As a lawyer in the Marine Corps, Lt. Col. John Ewers headed out on an unusual mission in southern Iraq last week: looking for the father of an injured Iraqi boy flown out on a helicopter for emergency treatment the day before.
The last thing the 19-year veteran was expecting, he said, was a firefight. Suddenly, rocket-propelled grenades and small-arms fire exploded around the Marines' two Humvees.
"I don't like to say we were ambushed, because we expected contact -- but we got ambushed," Ewers said yesterday.
The Marines sped off, turning right, right again, and then right once more before turning left into another burst of gunfire that raked their vehicle, hitting Ewers in both arms and one of his feet.
"At each turn, we were hit with another attack, similar to the first," Ewers, 43, said yesterday at a news conference at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda.
Ewers, who grew up in Bethesda, said he was surprised both by how well the attack had been organized and by its intensity. But he also said his first brush with combat March 23 had not shaken his belief that he was part of a "righteous" cause.
Ewers, assigned to the headquarters battalion of the 1st Marine Division, and nine other wounded Marines received Purple Hearts from Gen. William L. "Spider" Nyland, the assistant Marine Corps commandant, yesterday in a private ceremony at the Navy hospital. Afterward, Ewers and two others -- Cpl. Brent Gross, 26, of Austin and Lance Cpl. Joel Norman, 20, from the Chicago area -- met with reporters and related their experiences of coming under fire. All were from the 1st Marine Division, based at Camp Pendleton in California.
Gross, wearing his Purple Heart pinned to the front of a bright-orange Texas Longhorns T-shirt, said he had been clearing bunkers in an undisclosed location in Iraq on March 21 when he stepped on a land mine. He joked that he had just told the Marines in his command to be careful and follow him when the mine exploded.
"It's a good thing they didn't," Gross said, sitting in a wheelchair with his right foot propped straight out. While expressing relief that his wounds were not more severe, he also said he was unhappy that he will not be able to rejoin his squad.
"I'm pretty upset about that. I believe I need to be out there with my unit," he said. "I promised I'd be there to bring them all back alive, and now I'm not there."
Gross, a machine gunner, said doctors told him they will have to implant screws and metal plates to hold the fractured bones in his foot together.
"I still got my foot," he said. "I thank God every day I still have everything."
His father, Larry Gross, said in a brief interview that his son was in terrific pain but was doing well. "His foot is pretty messed up," he said.
Norman, who said he has been a Marine about 3/2 years, was wounded while engaging in urban combat in an undisclosed area in southern Iraq on March 20, the first day of the ground offensive.
His unit was working to halt attacks against convoys, he said, and had captured about 80 Iraqi prisoners. While going room-to-room in an office building, Norman said, he used his weapon to smash the window of a locked door, shattering glass that sliced tendons in his left wrist.
A total of 14 Marines and one Navy corpsman have arrived at the Bethesda hospital in the past four days after being flown from Landstuhl Army Medical Center at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, said Capt. David Ferguson, the Bethesda hospital's director of restorative care.
Two Marines, whom he declined to identify, were in intensive care, listed in critical but stable condition. Ferguson said both were expected to make a "good recovery." The three who met with reporters yesterday arrived Friday night, he said.
About 950 members of Bethesda Naval Medical Command's personnel have been deployed to the USNS Comfort, a hospital ship sent to Iraq, Ferguson said. To replace them, the U.S. Naval Reserve has called up about 650 doctors, nurses and corpsmen. About 450 have arrived, Ferguson said.