Manassas Journal Messenger | It’s a long road back for injured soldier
WALTER REED ARMY MEDICAL CENTER, Washington — The physical-therapy room was filling up when Dean W. Schwartz walked in, a slight hitch in his gait from the blue titanium leg fitted to his left thigh.
The leg was temporary. So was his time here, six months after a rocket-propelled grenade blew off his leg on a bomb-pocked road in Mosul, in northern Iraq.
Sgt. Robert Faulk motioned toward an empty cot next to an older veteran with graying temples and no right leg. “You can have a spot here if you like, next to Superman,” Faulk said.
Schwartz’s T-shirt read “Paradise Lounge,” a memento of a trip to San Diego for a triathlon featuring “challenged athletes.” He’s one of them now, a wounded veteran learning to run on an artificial leg and carry on with his life. In just a few days, he will have completed the New York City Marathon on a hand-cranked cycle in a little more than 2 hours, 46 minutes.
The physical therapy room at Walter Reed is one place where the sacrifice of war comes home. Here, the enormity of war is revealed in the soldiers who return wounded and changed — more than 9,000, according to the Pentagon’s estimate. An untold number return with their bodies whole, but their minds in peril, their hearts in darkness.
Here, the wounds are apparent. One veteran hobbled the length of the room slowly on crutches. His lower right leg was gone. His mangled left foot was set in a cage-like brace.
This is the world that cartoonist Garry Trudeau studied firsthand and depicted in the “Doonesbury” saga of B.D., who, like Schwartz, lost a leg in an RPG attack in Iraq. In fact, Schwartz met Trudeau more than once in the amputee ward and physical therapy department at Walter Reed.
The mood, though, is more like a locker room than a hospital. The staff stays upbeat, and so do the guys, some of them double-amputees, all of them sweating out their exercise routines. The humor can be rough.
The older guy next to Schwartz yells at a teasing orderly, “You know I’ll get up and beat you with this stump!”
Schwartz is 22. He wrestled and played football in high school in Charlotte County. He kayaked and climbed mountains in college in Wise County.
He’s ready to get back to something like normal. When Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld visited him in the amputee ward at Walter Reed, Schwartz told him, “I can’t change what happened. I’m going forward. I’m going back to college.”
But Schwartz also knows that the world outside Walter Reed won’t always understand him the way the people inside do.
“You’ve got people [here] you can relate to,” he said. “It’s kind of hard when you leave. … Everybody back home doesn’t know about all this stuff.”
One day after the presidential election, Walter Reed had treated 194 amputees since the beginning of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Based on the Soviet Union’s experience in Afghanistan two decades ago, the hospital was bracing for as many as 500 to 1,000.
But that was before the U.S. assault on the Iraqi insurgent stronghold of Fallujah and the counterattacks in other parts of the country, including Mosul, where Schwartz’s company, part of the National Guard’s 276th Engineer Battalion, is stationed.
Four members of the 276th, including one in his company, suffered minor injuries recently during attacks in and around Mosul. Soldiers in the battalion have received 26 Purple Hearts since arriving in Iraq in March.
U.S. military and veterans hospitals are “not prepared right now,” said his mother, Deanna Schwartz, from their home near Keysville in Southside Virginia. “They’ve never had this many coming home wounded instead of dead.”
Her son probably would have been among the dead if he had received this wound in Vietnam, she said. He probably would have bled to death. As it happened, he needed five units of blood and a heroic effort by the men in his platoon to survive.
Schwartz was wounded on May 8. His platoon, part of B Company, was fixing a road that had been cratered by a remote-controlled bomb. Two soldiers had been killed in that explosion.
That wasn’t a good omen. Neither was the absence of the Iraqi work crew that was supposed to meet them there. “They never showed up,” Schwartz said. “They obviously knew something was going to happen.”
Normally, Schwartz operated the machine gun on the five-ton armored truck. He had switched places with Eric Turner, a Guardsman from St. Paul in Southwest Virginia.
