Master Sgt. Luis Rodriguez, Back from Iraq
ALEX CHADWICK, host:
Since the war in Iraq began three years ago, more than 2,300 U.S. Troops have been killed. A less well-known figure is 17,000. That's the number of American Troops wounded in Iraq. Often, these men and women face years of painful recovery and an uncertain future. NPR's Eric Weiner has the story of one wounded soldier.
ERIC WEINER reporting:
Some people deliberate long and hard before joining the armed forces. Luis Rodriguez, born and raised in Puerto Rico, deliberated for about five minutes.
Master Sargeant LUIS RODRIGUEZ (U.S. Army): My grandfather was in World War II. My father served 23 years, and then, of course, I kind of picked up from there.
WEINER: Rodriguez became an Army medic, drawn by his desire to help others, and by the fact that he doesn't flinch at the sight of blood.
In November 2003, Rodriguez was stationed in Mosul in Northern Iraq. One morning, he and several other medics were heading to a local hospital, checking out reports that children there were dying of leukemia. His convoy, though, didn't get far--only a few hundred yards--when an IED, a roadside bomb, exploded just three feet away.
Sgt. RODRIGUEZ: What I felt was somebody putting a metal bucket over my head, and hitting me with a baseball bat. The ring that stays there for a little while, that's what I felt right away. Right after that, there was sporadic fire. We started taking small-arm fire from the enemy. It was pretty tough. I was in pretty bad shape. One of the soldiers pulled me out of the truck and put a tourniquet, and I asked about my leg, and there was silence. And I got pissed off and I cursed out, I said where's my (censored) leg? And my first sergeant (inaudible), which is a guy that knows me for a long time, he said Rod, your leg is not there.
WEINER: Rodriguez was bleeding heavily. As a medic, he knew his life was in danger.
Sgt. RODRIGUEZ: I didn't want to die there. That's what I prayed for. I didn't want--I don't want to die here. I want to see my kids. I want to see my wife.
WEINER: Rodriguez, like most seriously wounded troops, then under went a circuitous journey: first to Baghdad, then to a U.S. Army base in Germany, and finally to Walter Reid Army Hospital in Maryland, where he spent four long months recovering.
Sgt. RODRIGUEZ: I was doing pretty good until I was told that my infection was spreading, and my wounds were not healing, so they'd have to cut more of my leg off. That was the point that really brought me down. But after that, it was a process of coping, you know, with the situation. And when you concentrate and you start thinking about the things that you have instead of thinking about the things that you do not have, it makes it easier for you to move on. And I want to give you an example of this. I miss a leg, you are truly right. But I will look to my right, and the guy sitting next to me is missing two legs. And the guy that is missing two legs can look to his left, and the guy sitting on the left is missing two legs and one arm. And the guy missing two legs and one arm look to the right, and the guy sitting on the right has no vision.
WEINER: That's a point that Rodriguez makes over and over again. Whatever you do, do not feel sorry for him.
Sgt. RODRIGUEZ: I think that there is no better way, and I'm not saying that it's good for you to lose a limb, but there's no better way to lose a limb for soldier than in the middle of a fight, when you're trying to take the enemy. You go down doing what you like to do. The fact that, the day that I got hit, my guys were able to kill one of the enemy guys and wounded like three of them and captured a whole bunch of them. That made me feel good.
WEINER: Any reporter who's ever tried to illicit an opinion, any opinion, from an active duty soldier is often greeted with an old joke. If the Army wanted us to have an opinion, they would have issued us one. But Sergeant Rodriguez is not afraid to give his opinion. He has these words of advice for the nation's political leaders.
Sgt. RODRIGUEZ: You need to understand that having a military like the United States has is a gift. Do not abuse that. Use them wisely.
WEINER: Given the extent of his injuries, Master Sergeant Luis Rodriguez could retire from the Army with full disability. But he's decided to stay on. He teaches other combat medics at Fort Campbell in Kentucky. His students, he says, pay attention to his every word. Eric Weiner, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.