, this deep into my cheek where the shrapnel went in."
He points to a spot about halfway down his finger, showing how far it went into the shrapnel wound behind his right eye, which is still pretty much blind, unable to see anything but bright light.
"Then I started checking out my leg. I knew my femur was broken, but at that time I didn't know my calf was missing," he says. "And that's when I hear my best friend Maida and he started heaving."
Rodgers takes a few loud, quick breaths to show what Mark Maida sounded like.
"And he breathes like that for a few seconds and then he just stops. And that's when he died."
Rodgers pauses a moment.
"The two trucks behind us had to stop and make sure the area was secure before they could help us," he says. "And the first guys that showed up saw Maida in the front seat, leaning against the windshield and all I heard was, 'Sir, we lost Maida.'
"And then they helped my squad leader, who lost his right arm, and then they came over and helped me. They bandaged us up . . . and when the helicopter finally showed up, they loaded me and Maida into the chopper and flew us to Baghdad.
"And after that, I don't remember anything till like a week after I got to Walter Reed."Heeding the Call
Terry Rodgers, who just turned 21, grew up in Rockville, son of a carpenter and a courthouse clerk. After graduating from Richard Montgomery High School in 2002, he worked as a mechanic in a Washington gas station, then joined the Army.
"It was something I always wanted to do," he says. "I thought it looked fun. I just wanted to get out on my own for a while. I got kind of bored being around here. I wanted to try something new."
He signed up in October 2002, but he didn't go into the Army until the following July. In between, the United States invaded Iraq, but Rodgers didn't pay much attention to that.
"I didn't have a political view," he says. "I'm not into politics."
He did his basic training at Fort Benning, Ga. Then his outfit -- the 2nd Squadron, 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment -- was assigned to Fort Irwin, Calif., in the Mojave Desert, where they played the bad guys in warfare training exercises.
"Basically we would just play laser tag in the desert," he says. "It was kind of fun."
They deployed to Iraq this January, assigned to a town about 30 miles south of Baghdad. Two nights after they arrived, an IED -- improvised explosive device -- blew up near their patrol base but nobody got hurt. Later, somebody set off a car bomb on the street in front of the base.
"It didn't do anything to us Americans," he says, "but it killed a few civilians."
Most days, Rodgers's platoon would patrol the town in Humvees, then set up a TCP -- traffic control point -- where they'd stop cars and search them for weapons. Or they'd do "house calls": "We'd pick random houses and just go in and search 'em." Sometimes they'd do a "dismounted patrol," which meant they wandered through the streets on foot.
"We'd have an interpreter with us and we'd try to talk to people," he says. "We didn't have any incidents when we were out walking. The biggest incident we'd have on foot patrol is we'd be mobbed by little kids asking us for candy. When people from back home would send me candy, I'd always give that to the kids."
Occasionally the Americans would hear about a house where somebody was rumored to be storing weapons or building bombs. They'd wait until dark and raid the place.
"It was very intense and very fast," he says. "We'd try to be as quiet as we could until we got to the front door, and then you just have the battering ram and you open the front door and you run in yelling and pulling your weapons and try to gain control of the house as fast as you can."
Other patrols found illegal weapons on these raids, but Rodgers's never did.
"We did hit the wrong house quite often," he says. "We had these overhead maps, satellite maps, and when you're on the street in the middle of the night, it's hard to find the right house. In those instances, we'd say, 'Sorry,' and give 'em a card with a phone number to call the Army and we'd pay for the damages."
In April, Rodgers's company was transferred to a tiny farming town about 20 miles away -- a place where no Americans had been stationed.
"We started looking for a building that would be suitable for a patrol base," he says. "And we took this building over. There was a family living there and we had to kick 'em out. . . . They weren't too happy about it, but there was nothing they could do."
A few days after they arrived in the little town, a Humvee on patrol was blown up by a bomb buried on a dirt road.
"It picked up the Humvee, and when it was in the air, it turned on its side," Rodgers says, "and my friend fell out and the Humvee ended up landing on him and it crushed him and he was killed."
His friend was Kevin W. Prince, 22, of Plain City, Ohio.
About a week later a car approached their patrol base, and the guys fired a few rounds to signal the driver that he should stop. He got out. Two American soldiers searched the car. When they opened the trunk, a bomb exploded, killing both of them.
It was scary. In three months, Rodgers's company had suffered no casualties -- nobody killed, nobody wounded. Now they'd lost three guys in a couple of weeks.
