Terry Rodgers Came Back From Iraq a Changed Man, and Not Just Because of
"So we're driving down the road and it's midnight, so
it's pitch-black, and when you're driving at night, you don't use any lights,"
says Terry Rodgers, "but we can see fine because we've
got night vision goggles."
He's sitting in the living room of his mother's townhouse
in Gaithersburg, telling the story of his last night in Iraq. He's still
got his Army crew cut and he's wearing a T-shirt with an American flag on
"We're driving down this road and there's this tiny bridge
over a little canal," he says. "They had rigged up this bomb and
they had a tripwire running across the bridge and we hit it and it blew
Like the rest of the 13,877 Americans wounded in Iraq, Terry
Rodgers has a story to tell. He tells it in a matter-of-fact voice, like
he's talking about making a midnight pizza run or something. He's sitting
in an armchair with his right leg propped on an ottoman, the foot encased
in a soft black cast that reaches almost to the knee. His crutches are lying
on the rug beside the chair.
"The Humvee finally comes to a stop and the right side
is just torn apart and I hear my squad leader screaming, 'I think I lost
my arm!' And my best friend Maida was in the front passenger seat where
the bomb went off and he was screaming, 'Where's help? Where's help?' And
then he went quiet.
"And me, I'm trying to crawl out of the Humvee and I
get most of my body out and just this leg is stuck and I thought it must
be caught on something in the twisted metal. I look back and I see it's
just laying there on the seat, so I'm like, 'Why is it stuck?' So I try
to lift my leg up and it won't lift. I just had to pick up my leg and crawl
the rest of the way out."
He mimes the action of picking up his leg with his hands,
then he continues the story.
"I started patting myself down and that's when I noticed
that my face took some shrapnel," he says. "It was all swollen
on this side, so when I'm patting myself down, my middle finger went, like,
this deep into my cheek where the shrapnel went in."
He points to a spot about halfway down his finger, showing
how far it went into the shrapnel wound behind his right eye, which is still
pretty much blind, unable to see anything but bright light.
"Then I started checking out my leg. I knew my femur
was broken, but at that time I didn't know my calf was missing," he
says. "And that's when I hear my best friend Maida and he started heaving."
Rodgers takes a few loud, quick breaths to show what Mark
Maida sounded like.
"And he breathes like that for a few seconds and then
he just stops. And that's when he died."
Rodgers pauses a moment.
"The two trucks behind us had to stop and make sure the
area was secure before they could help us," he says. "And the
first guys that showed up saw Maida in the front seat, leaning against the
windshield and all I heard was, 'Sir, we lost Maida.'
"And then they helped my squad leader, who lost his right
arm, and then they came over and helped me. They bandaged us up . . . and
when the helicopter finally showed up, they loaded me and Maida into the
chopper and flew us to Baghdad.
"And after that, I don't remember anything till like
a week after I got to Walter Reed."
Heeding the Call
Terry Rodgers, who just turned 21, grew up in Rockville, son
of a carpenter and a courthouse clerk. After graduating from Richard Montgomery
High School in 2002, he worked as a mechanic in a Washington gas station,
then joined the Army.
"It was something I always wanted to do," he says.
"I thought it looked fun. I just wanted to get out on my own for a
while. I got kind of bored being around here. I wanted to try something
He signed up in October 2002, but he didn't go into the Army
until the following July. In between, the United States invaded Iraq, but
Rodgers didn't pay much attention to that.
"I didn't have a political view," he says. "I'm
not into politics."
He did his basic training at Fort Benning, Ga. Then his outfit
-- the 2nd Squadron, 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment -- was assigned to Fort
Irwin, Calif., in the Mojave Desert, where they played the bad guys in warfare
"Basically we would just play laser tag in the desert,"
he says. "It was kind of fun."
They deployed to Iraq this January, assigned to a town about
30 miles south of Baghdad. Two nights after they arrived, an IED -- improvised
explosive device -- blew up near their patrol base but nobody got hurt.
Later, somebody set off a car bomb on the street in front of the base.
"It didn't do anything to us Americans," he says,
"but it killed a few civilians."
Most days, Rodgers's platoon would patrol the town in Humvees,
then set up a TCP -- traffic control point -- where they'd stop cars and
search them for weapons. Or they'd do "house calls": "We'd
pick random houses and just go in and search 'em." Sometimes they'd
do a "dismounted patrol," which meant they wandered through the
streets on foot.
"We'd have an interpreter with us and we'd try to talk
to people," he says. "We didn't have any incidents when we were
out walking. The biggest incident we'd have on foot patrol is we'd be mobbed
by little kids asking us for candy. When people from back home would send
me candy, I'd always give that to the kids."
Occasionally the Americans would hear about a house where
somebody was rumored to be storing weapons or building bombs. They'd wait
until dark and raid the place.
"It was very intense and very fast," he says. "We'd
try to be as quiet as we could until we got to the front door, and then
you just have the battering ram and you open the front door and you run
in yelling and pulling your weapons and try to gain control of the house
as fast as you can."
Other patrols found illegal weapons on these raids, but Rodgers's
"We did hit the wrong house quite often," he says.
"We had these overhead maps, satellite maps, and when you're on the
street in the middle of the night, it's hard to find the right house. In
those instances, we'd say, 'Sorry,' and give 'em a card with a phone number
to call the Army and we'd pay for the damages."
In April, Rodgers's company was transferred to a tiny farming
town about 20 miles away -- a place where no Americans had been stationed.
