Scott Kruchten says the day that changed his life forever was, for Iraq, pretty average. "At some point in time," he deadpans, "someone decided to make it non-average."
It was about two in the afternoon, and Kruchten, a lance corporal from Madison, was on patrol near the town of Latifiyah, 20 miles south of Baghdad. It was Nov. 8, 2004.
Kruchten, a Marine reservist, had joined a convoy of seven vehicles. As a team leader, he sat in the front passenger seat. Also in the Humvee were Lance Cpl. Shane O'Donnell of DeForest, Cpl. Robert Warns of Waukesha, Staff Sgt. Chad Simon of Monona, and Lance Cpl. Branden Ramey of Boone, Ill. After five hours on patrol, they were headed back to their camp.
Then, under Kruchten's vehicle, the last one of the convoy, a 500-pound bomb went off. "We happened to be the lucky ones," he says dryly. It was an IED, or improvised explosive device.
"This particular IED was actually buried underneath the road," he says. "Everyone had pretty much driven straight over the top of it. That eliminates the idea that it was a pressure contact switch that set the IED off."
In other words, it was probably detonated from a remote location.
"My guess is that the trigger man was behind us," says Kruchten. "He wanted the entire patrol as far away as possible, to make his getaway easier."
The vehicle and everyone in it were thrown about 80 feet. O'Donnell, Warns and Ramey were killed instantly. Kruchten and Simon were evacuated to a military hospital in Baghdad. Simon died from his wounds the following August.
Scott Kruchten is one of the more than 30,000 American service members wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. Madison's William S. Middleton Memorial Veterans Hospital now serves about 1,700 veterans of those conflicts.
A large number of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan - where violence is sudden and unpredictable - suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD (see "War Without End," 12/8/06). But these conflicts are also producing a large number of vets with serious long-term injuries, in large part because improvements in battlefield medicine are saving soldiers who would have perished in the past.
The issue of wounded soldiers is very much in the public eye. Witness last year's disclosures of substandard care at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, which angered the nation and led to systemic reforms. Or the grueling reports of injured warriors by ABC's Bob Woodruff, who two years ago was himself badly injured by a roadside bomb in Iraq. Or Alive Day Memories: Home From Iraq, the 2007 HBO film produced and hosted by James Gandolfini that documented the toll of the Iraq war on 10 wounded soldiers.
According to a Harvard University report, the cost of caring for these veterans could over the course of their lifetimes top $600 billion. But there is another huge cost being paid out, one altered life at a time.
Like other wounded warriors, Scott Kruchten has endured a painful recovery. He's dealt with vast bureaucracies that sometimes don't seem to care and members of the public who don't seem to understand. He's had to change his life and reassess his ambitions.
But he's not bitter about what happened. And he supports the U.S. effort in Iraq more ardently than ever. "I hold no grudge," he says of his experience. Still, he admits, "No one can expect to go through that and be unchanged."
Scott Kruchten, now 32, is sturdily built. He owns a modest house on Madison's north side. He speaks with remarkable composure and precision, whether he is describing the merits of Ducati versus Harley-Davidson motorcycles, or recounting the incident that disabled him and killed four of his comrades.
He enlisted in the Marine reserves in November 2003 and was sent to Iraq in September 2004. Kruchten and his Madison-based Golf Company set up camp under a bridge in Babil Province, south of Baghdad. They fortified their new home with large mesh-and-plastic containers filled with sand.
"You had some two-by-fours, some plywood, some sandbags on top of you, for overhead cover from mortar fire," he says.
Braving temperatures that often topped 100 degrees, Kruchten and others would don body armor and Kevlar helmets and roam the streets, on foot or in Humvees. Often acting on tips, they talked with locals and looked for insurgents.
They also spent a good deal of time guarding the bridge, on the lookout for "vehicles driving into your position" or "people walking up with bombs strapped to their chests." Kruchten calls the bridge "our one little safe zone - as safe as it can be when you have people launching rockets and mortars at you."
The blast that sent him and Simon to the capital city, by helicopter, occurred outside of the safe zone. Kruchten had a broken leg, two broken ribs, a broken shoulder and wounds to his head. Still, it took awhile before anyone realized the severity of his injuries.
