Injured soldier ponders his price of war

May 26, 1991|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Sun Staff Correspondent

CENTRAL CITY, Iowa -- The war was over. Twenty-two-year-old Raymond Young's battalion was ordered to pull out, and the new father was headed home to see his baby for the first time.

He stepped on the land mine on the way out of Iraq.

His convoy stopped for a meal March 9, and Private Young conscientiously climbed out of his armored personnel carrier to inspect the vehicle and check the oil. Dozens of soldiers were milling about, but his boot hit the mine, buried in the sand like a scorpion with a venom of shrapnel.

As he fell, he saw most of his right foot was gone. "I thought, why me?" he said.

In Iowa, the warm May breezes tease the ready farmlands with the perfume of coming summer, and the question no longer haunts Private Young.

"It happened. It's done. No sense in worrying about it," said the tall, thin young man.

He flew home to Cedar Rapids and a hero's welcome two weeks ago. He came out of the plane on crutches. He figures that is a turn of fate with two sides: It could have been someone else, or it could have been even worse for him.

"The first guys to get to me thought my face was pretty bad. But then they cleaned off the blood, and it was only one piece of shrapnel that cut my lip," he said. "I got extremely lucky. I could have messed my face up, my eyes. . . ."

According to the Pentagon, 357 U.S. servicemen and women were wounded in the Persian Gulf conflict. Many will recover fully. Others, like Private Young, will be reminded every day of the price they paid.

"I'm not bitter. I can see the job had to be done," he said. He would go again, given the same choices. Soldiers follow orders.

But he muses over the reasons for those orders. "This war was for oil. I am kind of wondering if it was worth it," he said.

His mother, Pat Bridge, is more conflicted. "The war was for the people over there. They asked for help, and we couldn't refuse. Raymond signed up for the Army, so he had to do what they sent him to do," she said.

But tears rim her eyes when she sees her son hobbling in pain. Was it worth it? "No," she snaps, quickly.

He is doing better than the doctors predicted, Private Young said. He can walk without crutches for short distances on what is left of his feet. With cotton stuffed into his sneakers, he looks normal, except for his slow, wobbly limp. Next month, military doctors in Georgia will fit one or both feet with prostheses.

But the pain is there.

"There are nights when I finally settle down and start to relax, and the pain comes back, and the muscle spasms start. I can't sleep. If the pain pills aren't helping, the only thing I can do is live with it."

He hopes now, with a future in the military no longer possible, to go to college and get a business degree to support his family.

From the porch of his parents' A-frame house, beyond the small stable with horses Pecos and Tom, Private Young can watch the dusk settle on gentle hills. He and his family used to spend days hunting in those hills -- his mother is a national archery champion.

"I really like the outdoors a lot," he said. "I'm worried that this [injury] will stop me from doing the kinds of things I used to."

It was the outdoors that helped lead him into the military. Field exercises somehow seemed to fit with the life in a small, rural place like Central City, 25 miles north of Cedar Rapids. Raymond signed up with the reserves as a junior in high school.

He liked the weekend training and the summer exercises, but when he got out of high school, other matters absorbed him: college at night, working days at a pizza parlor. There he met Leslie, a pretty blonde from nearby Marion. In a few years he had a wife, a new son, an associate degree in graphic arts and a job that did not pay enough -- designing telephone book advertisements.

"One day on the way home from work I swung by the recruiter, and I found out I could make $400 to $500 a month more by going on active duty," he said. "I needed it to support my family. I didn't have enough education to find a decent-paying job. An associate degree just doesn't cut it any more." He signed up for four years.

"I was all for it," said Leslie Young. "Getting away from home, starting fresh, starting new. I never in a million years thought of war."

Raymond Young reported to his first duty base in Fort Benning, Ga., last June, as part of a mechanized infantry unit. Leslie and son Cody, then 1 1/2 , moved down Aug. 8. Six days earlier, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Eight days later, Private Young left with orders to go to the Middle East.

Leslie cursed the timing. Raymond had a different reaction.

"It may sound crazy, but I was looking forward to it," he said, somewhat sheepishly. "I had to admit it. It was curiosity. . . . I guess I wondered what it would actually be like."

What it was like was hot. And boring. It was sweltering when he arrived in Saudi Arabia -- at 3 in the morning. In the desert during the long buildup, the days of monotonous training dragged slow.

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