Schwartz thinks the grenade was fired at the truck from a junkyard near the road. “Nobody saw it coming,” he said. “Nobody heard it coming.”
The explosion ripped open the side of the truck and blew out Schwartz’s right eardrum. The grenade sheered off his left leg below the knee and peppered his right forearm with shrapnel.
The heat of the blast was so intense that it cauterized and deadened the nerves in his shattered leg. Initially, he didn’t feel much pain. He even tried to stand up to respond in case of small-arms fire.
Turner was hit with shrapnel and couldn’t stand. Timothy “TJ” Richey, a former Midlothian High School football star and classmate of Schwartz at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise, jumped in the truck and manned the gun.
The driver, Cpl. Bobby Hall of Richlands, was hit, too. He later told Schwartz that he blacked out. Somehow, though, he made the 20-minute trip to the field hospital in eight minutes.
Meanwhile, Schwartz’s comrades were working to save his life. He remembers fumbling with the bandages from his kit. Sgt. James Spurlock, a Big Stone Gap resident who wasn’t even supposed to be on the mission, “slapped the bandage out of my hand and took his belt off,” he recalled.
Spurlock cinched the belt around Schwartz’s leg. Another U.Va.-Wise classmate, Joel Williamson, who joined the Guard the same day in early 2002, worked on the leg as they drove.
“I was telling [Spurlock], I was a little sleepy,” Schwartz said. “He said, ‘You’re not going to sleep.’ “
In Keysville, Deanna Schwartz woke suddenly at 4 a.m., about the same time of the attack, eight hours ahead in Mosul. “All I said was, ‘God be with my boy,’ ” she said.
Dean is one of six children in a military family. His father, Ed Schwartz Jr., spent 20 years in the Navy. One brother, Ed Schwartz III, or “Trey,” is in the Navy. Another brother, Kenneth, was in the Marines. The four of them had their picture taken together in uniform last Christmas, before Dean left for Fort Dix, N.J., on his way to Iraq.
The day after Dean was wounded, the Schwartz family was together, celebrating Deanna’s new master’s degree in English from Longwood College.
The phone rang. Ed Jr. answered. It was Dean, calling from Kuwait.
“All of a sudden, I saw my husband’s face drop,” Deanna Schwartz said.
Dean told his father that he had been hit the day before but “90 percent of him was all right,” his mother said. When his father asked about the “other 10 percent,” Dean replied, “It’s still in Iraq.”
Dean Schwartz and TJ Richey walked along the 50-yard line to midfield at Carl Smith Stadium on the first Saturday of October, homecoming weekend.
They were two of the 24 students honored by the college for service in Iraq and Afghanistan. Three members of the football team, including Richey, were among the names read.
In the stands, Deanna and Ed Schwartz couldn’t hold back the tears.
They had good reason to cry. Dean had walked to midfield without a cane, the first time he had walked unaided since losing his leg in May. He just had left Walter Reed Army Medical Center on leave after almost five months of surgery, recovery and rehabilitation.
The grenade had taken his leg off below the knee. Doctors at Walter Reed removed the knee to the thigh. They fit him with a computerized artificial leg, a temporary measure until what was left of his real leg became stable enough for a final prosthesis.
Dean and TJ’s homecoming was emotional for the school, too. Many of its students are members of the National Guard. Most of them need financial aid; many are the first of their family to attend college.
Guard service is one way to pay for school and one reason that, despite the financial need, U.Va.-Wise has the lowest average debt per student on graduation of any liberal-arts college in the country, according to rankings by U.S. News & World Report.
That’s why Schwartz joined the Guard on Feb. 11, 2002, as the country prepared for war in Afghanistan against the terrorists who had struck with such devastating success exactly five months earlier. His tuition would be paid, as well as part of his room and board.
His best friend, Andy Corbett of Poquoson, and Joel Williamson joined the same day. Another classmate, Todd Winstanley joined three days later, on Valentine’s Day.
