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SUSAN DENTZER: American troops injured in the war on Iraq have been treated at field hospitals, aboard the navy’s hospital ship, the U.S.N.S. Comfort, or at the U.S. military’s regional medical center at Landstuhl, in Germany. Marine First Lt. James Hutchins and Corporal Stephen Hammond have now come home to the United States. They’re among a group of about 60 Marines and Navy personnel who’ve been treated for their injuries here at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.
CPL. STEPHEN HAMMOND, U.S. Marine Corps: The bullet, it went through here and exited here. It just went through the calf, the back of the calf muscle, a luckily it didn’t hit any bone, it didn’t hit any vitals, it didn’t hit any tendons or ligaments.
1ST LT. JAMES HUTCHINSON, U.S. Marine Corps: I had approximately 18 small holes in my legs, what they counted. There were four major holes – two in my right leg here, as you can see, two in close proximity to my left leg.
SUSAN DENTZER: Hutchinson, who’s 25, is a platoon commander with the Marine’s 2nd Combat Engineer Battalion out of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. He was injured amid intense fighting in late March in the Iraqi town of Nasariyah.
1ST. LT. JAMES HUTCHINSON: All I remember there was a big loud explosion, a big loud bang, and I’m flying through the air. I hit the ground, did a couple somersaults, and I get up real quick and just start running.
SUSAN DENTZER: Hot shrapnel penetrated Hutchinson’s hands and legs, and injured many in his unit as well as well. The unit’s corpsman, the Navy’s equivalent of a combat medic, rushed to their aid.
1ST. LT. JAMES HUTCHINSON: I was bleeding quite a lot, and at that point I turned command of the platoon back to my gunner sergeant, who was hit in the back but was still going. I had to have somebody drag me because I was in and out of consciousness.
SUSAN DENTZER: Hutchinson spent two days at field hospitals in Iraq before being transferred to Germany, and then to Bethesda. After three surgeries, his prognosis is for a full recovery.
1ST. LT. JAMES HUTCHINSON: I’ll have lots of scar tissue that will have to break up, but they say I’ll be able to run again and do all that stuff, be active, which is great news for me because I’m a very active person.
SUSAN DENTZER: Corporal Hammond, who’s 22, is with the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, also out of Camp Lejeune. On March 26, his unit was called on to attack Iraqi soldiers who’d hidden inside a Nasariyah hospital.
CPL. STEPHEN HAMMOND: We started storming the building and we stopped momentarily. So what I did is I turned around and I took a knee and faced outward to provide security, and that’s when I took a bullet to the right leg. I just told the corpsman, “I’ve been hit, I’ve been hit,” and he immediately came over and put some pressure on my leg, and then my platoon sergeant, staff sergeant, came over and picked me up and carried me out of there, out of the hostile.
SUSAN DENTZER: Hammond was moved to a battalion aid station, then to a field hospital, and on to Kuwait and Germany before being brought to Bethesda. Navy Admiral Donald Arthur, commander at National Naval Medical Center, explains the process.
ADM. DONALD ARTHUR, Commander, National Naval Medical Center: We want to keep patients moving from the battlefield back home. If someone is wounded there is going to be another one and another one. You don’t want to have so many people on the battlefield being treated where we can’t really give that state-of-the-art, tertiary medical care as we can back in the states or at Landstuhl. So we want to get the patients off the battlefield and get them to that definitive care.
SUSAN DENTZER: For Hammond, definitive care at Bethesda included a graft of skin taken from his thigh and transferred to cover the gaping wound on his calf. He’s also expected to make a full recovery. But Admiral Arthur says others have needed more advanced care and have a longer road ahead of them.
ADM. DONALD ARTHUR: The battlefield injuries have ranged from simple gunshot wounds — I say simple but no gunshot wound is really simple — to major fragmentary explosive injuries where people have lost limbs or lost sight. It’s been a broad spectrum. A couple of people have been in motor vehicle accidents, severe accidents — one Marine was run over by an Abrams tank and survived.
SUSAN DENTZER: That Marine, Cpl. Travis Eichelberger, suffered a crushed pelvis. After several days in intensive care at Bethesda, he’s already up and walking without help.
ADM. DONALD ARTHUR: He’ll go from room to room and motivate the other Marines to get up, to get out of bed, to feel better about their injuries. And they see him and they think he’s a superhero. They call him “Tank.”
SUSAN DENTZER: Along with Hammond, Hutchinson and many of the wounded, Eichelberger was awarded the purple heart in a bedside ceremony. Lieutenant Commander Pam Patnode is a nurse and naval air reservist. She’s one of about 550 reservists called up to Bethesda after 1,000 of the hospital’s personnel were sent to care for troops aboard the hospital ship Comfort. Patnode says she’s been struck by the resiliency of the wounded.
LT. CMDR. PAM PATNODE, U.S. Naval Reservist: You’d think a couple of them, you’d see signs of trauma, because they have very traumatic injuries. They’re just ready to go forward. This isn’t going to get me down, I want to get up. “When can I get up?”
1ST LT. JAMES HUTCHINSON: You just live with the fact that you’re here, you got hit, and basically all you can do is just pray that your Marines are okay. Because when it all comes down to it, they’re the guys that protect you, to your left and to your right. So, but I do wish I was out there still with them.
CPL. STEPHEN HAMMOND: I don’t belong here. I’m a platoon commander. You get wounded, that stuff happens, but I just feel guilty leaving my Marines to still be fighting over there while I get to sit in a nice cushy hospital and get nice food and get warm showers.
SUSAN DENTZER: And have shrapnel removed from your leg and get physical therapy.
CPL. STEPHEN HAMMOND: It’s all relative, ma’am. It’s all relative.
SUSAN DENZTER: Hammond and Hutchinson hope to leave the hospital within several weeks, heading home to their families in Arizona and New Jersey.