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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Keeping the wounded near the fight

    FORWARD OPERATING BASE WILSON, Afghanistan — When Sgt. Chris Milton was recovering from his combat injury, his days hardly varied: As the wind off the Afghan desert coated everything in a talcum-like dust, he spent two hours on “”the rack,”” as he called his physical therapy. In his sweltering tent, he watched movies or played computer games. Before he went to sleep, he hooked himself up to electrodes that sped the healing of his spine.

    The rest of the time he spent thinking about his unit still in combat nearby, about the war and about how faith can come between men.

    A growing number of soldiers like Milton are being treated for non-life-threatening wounds and sent back to combat without ever leaving Afghanistan. Army doctors and commanders say the practice speeds recovery and gets injured soldiers back to their units more quickly than sending them to Germany or the United States for treatment at military hospitals.

    Caring for the wounded in Afghanistan helps their morale, they say, by keeping them more connected to their buddies.

    But Milton, a 29-year-old squad leader in the 101st Airborne Division, says that even though his company was nearby at its Arghandab River Valley outpost in Kandahar province, he never felt more isolated, at war not only with the Taliban, but at times with the Army, and even himself.

    Being away from his unit for two months gave him plenty of time to ponder a war in which victory seems difficult to define, much less achieve. It left him feeling skeptical that the Army knows best about his medical treatment and even about the tactics for winning the war in this part of Afghanistan, which has seen some of the bloodiest fighting of the more than nine-year conflict.

    “”We’re over here fighting a war that doesn’t matter,”” said Milton, a powerfully built Ohio native who defies easy definition: a soldier fighting Muslim militants, but one who is unafraid of challenging fellow GIs who equate Muslims with terrorists. “”It’s never going to change.””

    Milton is in the 101st Airborne’s 2nd Brigade, one of the additional units ordered to Afghanistan last year by President Barack Obama to try to stem what military commanders acknowledged had become a worsening insurgency.

    His platoon arrived in June with more than 20 men. But after being sent to a small U.S. base called Combat Outpost Nolen, it was down to fewer than a dozen by August.

    Several soldiers lost limbs or suffered such severe injuries that they had to be flown home. Others, like Milton, have been sent to the rear in hope that they can recover and return to duty.

    Milton was injured during a supply mission in July. He was traveling in one of the Army’s heavily armored mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles when a bomb detonated beneath it and blasted the front end skyward.

    Then the vehicle slammed to the ground, and “”all I remember is grabbing the gunner”” in the rooftop turret to keep from being thrown out, Milton said.

    He suffered a compressed spine. Army medics gave him painkillers so he could remain with his squad, because his dwindling unit needed every available man. That suited Milton, who couldn’t stand the thought of leaving.

    “”I didn’t want to be evacuated,”” he said. “”I had to be there for my soldiers.””

    But the drugs only masked his injuries, and his back gave out three weeks later as he was carrying a soldier who had collapsed from the heat.

    He was taken by helicopter to the U.S. air base near Kandahar city, and after rest and physical therapy, was moved to Forward Operating Base Wilson, closer to his unit in Arghandab.

    Doctors prescribed more painkillers, but he stopped taking them, convinced that they exacerbated his injuries.

    “”They had me so doped up before that I didn’t know I was injured,”” he said.

    Milton’s back is covered with a large tattoo of an ankh, an Egyptian cross with a loop at the top that is an ancient symbol for “”life.””

    His girlfriend, Sarah Hosni, the mother of his 2-year-old son, comes from a Muslim family, and though she and Milton are Christians, he has an affinity for her parents’ faith. He got the tattoo the week before his son was born, and says it is a personal reminder of his ties to Christianity and Islam.

    Just as he had a desire to return to combat despite his pessimism about the war, he defends Islam though it is not his faith. He said that three times he has almost gotten into a fight with fellow soldiers who disparaged the religion.

    He is an imposing man, well over 6 feet tall, who talks bluntly about the need to kill the enemy in almost the same breath that he discusses his deep faith that “”God is taking care of us out here.””

    Before he joined the Army, he was studying culinary arts, hoping to become a chef. There’s a deeply personal reason: Learning about food, he said, could enable him to help his mother, a diabetic.

    It’s clear that he would rather be doing something other than soldiering.

    And the longer he spent away from his unit, the more Milton began to question his treatment. He became angry when he was told that he must delay surgery to mend his bulging discs, a decision he says is part of an unspoken Army policy of trying to return as many injured soldiers as possible to duty to keep troop numbers up.

    “”The reality is that they said I might need surgery, but my commander deferred it,”” he said.

    Maj. Larry Porter, a spokesman for the 2nd Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division, acknowledged that many soldiers are being treated “”in theater”” but said Milton’s claim that soldiers were being kept in Afghanistan when their injuries warranted being sent home was “”totally false.””

    “”We are finding out that soldiers with minor or rehabilitating injuries are receiving more personalized care … than they would in the States and that this cuts down on the recovery time, transportation, and sometimes they can perform another job that is still required,”” Porter said.

    As the weeks at Wilson passed, Milton’s back slowly improved. But he still walked gingerly and was awakened four or five times a night by shooting pains.

    U.S. commanders have said that securing Kandahar city, the birthplace of the Taliban, is a major objective for the year. They’ve been working since early summer to choke off insurgent access by taking control of the surrounding countryside.

    But the strategy has run into difficulty in the Arghandab River Valley, a fertile belt of pomegranate groves, vineyards and dusty villages used by insurgents as a staging ground to conduct attacks in Kandahar city.

    After Milton was evacuated at the end of July, several infantry platoons rotated into Nolen and other outposts. A nearby village once riddled with hidden bombs and used by insurgents is now under U.S. control, commanders say.

    The fighting at Nolen has been so intense that a therapist on the 101st Airborne Division staff has traveled there multiple times to evaluate soldiers for symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and for brain injuries caused by bomb explosions, said Lt. Col. Michael Wirt, the brigade physician.

    Despite the daily trauma, Wirt isn’t surprised that soldiers such as Milton prefer to fight through injuries.

    “”Most soldiers don’t want to be pulled out,”” he said. “”They don’t want to leave their fellow soldiers. There’s a significant degree of guilt, especially among noncommissioned officers.””

    In late September, Milton was sent back to Nolen to rejoin his unit. He resumed taking painkillers. His back wasn’t fully healed, so he was assigned to a desk job. His commander told him to help keep up morale until he can return to combat.

    About that, too, Milton is conflicted. He resents the decision to hold off on surgery on his back. But then he thinks about his unit.

    “”My choice,”” he said, “”is to stay here in hell with them until we all go home.””

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