Traditionally, service in the Guard requires camp in the summer and one weekend of service a month. Members of the Guard usually help manage natural disasters — floods, fire, and hurricanes.
“This is called the National Guard, not the International Guard,” Deanna Schwartz said.
She worries that cutbacks have left the military without enough people for the jobs facing them abroad. She worries about a “back-door draft” that is putting reservists in harm’s way in foreign wars.
“I think the National Guard is going in a different direction now than it ever did before,” she said. “I think they need to prepare the families.”
Good information was hard to get for the Schwartz family after they learned of Dean’s injury. His mother knew one of his lungs had collapsed and he was running a high fever in Germany, but said she ran into a wall because of medical-privacy law.
They found out indirectly that Dean was being flown to Andrews Air Force Base in Washington for treatment at Walter Reed. When he landed at Andrews, his mother said he was listed as still being in Mosul.
“Parents are going in blind,” she said. “We were told, do not show up at the hospital until you get permission. … We went anyway.”
The Schwartzes got to Walter Reed at midnight the day Dean arrived. The next day, Deanna Schwartz walked into the room, past the doctors to her smiling son. “Give me a hug, kid,” she said.
Autumn had settled over Southside Virginia. In Charlotte County, the high school homecoming parade is a ritual combining school spirit and Halloween theatrics.
Dean Schwartz perched atop the back seat of a red convertible as the parade’s grand marshal. While waiting for the parade to begin, he goofed with old friends from Randolph-Henry High School.
He was showing off his $80,000 artificial leg. “It turns around, too,” he joked, twisting the leg, with sock and shoe, backwards and up.
It wasn’t all joking, though. “I never realized just how much my knee did,” he told Josh Hunsucker, a graduate from Randolph-Henry last year expecting to be deployed abroad next spring with his Air Force unit.
Schwartz had driven to Charlotte County from Walter Reed that day with his girlfriend, Emily Phipps of Abingdon. All week he had been learning to run on his new leg and preparing to become “a 22-year-old retiree.”
At his home near Keysville, he showed Emily the wooden cabinets his grandfather had built. A blue banner was draped ceremoniously over a chair in the front room of the log cabin. Part of the script was in Arabic. In English, it said, “Operation Iraqi Freedom, March 1–May 8, 2004. To Dean Schwartz, the last deep blue hero.”
The banner, echoing a line from the movie “Armageddon,” came from Andy Corbett. Corbett is still in Iraq with the 276th Engineer Battalion. Schwartz talked to him not long ago, but the conversation was brief.
Schwartz has been making the rounds as a wounded war hero. He gave the Veterans Day speech at his old high school. A few days later, he spoke to the local American Legion chapter. He represented the National Guard at a ground-breaking ceremony this month for a new prosthetic and advanced-rehabilitation unit at Walter Reed.
He’s trying to resume his college education. He has finished only three semesters because of two Army deployments. He needs to complete work on four courses to be ready for next semester.
“It’s frustrating,” his mother said. “He wants to get back … to normal life. For Dean, the college is normal life.”
After much paper-shuffling, Schwartz retired from the Army and the Guard on Nov. 6. He’ll receive 60 percent of his active-duty pay while waiting for the Veterans Affairs system to assess him and establish a new level of disability pay.
His mother worries about the stress and trauma that may lurk beneath his placid, imperturbable surface. She has noticed that his temper is shorter. He’s less open to chatting and prone to the occasional fit of panic. He’s tired.
The man who makes and fits the artificial legs, Dr. Dennis E. Clark, said Schwartz will come through the ordeal better than most.
Clark, owner of a prosthetic practice, has spent four-day weeks at Walter Reed for more than a year, working with Schwartz and others who have lost arms and legs to combat wounds.
“He gets it,” Clark said of Schwartz. “He’s got the physical, mental, and emotional capacity to manage his way through this.
“He will have no constraints in his life.”