"When I got to Baghdad, I was still able to talk and move," he says. "Two days later, my speech started to slur. And they took a look and said, 'Okay, he's got a blood clot in his head.' Emergency craniotomy in Baghdad."
Then he was flown to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, a U.S. facility near Frankfurt, and finally to the naval hospital at Bethesda, Md.
Kruchten does not remember the explosion, or anything else that happened until he awoke in Maryland nine days later. "Nurse walks in," he recalls. "I had three questions. One, where am I? Two, where are my Marines? Three, what happened? She said, 'I don't know.'"
He stayed nearly three weeks at Bethesda. Then he was transferred to the Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital in Minneapolis, which treats patients with traumatic brain injuries. There he underwent speech therapy, reading therapy, occupational therapy, driving therapy, physical therapy and neuropsychological treatment.
After 17 days, Kruchten returned to his parents' home in the village of Brooklyn, just outside of Madison. He was on crutches, and at risk for seizures. In early 2005, he began several months of outpatient physical therapy at Madison's veterans hospital.
That fall, Kruchten enrolled as an undergraduate at the UW-Madison, where he majors in Middle Eastern studies and minors in global cultures, African studies and religious studies. He's now a junior, his education funded by government grants. Sometimes he works at the family business, Crestwood Auto Clinic, on Madison's west side.
Kruchten is pursuing a college degree not just for its own sake, but also to show the Marines he's fit to complete his military service, from which he's temporarily retired. "I had already passed a physical fitness test," he says. "I needed to prove to them that my head was still in the game. So that was why I enlisted."
He shakes his head. "Enlisted?" he repeats, realizing he's used the wrong word. He corrects himself: "Signed up and started going to the UW."
Susan Sonnheim arrived in Baghdad in June 2003, with the Wisconsin National Guard's 32nd Military Police Company, based in Milwaukee. The resident of Franklin, southwest of Milwaukee, was in Iraq to teach American-style police methods, and to guard Baghdad police stations.
"I was happy to finally get to use my skills that I was trained for," says Sonnheim, now 49. "When I first got there, I thought, 'Wow, I'm in Hollywood.' The palm trees, the buildings, the castles. But then you've got to look close and see: Everything's blown up."
On Sept. 23, 2003, after the 10 p.m. curfew, there was a report of suspicious activity near a police station. Sonnheim's squad leader ordered her team to gear up for a mission in the deserted streets. The Americans rode in two Humvees. Sonnheim drove one. Ahead of them in the convoy, Iraqi police officers rode on a flatbed truck.
The group stopped near a sprawling intersection. Sonnheim got out of the Humvee and began walking. "You could hear a pin drop that night," she says.
Suddenly, she saw a brown cardboard box, about 12 inches by eight inches. A wire stuck out of it. "It was like, 'Okay, that doesn't look good,'" she says. "I had two seconds to think, and it blew."
The explosion threw her into the air. "All I could see was white lights," she says. "The bomb hit my eyes."
The box contained metal and ABS plastic, the material used to make plumbing pipes and car body parts. Sonnheim was hit by shrapnel over much of her body. She suffered head trauma, and her left eardrum was blown out. Her lower spine was fractured. She was blinded in her left eye.
"The shrapnel that went through the center of my eye was five millimeters, and was like a piece of metal that looked like it had spikes on it," she says. "So it was leaking out the back of my eye. And normally if that fluid comes out, that eye comes out. Then you lose the eye and you get a fake eye. Thank God they were able to save my eye at the combat support hospital there."
At the site of the explosion, Sonnheim was ready to fight. "The medic there, she was there right away," recalls Sonnheim. "She's shaking and she's crying, and I said, 'Put a Band-Aid on me and send me back out.'"
Sonnheim did not know how hurt she was. "I was in this, like hyper-shock," she says. "You're numb to everything. You don't think nothing happened to you. You think you're fine. And I had blood everywhere."
Like Kruchten, Sonnheim passed through the American hospital at Landstuhl, Germany, and then on to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Doctors there removed shrapnel from her eye. After a few days, she was discharged to Malone House, a hotel for soldiers on the Walter Reed grounds. She lived there for two years.
