Wednesday, January 25, 2006

BALAD AIR BASE, Iraq — The powerful legs that carried him through battle lay stretched before him, motionless underneath a blanket. The broad shoulders and bulging forearms that once easily carried an 80-pound machine gun lay limp at his sides. Somewhere in Iraq, those who tried to kill him wait to finish the job.

Capt. Furat, 28, struggles to sort out a life that was shattered Christmas Day in an ambush by gunmen disguised as Iraqi soldiers while he was visiting his family.

His wounds are slowly beginning to heal. The surgical staples holding his abdomen together are gone.

He somehow survived the destruction of 12 bullets, but one of them cut through his spinal cord, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down.

“I am a dream. My future is very dark. These are the legs of Captain Furat,” he said.

Other wounds include a bullet-shattered arm. They will heal but the paralysis is permanent. His family and doctors are searching for a solution to the next hurdle.

Normally, once an Iraqi patient is stable, he is transferred to a local hospital for follow-up care. But the news of Capt. Furat’s survival traveled quickly through Muqdadiyah.

His family fears the killers will finish the job when he leaves this heavily guarded American base for a local hospital protected only by a few Iraqi policemen.

Col. Elisha Powell, commander of the 332nd Expeditionary Medical Group that runs the hospital, said Capt. Furat will stay there until he recovers.

The Air Force Theater Hospital in Balad is the busiest field hospital in Iraq. It consists of a sea of tents that house everything from state-of-the art operating rooms to patient wards with up to 10 beds per tent.

96 percent survive

“If you come here alive, you have a 96 percent chance of leaving here alive,” said Col. Powell.

Americans typically are stabilized and flown to Landstuhl Regional Medical Facility in Germany for follow-up treatment, then on to the United States.

Though 70 percent of patients here are Americans, the hospital also treats Iraqi security forces and civilians.

Iraqis like Capt. Furat are usually transferred to Iraqi hospitals or sent home when they are well enough.

Now that he is stable, he will need to learn to use his arms and upper body to lift himself and use a wheelchair. But before that can happen, his right arm must heal, and that could take up to eight months.

“He doesn’t fit the typical patient that we usually see,” said Lt. Col. Jim Keeney, one of the hospital’s orthopedic surgeons.

He fought the enemy

A decorated officer with the 2nd Battalion of the 2nd Brigade of the 5th Iraqi Army Division — also known as the Tiger Battalion — based at Camp Falloc, 54 miles northeast of Baghdad, Capt. Furat loves Iraq and fought its enemies with a passion that won praise from American and Iraqi troops.

U.S. soldiers of Task Force 1-30 who worked with Capt. Furat often called him “Rambo”; he could wield an 80-pound machine gun and belts of ammunition as if carrying an Uzi.

“To me he is a superhero,” said 1st Lt. John Newton of Hague, Va., from the 1st Battalion of the 30th Infantry Regiment of the 3rd Infantry Division, who wept at Capt. Furat’s bedside hours after the attack.

“He was fearless under fire,” said Lt. Col. Roger Cloutier, commander of Task Force 1-30, from Fort Benning, Ga.

Few visits home

Capt. Furat, who uses only his given name because of continued threats to his family, rarely visited home for the same reason. When not on patrol or other missions, he stayed on base while other soldiers saw their families for brief periods.

His commander, Col. Theya Abd Ismael Al-Tamimmi, warned him not to go home. But his family wanted to see him, and on the weekend of Dec. 23, he went.

“He was out on vacation with no security and they got him,” said Col. Cloutier, whose men share a home base with the Tiger Battalion. “He was a wanted man.”

Capt. Furat brought along Sgt. Hussein, 21, a fellow soldier in the Dali Abbas Company of the Tiger Battalion. As they drove back to base, a red Opel station wagon blocked their path. Three masked gunmen in Iraqi Army uniforms opened fire.

One attacker killed

At first, Capt. Furat did not shoot back because of the uniforms. He killed one of his attackers. Three civilians caught in the crossfire also died and Capt. Furat and Sgt. Hussein were severely wounded — Sgt. Hussein with nine bullets to his leg and arm. Capt. Furat took 12 shots.

