Sunday, May 7, 2006


Iraqi Army Capt. Furat surveys the therapy gym as he stands erect for the first time in nearly four months, every inch as tall as he was before insurgents’ bullets left his legs lifeless on Christmas Day.

All around him, paralyzed patients are toiling, striving for their own personal victories.

“Where are you traveling to right now in your mind?” asks Basle Roberts, a therapy technician at the Shepherd Center.

“I wish that I could stand without this equipment,” Capt. Furat says, resting on a frame used in physical therapy. The rigid metal device is a relief from sitting or lying down, restful positions that aren’t always relaxing anymore.

Every 30 minutes, he must shift positions to prevent potentially fatal pressure sores from developing on his paralyzed lower body, one of the many daily battles the former platoon leader is learning to deal with solo.

“It is just me on this mission,” says Capt. Furat, 28, whose family is 7,000 miles away and still at risk from insurgents for his decision to fight in the nascent Iraqi army.

On some days, it’s nearly too much to bear.

“All this room is dark, and I can’t sleep,” he says after a particularly bad night. “I have pain and bad dreams. I see the sun in the sky, and the sun is dark. Last night, I told myself I am dead.”

The pain and depression are so overwhelming at times that Capt. Furat shuts down.

He doesn’t speak.

He doesn’t get out of bed.

He grips the bedrails to resist going to physical therapy.

In a bedside notebook, the former member of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s elite military makes hash marks counting the days since his spine was severely damaged by a shower of bullets.

“Just like a man in prison, I count the days since my legs stopped working,” says Capt. Furat, who was ambushed outside his family’s home in Muqdadiyah, a city northeast of Baghdad by gunmen dressed in the same new Iraqi army uniform he wore.

But today he is fully upright. He’s neither in his wheelchair nor looking at the ceiling of his room. And he’s not looking over his shoulder for his enemies, who have vowed to finish the job.

“The first mujahedeen shot you. The second mujahedeen will kill you,” said a handwritten note sent to Capt. Furat’s family as he was recuperating at Air Force theater hospital in Balad, Iraq.

“We are looking everywhere for Captain Furat.”

‘Welcome home’

Capt. Furat’s eyes scan the Atlanta traffic outside his ambulance, a survival instinct that served him well during his nine years as a soldier, first in Saddam’s army, and then in the post-invasion creation.

“You are safe now,” says Deborah Revis, 50, Shepherd’s vice president of clinical services, as she holds his hand the entire 30-minute ride. “We will take good care of you here.”

When he emerges from the ambulance, he is greeted by some of his American friends from Iraq.

“It took a long time, but we were able to do it,” says Lt. Col. Roger Cloutier, one of four officers who step forward to embrace him. They came to know and love Capt. Furat as he worked alongside the U.S. Army’s 1st Battalion, 30th Infantry Regiment.

“Thank you very much, sir. My mom is very happy,” Capt. Furat responds, managing a smile after an exhausting three-day journey from Balad to Georgia.

His arrival marks the success of a two-month campaign waged by a network of Army officers, Air Force doctors, civilians, senators, and Atlanta’s renowned spinal-cord-injury rehabilitation center to give Capt. Furat a chance at living independently.

By the time the C-17’s wheels lifted from the runway in Balad, 62 persons received e-mails announcing that Capt. Furat had left Iraq for the first time in his life.

After an overnight stay in Landstuhl, Germany, he arrived in the United States along with 43 wounded U.S. servicemen and women, just as “The Star-Spangled Banner” blared over loudspeakers at Andrews Air Force Base, announcing the end of the workday.

Master Sgt. Bobby Anderson, a medic at Andrews, shook Capt. Furat’s hand as he arrived.

“Welcome home,” he said.

The next morning, Capt. Furat, who uses only his given name because of continued threats to his family, was carefully tucked into an Air Force Learjet bound for Dobbins Air Force Base in Marietta, Ga., 15 miles from the Shepherd Center.

‘You’ll be OK’

On his second day in Atlanta, Capt. Furat revels in the tranquility his homeland no longer provides.

