Tuesday, September 23, 2008

An Iraq war veteran

Let me introduce you to Staff Sgt. Chris Edwards. He was wounded when a 500 pound bomb exploded under his Bradley as he was crossing a bridge in Iraq in April 2005 and he was burned over 79% of his body. He was presented with a Purple Heart Medal by President Bush in 2006. He is currently undergoing treatment at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas and is part of a joint venture between Brooke and UCLA entitled Operation Mend, which selects Brooke patients to bring to UCLA for reconstructive surgery.

Chris Edwards is one charismatic mofo. He's charming and delightful and makes light of his condition, although he still cannot get up alone, shower without help, or lift a cup (his fingers have been amputated on one hand and they don't bend on the other). I had the immense good fortune of meeting him on Sunday and he generously answered all my questions with his startling wit. He has the dubious honor of being the third worst burned vet to ever survive (he was irritated when his friend ousted him from the number two spot). His body cannot store fat as all his fat cells apart from those on his upper back and ankles were burned off in the accident, and he is on a 4000 calorie per day diet in order to try to get some weight on his skinny frame.

On the day of the explosion, Edwards remembers being popped out of his tank and lying on the ground burning. He saw some reeds a few feet away and reeds meant water so he crawled over and rolled himself into the filthy water (it was a ditch filled with human waste) in an attempt to put out the flames. Because of the nature of the diesel that was covering him, it floated on top of the water and set fire to the solids in the water, so all he could see was "burning shit." Two of his colleagues came to his aid ("not brightest of the bunch" he says with a grin) but were paralyzed with fear so that he had to bark orders at them in order to get a drink of water or bring a helicopter over to rescue him. "It's only painful for thirty or forty seconds," he says, "but once it's burned through the fat and nerve endings, it doesn't hurt anymore."

Once back in Bagdad, he was put into a military hospital where they induced a medical coma and then back on a plane to Texas. The last thing he remembers in the hospital in Bagdad was a lot of people fussing around him and the confusion. An older black woman, someone who reminded him of Aunt Jemima from the syrup jar, he says, a kindly woman, a nurse perhaps, lay her hands on his head and said gently, "It's all gonna be okay baby." Later, he asked about that woman but no-one could remember seeing an older black woman in the room and there were no records of a nurse that fit that description even being on the staff in that particular part of the hospital. He asked everyone he could find, but they all shook their heads. "My grandmother told me that was my Guardian Angel" he says, smiling sheepishly.

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