"We hadn't experienced anything like that before so it was nerve-racking," he says. "You try not to think about it because you have to get out there and keep doing the same things. Obviously if it's gonna happen, it's gonna happen, and worrying abut it isn't going to do you any good."
Then, on a Thursday night, May 26, Rodgers's platoon was guarding the base when it got a call from a platoon that was patrolling the area: They'd found a bomb and needed reinforcements.
Rodgers and about 10 other guys piled into three Humvees and scrambled off to help. Speeding through the darkness, wearing their night vision goggles, they came to the canal with the bridge, where the bomb was.The Wounds of War
Rodgers was flown to Baghdad, then to Germany, then to Washington, where he was taken to Walter Reed Army Medical Center on Memorial Day. But he doesn't remember any of that.
"The first memories I have turn out to be hallucinations," he says. "I thought my leg was burned off. I thought half my face was blown off. I thought little kids were jumping on me, stealing my eyes and my teeth."
He was doped up on pain medicine that made him see things that weren't there.
"He kept yelling at me to get the people behind him," his mother, Ann Rodgers, recalls. "He said, 'Get them away from me!' I said, 'There's nobody behind you.' He asked me if I could see the back of his eye because his face was gone. I said, 'Your face isn't gone.' He said, 'Liar!' "
His real injuries were almost as bad as the ones he hallucinated. He had a broken femur, broken jaw, broken cheekbone. His right calf was blown away. Also, his right ear couldn't hear and his right eye couldn't see.
He spent a month and a half at Walter Reed. The doctors wired his jaw shut, put a metal rod in his leg, did nine hours of surgery on his eye, reconstructed his calf, and did skin grafts.
"I've had way too many surgeries to count," he says.
He was never alone. Every night somebody stayed with him -- his mother or father or sister Marie, or his girlfriend, Jane Libert, 19, a student at McDaniel College in Maryland.
"I always had somebody to talk to," he says.
He got visits from celebrities, too. Generals came by to shake his hand and ask how he was doing. The Dave Matthews Band visited, as did players from the Washington Nationals and Colorado Rockies.
"I didn't catch their names," he says. "I was kind of high on morphine at the time. And you can't read their autographs."
One day a nurse came in to ask Rodgers if he wanted to meet President Bush, who was visiting the hospital. Rodgers declined.
"I don't want anything to do with him," he explains. "My belief is that his ego is getting people killed and mutilated for no reason -- just his ego and his reputation. If we really wanted to, we could pull out of Iraq. Maybe not completely but enough that we wouldn't be losing people -- at least not at this rate. So I think he himself is responsible for quite a few American deaths."
Bill Swisher, a spokesman for Walter Reed, says it's "fairly common" for patients to decline to see visitors. "We've had visitors from Sheryl Crow to Hulk Hogan," he says, but he has no idea how many have refused to see Bush, who has visited the hospital eight times.
Rodgers says he also declined to meet Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice. This wounded soldier has lost faith in his leaders, and he no longer believes their repeated assurances of victory.
"It's gonna go on as long as we're there," he says. "There's always gonna be insurgents trying to blow us up. There's just too many of 'em that are willing to do it. You're never gonna catch all of 'em. And it seems like they have unlimited amounts of ammunition. So I don't think it's ever gonna end."Moving On
"I can start putting weight on the leg and learn to walk again," Rodgers says.
He's lying in bed, head propped up on a pillow with an American flag design on it. He can't climb the stairs to his old bedroom so he's got a new one -- it used to be the family dining room. Next to his bed is a little table topped with three bottles of pills, a stick of Right Guard and a statue of Jesus.
He's been home for a few weeks now. He's feeling pretty good and is fairly optimistic about his future.
"I should be able to walk normally," he says. "My eye -- we really don't know about that yet. I might get some vision back. I lost most of the hearing in my right ear."
By the end of the year, he'll be out of the Army -- "medically retired" -- and he's happy about that: "I did my tour. I had my fun. Time to move on with my life."
He wants to go to school -- the Veterans Administration will pay for it, he says -- but he's not sure what he wants to study. "I've got a few ideas, but I don't know what I want to do yet."
For now, he'd like to get back on his feet and take a few weekend trips while he goes to rehab during the week. And he wants to get reacquainted with his old friends. Maybe he can tell them what Iraq is like, he says, but it won't be easy.
"They see it on TV, but they can only guess what it feels like over there," he says. "To actually be there and feel it and hear it -- I don't think many people have a clue what it's like."