Hospital founder James H. Shepherd Jr. sits with him in a garden, a leafy refuge that overlooks Peachtree Road.

“I see these guys driving down the street, and they’re not worried about Ali Baba or IEDs (improvised explosive devices),” says Capt. Furat, who regularly refers to “terrorists” in his homeland using the name of the fictional character from “Arabian Nights.”

Mr. Shepherd just looks at Capt. Furat.

“I hope what we can give you is an exposure to the peace that’s possible for your country someday,” Mr. Shepherd says. “For now, that wheelchair is going to be your freedom.

“I was where you are right now,” Mr. Shepherd continues. “In the end, I was OK. You’ll be OK, I promise you. Let’s be happy you are alive.”

For Mr. Shepherd, 55, who founded this hospital in 1975 after being paralyzed from the neck down in a bodysurfing accident in Brazil, bringing Capt. Furat to Atlanta for free treatment was his way of thanking the U.S. military. It had transported him from a Third World hospital.

Mr. Shepherd, who has regained the use of his arms and legs and walks short distances with crutches, now navigates the hospital corridors on a motorized scooter because of his limitations with distance.

Today, Shepherd Center is regarded as one of America’s top rehabilitation hospitals for spinal-cord injuries. U.S. News & World Report’s article on America’s best hospitals in 2005 ranked Shepherd among 26 hospitals that are best for rehabilitative care.

Devastated, again

All through his first nights here, Capt. Furat fidgets in his sleep; sometimes he calls out. Other times, his arms twitch alternately, as if he were running.

One night, he opens his eyes wide, wielding an imaginary pistol in his right hand, as he monitors a sniper he envisions on the rooftop of the building across the street.

“One shot and he could kill me,” says Capt. Furat, who sleeps cradling a teddy bear the ambulance crew gave him.

As a young man in Iraq, Capt. Furat learned most of what he knows about America by watching movies and listening to music. Maybe it was America’s love affair with happy endings, especially in movies, that set Capt. Furat up for disappointment.

“In Balad hospital, my friend told me that Shepherd is the best hospital,” says Capt. Furat, who believed he’d be walking within days of his arrival.

So it was devastating, again, to hear from his doctors that he might never walk unaided. It was as if he learned the news for the very first time.

Using a plastic model of a human spine, Dr. Allen McDonald, an orthopedist, uses his finger to point to the place where the Iraqi’s spine is damaged: at the 12th thoracic vertebrae, just in the middle of his back.

Because those nerves are severely damaged, the doctor explains that Capt. Furat likely will not regain the use of his legs. Also damaged are nerves that connect his brain to his legs, bowels and bladder.

The captain stares blankly at the plastic backbone. For the rest of his stay at Shepherd, Capt. Furat simply turns and wheels away whenever the model spine makes an appearance.

“His prognosis is good for functional independence,” said Dr. Donald Peck Leslie, medical director of the Shepherd Center. “But of course he still talks about walking again, and there is no indication that he will, due to the neurological deficits secondary to his injury.”

Dr. Leslie last week at a press conference said Capt. Furat may eventually be able to walk with the aid of leg braces.

At least 22 American troops have returned from Iraq with complete or partial spinal-cord injuries, most of them from explosives or penetrating wounds like Capt. Furat’s. They are treated at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Running to faith

“Just throw a rock at me, do something. Hit me. Anything,” Pete Anziano tells a despondent, bed-clinging Capt. Furat during a visit to his room.

The Iraqi lays motionless as Mr. Anziano, 35, a paraplegic assigned to mentor Capt. Furat, waits in the doorway.

“I’m not giving up on you,” Mr Anziano says.

Capt. Furat doesn’t respond.

Weeks later, doctors fine tune Capt. Furat’s antidepressant and pain medications. His nightmares start to give way to more pleasant dreams.

One night, his arms pump forward as he sleeps. The sun rises, and he sits straight up in bed.

“In my dream, I was running. I dreamed I walked in this garden right here,” he says.

That morning, he gets out bed for the first time in two days, and turns to his Muslim faith.

