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Wounded warriors

"Wounded warriors" Continued...

Issue: "Why Grey matters," March 17, 2007

Rosborough turned in on himself and tried to move back into his own home, but he found he couldn't cope with being alone for more than a few hours: "You want to be alone, but you can't be alone."

Months later, Rosborough returned to active duty. His injuries prevented him from returning to Iraq, so he came to work at the newly opened barracks. He wants to spare other Marines from the isolation he experienced, and he says when wounded Marines see others heal and recover, it gives them hope that they can get better too.

Sgt. Simms, the Marine who recently underwent his 18th surgery, agrees. Simms sits perched on the edge of a chair with both feet flat on the ground. That's something he hasn't been able to do in nearly three years. When an IED struck his armored vehicle in Fallujah in July 2004, shrapnel ripped through his right leg, severely damaging the tendons and muscles. As he moved away from the truck, a nearby enemy gunman shot him three times in the same leg.

Simms' most recent surgery extended his Achilles tendon, which had been damaged so severely it prevented him from resting his right foot flat on the ground. He's also undergone extensive plastic surgery for severe burns on his face and hands. A dark pink line across his jawbone is the only sign of the burns on his face, but Simms' hands remain scarred, and the pinkie finger on his right hand is gone.

Just above his scarred right hand, Simms wears a black bracelet on his wrist bearing the name of Lance Cpl. Tim Creager, who was killed in the explosion. Along with the date and location of the bombing, the bracelet reads: "We will not forget."

When Simms returned from Iraq, he spent two-and-a-half months in a burn center. Not wanting to leave the Marines, he eventually returned to the regular barracks with his unit at Camp Lejeune. But unable to perform the same duties as the rest of his unit, and still reeling from the trauma of the explosion, Simms languished: "I just kind of sat there and nobody knew what to say to me." When nightmares of the bombing jarred him awake at night, Simms had no one to share the burden.

When the Wounded Warrior barracks opened several months later, Simms signed up. "There's always somebody to talk to who's been through what you've been through," he says. "They just understand."

Now Simms assists with operations at the barracks and helps wounded Marines adjust to their new lives. When they first arrive, they're often withdrawn and quiet, he says, but they "warm up real quickly" when they realize "everyone is here to help and they don't have to be embarrassed."

On the main hallway of the first floor, Marines wearing camouflage uniforms gather in small groups, leaning on crutches and canes. Some wear eye patches, others wear braces on their arms and legs. At the end of the hallway, a bulletin board displays nearly two dozen Polaroid pictures of Marines from the barracks who have returned to active duty. A handful of those have returned to Iraq.

While many in the Wounded Warrior barracks won't return to Iraq, Rosborough says barracks life is designed to keep them productive Marines. Those who are able rise at 5:30 a.m. and attend morning formation. Each Marine has duties commensurate with his physical ability. Some man the gym on the first floor, perform maintenance duties, or tackle administrative tasks. Some go across the base to the school for military kids, tutoring them and reading to them. Others perform safety briefings for other Marines around the base.

Lt. Col. Tom Siebenthal says keeping wounded Marines as active and productive as possible is key to their recovery. Siebenthal, in charge of the Injured Support Unit for the II Marine Expeditionary Force (II MEF) at Camp Lejeune, works in a small office on the barracks' first floor.

Siebenthal oversees a database of about 300 wounded Marines that allows the unit to track Marines from the point of injury on the field. Staff and wounded Marines in the barracks regularly contact each Marine to find out if he is receiving proper care and has specific needs. If a Marine medically retires, the unit still follows up with him once a month. Military hospitals have protocol for tracking the wounded, says Siebenthal, "but we're like the big father figure making sure it all happens."

The unit also connects wounded Marines and family members with nonprofit organizations that provide additional assistance with needs like travel expenses. Siebenthal says community support has been overwhelming, from large donations by the New York City Fire Department to homemade lasagna baked by ladies from local churches.

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