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Tuesday, September 30, 2003

Flag flies from Iraq to Walter Reed patient

By Spc. Lorie Jewell

Spc. John Perkins takes a picture of himself and Spc. Aaron Blakely and Spc. Larry Burns during a limo ride to the White House.
Staff Sgt. Carmen Maldonado
WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Sept. 30, 2003) – The physical wounds of the rocket propelled grenade attack that forced doctors to amputate both of Spc. Aaron Blakely’s feet are healing. But, emotional injuries haunt his recovery.

He got an unexpected shot of relief last week, though, when the first Soldiers returned from Iraq for 15 days of rest and recuperation.

Many of the desert-battle-dress-clad Soldiers went straight into the arms of waiting loved ones; others hurried to catch connecting flights home. A few dozen others caught a shuttle bus to a nearby hotel, where the manager offered free showers. Still more filed into the USO for a free continental breakfast.

Spc. John Perkins, 30, was easy to spot with an American flag draped over his backpack. He was anxious to get home to Macon, Ga., to scoop up his 5- and 3-year-old daughters and spend time with his parents. Not far behind was Pfc. Brian McJunkin, 19, eager to get to Coker Creek, Tenn. He was excited about seeing his mom and dad, but was itchy for some hunting and fly-fishing.

Their R&R would wait. Both men survived the same attack that sent Blakely, 24, to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. They needed to see him, to see for themselves that he’s OK.

They also wanted to deliver an American flag -- a get-well gift from the rest of the guys in the mortar platoon of Headquarters Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, based in Vicenza, Italy.

The pair met up with Spc. Larry Burns, a fellow 503rd infantryman. Burns, a member of Company C, offered them a lift to the hospital in a stretch limousine he rented as a special treat to himself.

During the hour-long trip, the trio shared experiences. Despite daily ambushes, the guys agree far more Iraqi citizens are grateful for U.S. presence than not. Not a day goes by without some Kirkuk resident inviting them into their home for a cup of Chai tea. Or a kid runs up, yanking a uniform sleeve, wanting to shake their hand.

McJunkin and Perkins told Burns about Blakely. Of all the guys in the mortar platoon, he was the last one they would imagine getting hurt. No one was more fastidious about safety than Blakely.

The attack came at 3 a.m. June 28, when most of the men were sleeping. The round tore through the glass door of the second-floor balcony seconds after Perkins walked by the sofa where Blakely slept. McJunkin was sleeping nearby. The RPG flew about a foot above his head before slamming into the sofa.

McJunkin still has chunks of shrapnel lodged in his neck, shoulder and hands. Perkins took some shrapnel in his right side.

When they arrived at the front desk of a recovery facility on the hospital grounds, the clerk wouldn’t give them Blakely’s room number. He did, however, call Blakely’s room and let them talk to him.

Perkins disguised his voice when Blakely answered. He said he was a reporter and wanted an interview. Blakely gave him the room number.

The trio sped to the room. Blakely opened the door on his knees, a bewildered look on his face when Perkins and McJunkin popped out from behind an abutting door.

An expletive slipped as Blakely realized who these two grinning soldiers were. Perkins dropped to his knees, pulling Blakely into a bear hug while jabbering a confusing greeting.

The reunion was short, just long enough for the men to hand over the flag and a few other gifts they picked up at the airport.

McJunkin reached into his pocket and took out a plastic baggie. He had one more thing to give Blakely. He saved a piece of the RPG, which he offered to his friend.

Before the mood could turn morose, Perkins said they had to get going so he could catch his flight in less than two hours. First, though, they’d have the limo driver take them by the White House.

As Blakely strapped on his new legs, McJunkin watched his friend and remembered the ambulance ride they shared a few months ago. He held Blakely’s hand, trying to comfort him. And when Blakely asked him for the truth about his legs, McJunkin gave it to him. Then, they prayed together.

The limo driver maneuvered as close as he could to the White House, some distance from where the guys wanted to be for a group picture. They walked it, Blakely using a cane to help keep his balance.

At the gate, other sightseers ogled the young men. The rumpled uniforms and scruffy boots were good clues they’d come straight from the desert. Many came over to thank them for their service. One older man asked to have his picture taken with them.

Back at the limo, they snapped a few more pictures. Perkins couldn’t contain his enthusiasm.

“Heeeelllllooo America!” he shouted, arms open wide. “I love you!” His outburst drew a spattering of honking horns from passing cars. The others laughed, shaking their heads as the group climb into the limo.

On the way back to the hospital, the guys started their good-byes. Blakely told them how much he misses everyone, and that he loves them.

“I don’t know who got the better end of the deal,’’ said Blakely. “Me, cause I’m back in the states for good, or you guys, cause you didn’t get your legs blown off.”

Perkins and McJunkin didn’t answer; it was a rhetorical comment, anyway.

Before they parted, Blakely stepped away from his friends for a private moment. He tried to explain what their visit means to him, how much that flag means but he couldn’t find just the right words.

“It’s just so unbelievable,’’ Blakely said. “My morale has been up and down. Right now, it’s up. Way up.”

(Editor’s note: Spc. Lorie Jewell is a journalist with the 107th MPAD, Florida Army National Guard, on active duty supporting Operation Tribute to Freedom.)

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