At first, he fears he could not properly perform his daily prayers — which involve standing, kneeling and touching his forehead to the ground.

But soon a rehabilitation technician named Yusuph Sarami, a Muslim from Nigeria, shows Capt. Furat how to wash himself before prayer and how to modify his daily practice for a wheelchair.

“When doctors told me I cannot walk, I looked everywhere for a knife,” Capt. Furat says. “But I thought ‘No. My doctor is my God.’ ”

The doctors kept him alive, and he now feels Allah will help him live.

Life skills

With newfound hope, Capt. Furat begins to rebuild the muscles in his arms and chest that had not been used for months.

He learns — by repetition — to seamlessly move from his wheelchair to his bed or to a car seat and even the shower, and other skills he needs to master for independence.

His occupational therapist offers the chance to try cooking in Shepherd’s specially modified kitchen. He chooses a dish from home: kubbeh, a fried dumpling stuffed with ground meat and onions.

The smell and taste of the food floods him with memories of his mother — and the rice she made better than anyone else.

Downstairs in the garden, he reflects.

“Every day at this time, I think about my mother,” he says. “I miss her cooking.”

Each time he speaks with his mother by telephone, she tells him how happy she is that he is safe. Unfortunately, it may be years before he can see her, and the conversations often include bad news.

In the past few weeks, roadside bombs have taken their toll on the captain’s battalion: His dearest comrade, 1st Lt. Haydar was seriously wounded. His beloved operations officer, Capt. Wahab was killed. In October, Capt. Furat’s roommate, Lt. Ra’ad was killed before his very eyes.

“All of my friends in Iraq are either dead or in the hospital,” he says. “My mother told me not to weep when I left my family in Iraq because she knows I have a big family in America.”

As he nears the end of his 10-week stay at the Shepherd Center, Capt. Furat decides to seek asylum in the United States.

“I want to stay until the terrorists forget about me,” he says.

“People in America are very strong,” the captain says. “Here, there are no bombs, no terrorists, just nice people.”

On April 24, Capt. Furat moves from the hospital to Shepherd’s outpatient program for continued physical and occupational therapy. Now weaned off most of his pain medications, the captain is enjoying small pleasures such as shopping, dining out and moviegoing.

Capt. Furat ventures out of the hospital on Easter Sunday to join a Decatur, Ga., family for supper.

“Today is my first day as a civilian,” he says to his friends. … “It is very nice, very different. Today, I am very happy. Every day I am in the hospital is medicine, therapy and nurses. But today I have a very nice family.”

While he waits for a decision on his asylum petition, Capt. Furat cannot formally work or accept public assistance for his continuing medical care. But he is eager to serve again, this time to use his mind as powerfully as he once used his body to help American soldiers battle the terrorists in Iraq.

“I lived to protect my country,” he says.

Capt. Furat says he knows the Iraqi mind. He is fluent in Arabic and has a working use of English.

“Before now, I worried about my legs,” he says. “But if I could work with the American military, I don’t worry if I walk or don’t walk. Some day, I want to wear a uniform again. I am ready any time.”

His American friends are certain he will be an valuable asset to any employer.

“His personality, his character and his charisma is why he is where he is right now in America,” says Capt. Brian Ducote, 29, who worked with Capt. Furat in 2004 as a liaison to the Iraqi army. “I feel confident in his future. We’re just trying to help get him on his feet. … He believes in himself and I believe in him.

“He showed the impact that one man can have on not just a squad, a platoon, a battalion or a brigade, but on an entire country,” says Capt. Ducote. “He’s going to make his own way, and he’s going to be successful. He was put on this earth to do something. He’s a survivor.”

On Friday, Capt. Furat got the opportunity to wear an Iraqi uniform when he visited Fort Benning, Ga., to watch the first Iraqi soldier in the United States graduate from the U.S. Army Ranger school.

• Editor’s note: Photographer Maya Alleruzzo, who was embedded with Capt. Furat’s unit in Iraq, spent more than 20 days and nights at the Shepherd Center in March and April to chronicle this story.

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