They were taken to the American field hospital at nearby Base Normandy and then by helicopter to the Air Force Hospital for surgery. As doctors worked to save their lives, they managed to give enough information for Iraqi soldiers to raid the ambush site and arrest two men involved in the attack.

On the operating table, a damaged kidney was removed from Capt. Furat and a metal plate was used to repair his right forearm, hit by a bullet. A computer-assisted-tomography scan revealed how much more damage one of the bullets did.

“We knew at the time it had crossed through his spinal cord,” said Maj. Alan Murdock. “Once they’re cut, nerves don’t usually regenerate.”

For two days, Capt. Furat would be under heavy sedation and connected to a ventilator.

Soon, the doctors would have to tell him the news.

Devastating word

“I was very straightforward with him about what to expect: That he’d be in a wheelchair,” said Maj. Jeffrey McNeil, a cardiothoracic surgeon.

“It’s kind of like a professional athlete having a career-ending injury,” said Lt. Col. Jim Keeney, an orthopedic surgeon at Balad. “He is going to be much more functional but it’s going to be a setback.”

For Capt. Furat, the news was devastating. On some days, he just wept. On other days, he burned with rage.

“I love Iraq,” he said in fluent English, which he learned in college during the presidency of Saddam Hussein. “I worked all over Iraq and liked all the soldiers I worked with. I loved my body. I loved all the civilians I helped, but I don’t think all the civilians loved me. I was a brave soldier. I helped anybody — men, women, children.

Nobody helped

“But when Ali Baba shot me, and when I lay there in the street and couldn’t move, nobody helped me. Why? Capt. Furat is dead because Capt. Furat is weak. Nobody on the street helped him.”

Capt. Furat enlisted in the Iraqi Army when he was 18, and was stationed in Baghdad and Mosul. He rose through the ranks, attended Army College and was part of an elite special forces unit.

When American soldiers entered Baghdad in April 2003, Capt. Furat was in the capital with the Al Qanata Brigade.

“I told my platoon, ‘hey, don’t move,” he recalled. “I saw the U.S. Army coming toward us. My platoon shot at them with their AK-47s. They were very noble.

“I couldn’t kill anyone. [The Americans] had big weapons, but all I had was a pistol and an AK-47.”

Stranger took him in

He took a bullet in the leg during the battle and somehow managed to escape amid the confusion, taking shelter in a stranger’s house.

“He cut off my uniform and gave me pajamas,” Capt. Furat recalled. “He took my weapon and pistol and ID and went to the garden and buried them in the earth.

“I was afraid the U.S. Army would come in the house. I saw through the window the Army in the street.”

He stayed there five days, then his host drove him to his family’s home in Diyala province, not far from base.

“My father thought I was dead because a soldier came to the house and said he saw me get shot by the Americans.

U.S. sought officers

“When I knocked on the door, my father saw me and he couldn’t believe it was me. I hugged him to my chest and wept.”

Capt. Furat stayed with his family in Muqdadiyah for about a year.

“I had no work, no dreams. I just sat in the house.”

Then he heard through a friend that American troops at nearby Base Falloc, the former site of an Iraqi Army division, were looking for former Iraqi officers to begin building the new army. He joined, and has since worked with six or seven different groups of American soldiers.

“I was with the last group for three or four months before Ali Baba shot me,” he says. “I’d go with them anywhere. I trust them, and they trust me. Now I am sad. This life was very good. I worked with kings, not soldiers. But I can’t move with them.”

Inspiration to others

“My dream is just to stand up with my legs,” he said. “When I can stand up with my legs, just tell me and I’ll go anywhere — Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran — just tell me.”

As Capt. Furat works through the physical and emotional trauma of his tragedy, those on the hospital staff see an opportunity for the disabled soldier.

“He could be a beacon of hope for all the handicapped people in Iraq,” said Col. Powell.

“He could be a champion, a great one. There are going to be thousands of disabled people here, maybe more. There’s nothing keeping him from doing anything. We just want him to reach his full potential.”

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