On Monday, the day before the president's State of the Union address, I spent an afternoon at The National Naval Medical Center's Ward 5 in Bethesda, Maryland. It's a place where wounds fresh from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan are healed. In tonight's installment of our "Coming Home" series, Ann Curry reports on the Fisher House, where many of these young men and women rehabilitate following their hospital stays.
Lance Cpl. Colt Stovall speaks with one of his doctors at The National Naval Medical Center.
During my visit, I met the young man pictured above, Lance Cpl. Colt Stovall, U.S. Marine Corps, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines Weapons Company. The 21-year-old calls himself a "gun monkey." He's a mortar man, not as big as artillery, he says, but more mobile in order to cover the advancement of his fellow Marines' backs. He served in Afghanistan from June 2005 - January 2006 and in Iraq from Sept. 11 - Dec. 14, 2006, the day he was injured in a convoy northwest of Baghdad.
What follows are snippets and photos from my conversation with Stovall in his hospital room.
Were you scared when you learned you were going to fight?
"You are scared, I mean, there are those people that say they are not and everything, but deep down they are. You are scared, but at the same time you are so gung ho to get over there and get some, it's pretty much those two feelings fighting back and forth. When you first get there, you are sitting in the truck all scared. You are still doing your job, but praying.
Tell me about the day you were injured.
"We were driving. I was the turret gunner and I'm sitting there watching and I felt fire. And the next thing I know I feel like the truck is rolling and I'm grabbing onto whatever. My eyes were barely open. I can see the gray dust and feel the shock wave and I blacked out. When I came to, I'm hanging in the dirt. The truck had rolled. I was hanging in the dirt. The Marines came and got me out and took me over to the road and put tourniquets on my legs. The doc got to me and started working on me. He patched up what he could."
Stovall's driver, his fellow Marine, was killed by the improvised explosive device (IED).
How does he deal with the relentless violence and danger?
"Yeah, once you have been to Afghanistan, you have been shot at a couple of times, you know what the feeling is, and you know how to deal with everything. You know how you react to certain situations. But at the same time, Iraq is totally a different ballgame. Afghanistan there was only five, around five IEDs that I know of that was it. I think only two of them hit our convoys. In Iraq you have IEDs everywhere. There are more of IEDs than of them actually shooting at us. They have shot mortars at us and it is no big deal. It is those IEDs, man. We actually find a lot of the IEDs. We catch a lot of the guys. Either we catch them laying the IED in or we get intel from the villagers. We get a lot of them and we find a lot of the IEDs. There are just so many and they just keep putting them in and they are waiting for us."
As we speak, Stovall is heavily medicated and at least temporarily numb to the excruciating pain in his right leg. Flying shrapnel broke it clean in two places and it took skin graphs and some bone reconstruction to get it back together. When I visited him, he had just taken a few steps with his trusty crutches. It was cause for optimism, but the swelling in his foot also worried him.He shows me a crumpled Ziploc bag which contains his most precious items that carried him through both tours of duty. A picture of his beloved Brandi, a prayer cloth sent by her sister, always in his left breast pocket. "I always made sure of that," he says.And there is a note neatly folded on a white piece of paper, a note he wrote to his fiancée. He won't disclose the contents as he chokes up.How do you deal with death?"I miss my friend, my family member. I guess I just kind of just bottle it up. I don't really think about it. Except for those moments that you need to mourn and then just kind of put it inside and lock it away." He ends the conversation by saying he rarely thinks about his service in Afghanistan and Iraq. I find that hard to comprehend, until he adds: "I think about it when I am missing my boys and thinking about them leads to thinking about that, but I don't really think about it. I mean, I'm back home and it sucks. I got hit and injured. Who am I to be back here? Why couldn't it have been someone else to come back here?"
Photo caption: Stovall's arms bear the Marine Corps motto, "Semper Fidelis" -- Always Faithful.