Monday, July 4, 2005

FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. — Ten months after a roadside bomb cut short his deployment to Iraq, Army Spc. Steven Moore sat alone in his car and finally let himself cry.

He had come to terms with his injury — blindness in the left eye caused by shrapnel from the explosion. It had been harder to swallow the separation from his adopted family, the 463rd Military Police Company’s 1st Platoon.

“The one good thing about the military is that it gives you a sense of family,” says Spc. Moore, 19, who is from Gretna, Va. “And then if you can’t be with your family at all times, you don’t feel like you’re part of anything at all.”

First Platoon — nicknamed the Raiders — deployed to Iraq in June 2004, attached to the Army’s 10th Mountain Division, 2nd Brigade. Spc. Moore last saw his MP buddies Aug. 22, when, bloodied and bandaged, he was rushed to a field hospital in Baghdad.

Now, more than 10 months later, Spc. Moore’s nerves get the best of him as he stands at the airport in Topeka, Kan., preparing for a reunion. He exhales sharply, trying to expel the tension. He tells himself not to cry.

“This is going to be the longest 20 minutes of my life,” he says.

On the flight from Kuwait, Spc. Moore’s 36 friends and brothers in arms are thinking about him. When they land, they’ll scoop up wives, kiss their babies and let their mothers hold them for longer than usual.

But for now, Spc. Moore comes first, and the 33 men and three women talk about the soldier whose sacrifice on a Baghdad road had made them better soldiers.

“Moore’s gonna be there,” Staff Sgt. Allen Ward, 30, announces. “Hell, yeah.”

At the airport, Spc. Moore clears a path toward the gate.

“I can’t wait any longer,” he says.

Each arriving Raider gets a hug, sun-baked uniforms crackling as Spc. Moore pats shoulders. Pfc. Jarrett Brown, his best friend, is first. The 20-year-old from Mishawaka, Ind., hands Spc. Moore a M-249 light machine gun, the same type of weapon he had carried in Iraq. It feels good in his hands.

Then comes Pfc. Jesus Castro, 21, Spc. Moore’s old roommate and the soldier at the wheel of the Humvee when two roadside bombs exploded. Next, Sgt. Ward, who bandaged his wounds, squeezes Spc. Moore in a tight embrace.

Spc. Moore spots Spc. Brian Woods, 21, the medic from Shreveport, La., who had stayed by his side in the hours after the explosion.

“Woods!” calls out 1st Sgt. Bill Hutchings. “You kept him alive. I like you.”

On Aug. 22, Spc. Moore had been in Iraq for five weeks. He was a private and the gunner in a Humvee that was bringing up the rear in a line of five on patrol in a neighborhood of western Baghdad, a new assignment for the Raiders.

“We were almost done,” recalls Pfc. Castro, of Eloy, Ariz.

Sgt. Ward, the squad leader from Milton, Pa., sat behind Pfc. Castro while Spc. Moore stood in the gun turret, his upper body exposed, and Sgt. Brian Bender sat in the front passenger seat.

Sgt. Ward noticed something odd as their Humvee rounded a corner.

“Where is all the damn traffic?” he asked himself. It was noon in a city of 5 million, and he didn’t see any cars.

The thought lingered even as an explosion rocked the Humvee. Spc. Moore fell into Sgt. Ward’s lap. Smoke blackened the air.

“You all right, dude?” Sgt. Ward asked.

“I think so,” Spc. Moore replied. “I just can’t open my eye.”

“No, you’re not, dude,” Sgt. Ward told him. “You’re bleeding all over me.”

Back at Camp Victory, also in western Baghdad, Sgt. Ward’s voice crackled over the radio in the operations center as he commanded the Humvees to keep moving: “Push through! Push through! Push through!” The rest of the platoon scrambled to respond to the news that one of their own was down.

As the Raiders’ only medic, Spc. Woods was standing by to treat the first casualty of his career. When Sgt. Ward asked for a volunteer to ride with Spc. Moore to the 31st Combat Support Hospital in the green zone, the coalition’s heavily fortified main base in Baghdad, Spc. Woods didn’t hesitate.

“I’ll stay with him,” he said. “I’m his medic.”

Bandages covering both eyes, Spc. Moore was strapped to a stretcher for the ride on a Black Hawk helicopter. In the oppressive heat, he struggled against the restraints.

It had been a relatively calm day by Baghdad standards, and the doctors at the hospital were ready to help. In the hospital, Spc. Woods squeezed Spc. Moore by the the hand. “I should have been there with you,” he said.

A CT scan revealed a dime-sized piece of shrapnel behind Spc. Moore’s left eye, dangerously close to the optic nerve. The ophthalmologist broke the bad news: The blindness in that eye would be permanent.

Spc. Moore stayed overnight before being airlifted to a U.S. military hospital in Germany for surgery. Spc. Woods made sure his charge was comfortable, tucking green wool blankets around his 6-foot-4 frame as it curled into a fetal position.

Col. Mark Milley of Winchester, Mass., commander of the 2nd Brigade, brought a small velveteen case to Spc. Moore’s bedside and leaned in close to present him with the Purple Heart.

