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.
"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.
Simpson's father, Eugene Sr., spent 20 years in the Army and was influential in his son's decision to enlist. Simpson joined the Army on Feb. 12, 1998, and went through basic training at Fort Knox, in Kentucky. Once he joined, he knew he wanted to be a "tanker."
His father had administrative duties in the Army, and Simpson was sure that he didn't want to sit behind a desk. "That wasn't me," he said with a laugh. "I wanted more action and rough going, and so I decided to go into tanking."
Once he settled into Army life, he discovered that he had found his place. He met his wife in Germany when he was introduced by an Army buddy who was dating her best friend.
"I loved the military," he said, "for the person that it made me become. Before, I was always a strong person, but once I got into the military, I learned more discipline, more leadership skills and how to interact with different people. It really opened up my personality."
He became a tank commander, and storming along in a 72-ton tank gave him as much satisfaction as sinking the winning shot at the buzzer.
He was deployed to Iraq on Feb 12. His unit spent a couple of weeks training in Kuwait before moving into Iraq. Because it had no tanks, training was done in Humvees. On April 7, he was on a routine patrol in Tikrit when he spotted the man with the remote control. Sitting in the front passenger seat, he tried to raise his rifle to shoot the man. Before he could get off a shot, there was an explosion five feet from the Humvee, which had no doors.
Time slowed down as the shrapnel pierced his body. "Really slowed down," he said, "like 'The Matrix.' " Finally, time returned to normal, and he could not feel anything below his waist. "I was afraid to look," he said, "because I thought my legs were gone."
He has undergone eight surgeries, learned how to drive with hand controls and passed his driver's test. A positive attitude gets him through each day. He is never not in pain. But he is looking forward. And dreaming of playing basketball in the wheelchair Olympics. Today is his first real Veterans Day, the first one on which he realizes what the day really means.