"It's the longest [stay at Malone House] people have heard of, 'cause I had so many facial surgeries," she says. "I had laser treatments done on my legs, over a thousand spots that they'd zap 'cause it minimized the shrapnel and the tattooing from the bomb." She also received physical therapy for the nausea brought on by the ear damage.
At Walter Reed, Sonnheim had five surgeries on her face. In one, a cosmetic surgeon installed cheek implants.
"They fell through," she says matter-of-factly. The cheek implants were replaced, but these also collapsed, damaging a nerve. "That's why I don't smile much anymore."
In May 2005, Sonnheim returned to Wisconsin. She works part-time as a nurse at Milwaukee's Clement J. Zablocki VA Medical Center. "I can't do full-time any more," she says. "It's too painful for me."
Sonnheim also suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. "Depression goes along with that," she says. "The major nightmares. The smells and sounds that make you think you're still in Iraq." She has gotten counseling for PTSD in the past, but not lately. Nowadays, she says, there is "nothing they can do to help me. I'm helping myself."
She recalls her experience with a plastic surgeon at the Milwaukee veterans hospital. "He kept looking at me, saying, 'You know, you're fixated on your age,'" she recalls. "I said, 'A bomb hit my face.' He said, 'There's nothing we can do for you.'"
The exchange was hurtful. "Plus, at the end of the conversation, he's telling me he doesn't believe in the war. I said, 'I'm not here for your opinions.'"
After she returned from Iraq, Sonnheim and her husband of 20 years divorced. "He's been angry from day one," she says. "Angry about me being in the military, being deployed, and being injured."
Sonnheim lives alone in a Franklin townhouse piled with DVDs like Blackhawk Down and Natural Born Killers. In her garage is a purple Austin Mini Cooper. She keeps tropical birds and has a bichon frisé puppy named Herbie. She does not go out much, and chooses her company carefully. "If somebody doesn't believe in what happened to me or the war, I clash," she says. "I can't be near them."
In November 2004, Gov. Jim Doyle awarded Sonnheim a purple heart, making her Wisconsin's first female National Guard member to receive the honor since World War II. A photograph of the ceremony was on the front page of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
"I purchased designer eye patches," she recalls with a laugh. "That one matched the uniform that day."
Lamar Deuel thought he was too old to reenlist. The San Diego native, who now lives in Janesville, spent most of the 1990s as a cavalry scout in the California Army National Guard. He regretted leaving the service in 1998.
"I missed it," he says, "the camaraderie, the training, the adventure, and the peace of mind of having served a greater good."
Then came Sept. 11, 2001, and the death of his wife in a car accident. "That left a hole," he says. One of Deuel's buddies joined the 180th Field Artillery of the Arizona Army National Guard. "I went with him when he reported," says Deuel, now 44. "I started to shoot the shit with the guys. They said, 'You're prior service. You're golden.'"
In May 2003, Deuel joined the 180th. Then, eager to go to Iraq, he transferred to the 860th Military Police Company. He trained at California's Fort Hunter Liggett, then at Fort Polk in Louisiana. In early 2005, he arrived in Baghdad.
Soon after, Deuel sustained his first substantial injury, a concussion, on a mission near Camp Ashraf, northeast of Baghdad. "That's when I was first blown up," he says. "An IED went off right at the right front corner of the Humvee."
Deuel's company began working with Iraqi police units. "We rolled out, did missions," he says. "Training assessments, evaluations, inventories, prisoner assessments - make sure they're not getting tortured."
On Sept. 20, 2005, Deuel's squad had finished its work when word came that another squad was car-bombed. Deuel arrived via Humvee at the scene. He got out. Just then, someone fired a rocket-propelled grenade in his direction.
"The guy popped up, launched, popped down," Deuel relates. "He didn't have time to aim. It hit about five feet short of us. It detonated at that point, blasted us pretty hard. Hit us with a lot of shrapnel."
A 30-minute firefight ensued. "Twelve of our guys were hit in that engagement, so a lot of theirs must have gone down."