“You’re going home,” Col. Milley, 47, whispered, then kissed Spc. Moore on the forehead.

Outside, the colonel’s gaze turned to steel as he surveyed the hospital corridor. “Eighteen [expletive] years old,” he said to no one in particular.

Before the morphine helped him sleep, Spc. Moore recalls, he realized his dream of a military career had come to a halt.

Steven Moore had grown up the youngest of three children in Gretna, about 130 miles southwest of Richmond. His father wasn’t around. After joining the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) as a sophomore in high school, “He found himself,” his mother, Patricia, recalls.

With the war in Iraq approaching, he went to talk with an Army recruiter.

“It was just something I felt I wanted to do,” he says. “Something was missing in my life, and it was something that made it feel like it would be complete.”

On his 17th birthday — Dec. 12, 2002 — Steven joined the Army as part of the delayed-entry program, which allows recruits to enlist up to a year before reporting for active duty. He graduated from high school in June 2003 and left for basic training the next month.

After Spc. Moore was wounded, Capt. Michael Hunter, commander of the 463rd, reached the young soldier’s mother by telephone about 5:30 p.m. She was in her bedroom.

” ‘Your son’s been injured in Baghdad,’” Ms. Moore recalls Capt. Hunter saying. “I said, ‘What?’ He explained to me what happened, but it was in military lingo.

“Then Hunter told me he was awake, ambulatory and on a regular diet. As long as he can eat, it kind of let me know he is stable.”

The plane carrying Spc. Moore back from the hospital in Germany landed Sept. 2 at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois. Capt. Hunter and Sgt. Hutchings greeted the plane, bringing along a new desert camouflage uniform with Spc. Moore’s name stitched into the breast pocket.

“Tell them not to send my gear home,” Spc. Moore said to his commanders. “I want to go back.”

Losing the sight in one eye would not keep him from serving in the military, but it meant he would not be sent to a combat zone. He would be assigned to administrative tasks.

For months, he says, he could not accept that he would not go back to the fight in Iraq. When platoon Sgt. Marcus Ferguson came home on leave, a man-to-man talk was in order.

“Hold out your right arm,” Sgt. Ferguson instructed Spc. Moore. “What can you see? Now hold out your left arm. What can you see?”

“That pretty much ended the conversation,” Spc. Moore recalls.

Sgt. Hutchings and Capt. Hunter tried to keep Spc. Moore focused on responsibilities at company headquarters. He was promoted from private first class to specialist, but still had trouble accepting the reality of his new life. When his bloodied uniform was sent home, he didn’t open the bag.

The scars are barely visible now. At first, though, Spc. Moore avoided mirrors. “I’m looking in the mirror,” he explains, “but that eye isn’t seeing anything; it’s just there.”

He also could not stand to see the reflection of himself in the faces of others. It started in the Baghdad hospital, when fellow Raiders visited. He thought it was as if they were looking at a dead man.

“I didn’t need everyone else stressing about it,” he says.

He put his mother on notice when she picked him up at the airport back home in Virginia. “One tear,” he warned, “and I’m back on the plane.”

Late one beer-soaked night after the rest of the Raiders have returned from Iraq, Spc. Moore stops by a house party and finds Pfc. Michael Phillips, 23, reclining in an armchair.

“Don’t even start, man, or you know I’ll get started,” Spc. Moore threatens as Pfc. Phillips, of Santa Fe, Texas, covers his face and weeps.

He avoided starting new friendships with other soldiers after returning to Fort Leonard Wood. “I didn’t want to get close to anyone before they deployed,” he says.

In Iraq, Spc. Moore had manned the M-240 Bravo machine gun mounted to the roof of a Humvee. As a gunner, he stood guard in the turret — upper body outside the protective shell of the vehicle — ready to respond to the enemy with heavy fire.

Back at the base in Missouri, he tried not to inflame the worries of the wives of other Raiders. Unlike them, he knew exactly how dangerous the mission could be.

“I’m not carrying any bodies off the plane, so that means all of you are going to live,” he recalls warning the rest of the platoon.

The Raiders lived with that resolve. An investigation of the bombing that wounded Spc. Moore revealed that it could have been much worse: Two of the four 105 mm artillery shells laid by the bomber did not explode, and Spc. Moore was the only soldier hit.

Sgt. Ward says the wounding of Spc. Moore had an immediate effect on the members of the platoon: They knew the enemy could strike them, and they became more wary.

“It let us know that this was not another Honduras, another Bosnia, another peacekeeping mission,” Sgt. Ward says. “It’s an Iraqi trip, and it put us all on alert.”

The constant vigilance took its toll.

“When we’d come back from outside the wire,” he says, “we’d be so mentally exhausted.”

After Spc. Moore went home, the platoon rewrote tactics: Gunners no longer would stand tall in the turret. The tough-guy stance was tightened, hunkered down, to reduce exposure to harm.

Pfc. Castro recalls how Spc. Moore took his wife, Veronica, aside the day the Raiders left for Iraq. He promised to bring her husband home alive.

“In more than one way,” Pfc. Castro says, “he brought me home.”

Copyright © 2023 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide