ANDREWS AIR FORCE BASE -- The day before the ground war began, Spc. 4 Angel Noe Alvarez of McAllen, Texas, was deep inside Iraq on a reconnaissance mission, scouting for mines and enemy troop locations with his Army tank unit.
Thirty miles into this bleak landscape, the unit came upon a group of Iraqis waving a white flag. "All they said was, 'Are you Americans?' " he recalled yesterday. "It kind of astounded me."
While rounding up the Iraqis and collecting their weapons and helmets from the bunker, he was surprised by something else: the low moaning whistle of an enemy shell.
"All of a sudden we heard some incoming mortar rounds," said Specialist Alvarez. Hot shrapnel tore into his legs and right hand. Just before he blacked out, he noticed he could move only his left hand. At least three soldiers were killed.
"I thought I was a goner," said the slight, 22-year-old soldier with black glasses, seated in a wheelchair. A Purple Heart was pinned to his fatigues, along with a button reading, "Kuwait Will Be Free."
For a day and a half, he lay unconscious. His wife and parents, told that his injuries were serious, "thought I was dead at the time," he said yesterday. It will be two months before he can walk again, he said.
Specialist Alvarez, along with two Marines also hit by mortar fire,
spoke with reporters yesterday at an indoor tennis court lined with beds. They were among the hundreds of wounded Desert Storm veterans who are flying into Andrews before making the final trip to military hospitals near their hometowns or bases.
Lt. Col. Marilyn C. Floro said five to six planes carrying about 300 wounded soldiers have been flying into Andrews each week since Jan. 18. And there are estimates that "well over 1,000" wounded are still waiting in the Persian Gulf to head into the Prince George's County base, she said, adding that some of the soldiers coming through will be permanently disabled.
"All of a sudden artie [artillery] started coming in," said Marine 1st Lt. Kevin Anderson of Twentynine Palms, Calif., originally from Hyde Park, N.Y.
Lieutenant Anderson was eating some crackers with his 3rd Battalion inside Kuwait on Feb. 25 when he was struck in the face and shoulder by mortar shrapnel. He could feel his shirt fill with blood and saw his sergeant "spinning" after he was hit.
Marine Lance Cpl. Charles M. Weatherman of Waynesville, N.C., was 15 miles inside Kuwait on the second day of the ground war with his 1st Marine Division. He, too, was helping with Iraqi POWs when the low whistling sound pierced the air and ended with "some popping."
"I got hit in the neck with a piece of shrapnel," the 20-year-old corporal said matter-of-factly, turning his head to reveal a long, thin red line.