As U.S. preparations continue for a war against Iraq, there are reminders lying in hospital beds at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington of an often overlooked but ongoing fight in Afghanistan.
One of them is Staff Sgt. Michael McNaughton.
McNaughton, 31, a platoon sergeant in the Louisiana National Guard's 769th Engineer Battalion, was sent last summer with his unit to Afghanistan, where they worked clearing mines and unexploded ordnance at Bagram Air Base north of Kabul.
McNaughton had served previously in the active Army. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he joined the National Guard. "I wanted to help any way I could," he said.
On Jan. 9, McNaughton was working with a team of Polish sappers, checking an area that was thought to be cleared of mines. He was following the path of a Polish major and, when the officer turned to the right, McNaughton followed.
McNaughton knew he had stepped on a mine even before he hit the ground.
"When I stepped on it, I felt everything," he said. "I knew what happened. I knew I was screaming."
He lay on his back on the ground, looking up at the sky. He watched as the Poles probed their way across the ground that separated them to reach McNaughton and then start first aid. "They were devastated at what happened," he said.
A medic put a tourniquet on his leg. "Oh, Mike! Oh, Mike," the medic kept crying.
The Poles rushed him to a tent hospital for surgery.
McNaughton remembers raising his leg, but it didn't feel right. It felt light. "I knew I was going to be an amputee," he said.
Before being evacuated to Germany, then on to Walter Reed, McNaughton put out the word to his platoon to carry on. "I wanted to make sure they knew I was okay, and don't worry about me," he said. "No matter what happens to me, they still had to do mine-clearing."
At Walter Reed, McNaughton was reunited with his wife, Kim. "That was pretty much it," he said. "I knew everything was going to be okay."
But much remained ahead. Surgeons at Walter Reed had to amputate more of his leg, taking it above the knee. He also lost two fingers on his right hand and suffered shrapnel wounds in his left leg in the explosion. McNaughton has had seven surgeries in all, some rougher than others. The third one was so painful, "they kept giving me morphine," he said.
Though he has usually been upbeat, at times his spirits have sunk. "There were a couple of times I did break down," he said. "I worry about what's ahead."
Visits from other amputees at Walter Reed did a lot to raise his spirits. "I talked to a couple of Special Forces guys who lost their arms," he said. "The thing they said was, 'It's okay to cry.' "
McNaughton has heard from other service members and veterans who are missing limbs, including a Vietnam vet who lost his leg. "It's kind of like we're in a club now," he said.
At Walter Reed, McNaughton has received a steady stream of high-ranking visitors, among them Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld; Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, Army Chief of Staff , who lost part of a leg in Vietnam; and Gen. John M. Keane, vice chief of staff for the Army.
Drag racer Tony Schumacher, driver of the Army-sponsored car in National Hot Rod Association events, has stopped by.
Then there was the visit by President Bush, who spent about 10 minutes talking to McNaughton and invited the soldier to go for a run with him once he has an artificial leg.
McNaughton has been selected to receive a special computerized prosthesis, the first time the Army has tried one with an amputee. "I'm kind of honored that they picked me," he said.
"Once they put it on, they'll pretty much have to hold me down to keep me here," McNaughton said.
McNaughton plans to return to his home in Denham Springs, La., and to his job with an electrical engineering company. He is unsure whether he will be able to stay in the National Guard.
"I love the military. I don't know if I can get out completely," McNaughton said. "Some people say, 'He doesn't have a leg.' I say, give me a leg, I'll max out the PT [physical training] test."
Added McNaughton, "I'm going to be able to do whatever I did before -- and probably more."
Guard, Reservists Mobilize for Action
Fighter aircraft and crews from the D.C. National Guard have mobilized from Andrews Air Force Base to join in a possible attack on Iraq.
A detachment of more than 200 airmen, along with F-16s from the D.C. Guard's 121st Fighter Squadron, are being sent overseas in support of the U.S. Central Command, the military command overseeing preparations for a war with Iraq, according to Brig. Gen. David Wherley, acting commander of the D.C. National Guard.
Most fighter pilots look forward to it, despite the anxiety of being separated from their families, Wherley said.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the squadron began flying combat air patrols over the Washington area, where it will continue to be on alert to respond to potential threats, Wherley said.
Meanwhile, about 170 Air Force reservists from the 459th Airlift Wing at Andrews were recently mobilized. The call-up includes pilots, flight engineers, loadmasters, and maintenance and administrative personnel.
The call-up also includes 20 aeromedical evacuation nurses and technicians, who specialize in stabilizing patients and preparing them for air evacuation as quickly as possible.
"To support Air Force needs, we've been tasked to go beyond the limits of volunteerism; we're well-trained, we're ready, and we're willing to serve," said Col. Richard Severson, the 459th Airlift Wing commander.
Military Matters appears in the Extra twice each month. Steve Vogel can be reached at email@example.com.