"We started looking for a building that would be suitable
for a patrol base," he says. "And we took this building over.
There was a family living there and we had to kick 'em out. . . . They weren't
too happy about it, but there was nothing they could do."
A few days after they arrived in the little town, a Humvee
on patrol was blown up by a bomb buried on a dirt road.
"It picked up the Humvee, and when it was in the air,
it turned on its side," Rodgers says, "and my friend fell out
and the Humvee ended up landing on him and it crushed him and he was killed."
His friend was Kevin W. Prince, 22, of Plain City, Ohio.
About a week later a car approached their patrol base, and
the guys fired a few rounds to signal the driver that he should stop. He
got out. Two American soldiers searched the car. When they opened the trunk,
a bomb exploded, killing both of them.
It was scary. In three months, Rodgers's company had suffered
no casualties -- nobody killed, nobody wounded. Now they'd lost three guys
in a couple of weeks.
"We hadn't experienced anything like that before so it
was nerve-racking," he says. "You try not to think about it because
you have to get out there and keep doing the same things. Obviously if it's
gonna happen, it's gonna happen, and worrying abut it isn't going to do
you any good."
Then, on a Thursday night, May 26, Rodgers's platoon was guarding
the base when it got a call from a platoon that was patrolling the area:
They'd found a bomb and needed reinforcements.
Rodgers and about 10 other guys piled into three Humvees and
scrambled off to help. Speeding through the darkness, wearing their night
vision goggles, they came to the canal with the bridge, where the bomb was.
The Wounds of War
Rodgers was flown to Baghdad, then to Germany, then to Washington,
where he was taken to Walter Reed Army Medical Center on Memorial Day. But
he doesn't remember any of that.
"The first memories I have turn out to be hallucinations,"
he says. "I thought my leg was burned off. I thought half my face was
blown off. I thought little kids were jumping on me, stealing my eyes and
He was doped up on pain medicine that made him see things
that weren't there.
"He kept yelling at me to get the people behind him,"
his mother, Ann Rodgers, recalls. "He said, 'Get them away from me!'
I said, 'There's nobody behind you.' He asked me if I could see the back
of his eye because his face was gone. I said, 'Your face isn't gone.' He
said, 'Liar!' "
His real injuries were almost as bad as the ones he hallucinated.
He had a broken femur, broken jaw, broken cheekbone. His right calf was
blown away. Also, his right ear couldn't hear and his right eye couldn't
He spent a month and a half at Walter Reed. The doctors wired
his jaw shut, put a metal rod in his leg, did nine hours of surgery on his
eye, reconstructed his calf, and did skin grafts.
"I've had way too many surgeries to count," he says.
He was never alone. Every night somebody stayed with him --
his mother or father or sister Marie, or his girlfriend, Jane Libert, 19,
a student at McDaniel College in Maryland.
"I always had somebody to talk to," he says.
He got visits from celebrities, too. Generals came by to shake
his hand and ask how he was doing. The Dave Matthews Band visited, as did
players from the Washington Nationals and Colorado Rockies.
"I didn't catch their names," he says. "I was
kind of high on morphine at the time. And you can't read their autographs."
One day a nurse came in to ask Rodgers if he wanted to meet
President Bush, who was visiting the hospital. Rodgers declined.
"I don't want anything to do with him," he explains.
"My belief is that his ego is getting people killed and mutilated for
no reason -- just his ego and his reputation. If we really wanted to, we
could pull out of Iraq. Maybe not completely but enough that we wouldn't
be losing people -- at least not at this rate. So I think he himself is
responsible for quite a few American deaths."
Bill Swisher, a spokesman for Walter Reed, says it's "fairly
common" for patients to decline to see visitors. "We've had visitors
from Sheryl Crow to Hulk Hogan," he says, but he has no idea how many
have refused to see Bush, who has visited the hospital eight times.
Rodgers says he also declined to meet Dick Cheney, Donald
Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice. This wounded soldier has lost faith in his
leaders, and he no longer believes their repeated assurances of victory.
"It's gonna go on as long as we're there," he says.
"There's always gonna be insurgents trying to blow us up. There's just
too many of 'em that are willing to do it. You're never gonna catch all
of 'em. And it seems like they have unlimited amounts of ammunition. So
I don't think it's ever gonna end."
"I can start putting weight on the leg and learn to walk
again," Rodgers says.
He's lying in bed, head propped up on a pillow with an American
flag design on it. He can't climb the stairs to his old bedroom so he's
got a new one -- it used to be the family dining room. Next to his bed is
a little table topped with three bottles of pills, a stick of Right Guard
and a statue of Jesus.
He's been home for a few weeks now. He's feeling pretty good
and is fairly optimistic about his future.
"I should be able to walk normally," he says. "My
eye -- we really don't know about that yet. I might get some vision back.
I lost most of the hearing in my right ear."
By the end of the year, he'll be out of the Army -- "medically
retired" -- and he's happy about that: "I did my tour. I had my
fun. Time to move on with my life."
He wants to go to school -- the Veterans Administration will
pay for it, he says -- but he's not sure what he wants to study. "I've
got a few ideas, but I don't know what I want to do yet."
For now, he'd like to get back on his feet and take a few
weekend trips while he goes to rehab during the week. And he wants to get
reacquainted with his old friends. Maybe he can tell them what Iraq is like,
he says, but it won't be easy.
"They see it on TV, but they can only guess what it feels
like over there," he says. "To actually be there and feel it and
hear it -- I don't think many people have a clue what it's like."
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