Deuel sustained shrapnel wounds in his legs and arms. He had surgery in Baghdad, and was eventually flown to Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. "At this point, my leg is splayed wide open," he says. "They're changing dressing a couple of times every day. That hurt like hell. They'd hit me up with morphine and try to do it as gently as they could. But gauze tears off exposed muscle kind of painfully."
He returned to Fort Polk for skin grafts. "They cut skin from the backs of my thighs to make kind of a net out of skin," he says. "They put a net of skin on each side of my calf and stapled it all in. Slowly but surely, it grew out, from just below the knee to a few inches above the ankle, three inches wide."
After a month in the hospital, Deuel was released to a medical holding unit. He could not walk. "The first time I saw myself naked in a full-length mirror, I cried," he says.
In early 2006, Deuel moved to Janesville and enrolled in a U.S. Army program that pays for injured National Guard members to be treated by private practitioners. "They are stellar," he says of the program. He lives with his parents, who came to Janesville in the 1990s, and who had been taking care of his 9-year-old daughter. (He also has two sons, ages 17 and 22.)
Deuel has not returned to full-time work, but stays busy with clerical tasks assigned through his Army health-care program. He's also an officer with the local Veterans of Foreign Wars post.
"I wish more of the younger guys would come in and avail themselves of the opportunity to talk," he says of the VFW. "We're all soldiers. We've all been in the thick of things. There's a lot of good insight."
Lamar Deuel laughs often. Sometimes, he laughs when you'd least expect him to, as when he is describing the gruesome details of the blast that tore open his leg. "It's either laugh or cry," he says philosophically.
And Deuel thinks often about Iraq. "I wouldn't mind going back if I could, although I can't because of my injuries," he says. "I can't run. Walking, that hurts."
He may never fully recover. "I live with that," he says. "It's depressing at times."
Back when Scott Kruchten attended Memorial High School, he played varsity football, ran track and wrestled. Afterward, he remained athletically inclined. But the IED near Latifiyah put an end to such pursuits.
"Those things are no longer an option to me," he says. "I don't play volleyball or soccer anymore. I don't do flag football. My level of physical exertion is down significantly from what I used to do."
Also now off-limits: scuba diving, skydiving, motorcycle riding, alcohol. "Not a big deal," he says of that last prohibition. "I didn't drink a lot to start with."
The head injury affected Kruchten cognitively. Even his family noticed a change. "My demeanor, my attitude, my presence is often very flat now," he says. "They have a hard time telling whether or not I'm joking."
Kruchten is happy with the care he's received from the military and the VA. But he's impatient with doctors at Great Lakes Naval Station, north of Chicago. They must evaluate him before he can return to military service. He says they are a year behind.
When he joined the Marine reserves, Kruchten agreed to serve six years. He wants to fulfill that commitment.
"My intent is to recover from this, to be better for it, and to finish my contract," he says. "One thing my grandfather taught me is, a man is only as good as his ability to keep his word."
And what if Kruchten had known, when he joined the Marine reserves, that he would be seriously injured? It's not a tough question for him to answer: "I still would have signed the contract."
Sidebar: Making the connection
For active-duty service members, the government provides health care at military facilities. Veterans, meanwhile, are treated through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. But convincing veterans of the current wars to enroll can be a challenge.
"The outreach efforts are extensive," says Jennifer Jaqua, who manages the program for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Madison. But some vets do not seek help right away. "When people come home, sometimes that's the last thing they want to think of."
For some young veterans, the problem is cultural. "If they're not accustomed to the VA, they might think this is a place where old men come," says Jaqua, a social worker by training. "We continue to serve a significant number of geriatric male patients, but we are seeing more younger veterans, and women."
Jaqua notes that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have produced an unusually high number of seriously wounded vets: "Thanks to continuous improvements in battlefield technology, we have a lot more people surviving these wars. But that means more injured vets are coming home to face chronic health problems. People are going to be living with life-altering health conditions."
Most Madison-area veterans, Jaqua feels, are getting good care. "I don't think any system is going to work perfectly all the time," she says. But Madison VA patients give positive feedback about their care, she adds.
Even so, she acknowledges, wars take a grim toll. Many veterans are coming home, still young, with serious disabilities they must contend with for the rest of their lives: "There's no question that it's devastating."