Team welcomes war veterans

ORIOLES NOTEBOOK

Eight service members from war in Iraq attend game at Angelos' invitation

April 07, 2003|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

His right arm immobilized in a full-length cast, Army Staff Sgt. Tarik Jackson sat in Suite 31 at Camden Yards yesterday and stared at the Purple Heart medal that lay in its case on a nearby table.

Jackson soon would begin watching the Orioles play the Boston Red Sox on another chilly afternoon in Baltimore. But, as usual, his thoughts drifted back to the fighting he left behind in Iraq and the friends who won't be returning home.

"It's an award nobody wants," he said, a crutch lying beside him. "Nobody wants to come back wounded."

Trained as a maintenance mechanic, Jackson was part of the ambushed 507th Maintenance Company convoy in Iraq. Jessica Lynch, the West Virginia soldier who was rescued from captivity last week, was in his unit.

Jackson received a day pass from Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington after Orioles majority owner Peter Angelos invited a group of service members from the war in Iraq to attend yesterday's game.

The six soldiers and two Marines were among the first wounded Americans to return from the Middle East. They served in the 101st Airborne Division, the Army Rangers 3rd Infantry Division and the 3rd Expeditionary Corps. They're receiving care at Walter Reed and the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda.

Orioles pitchers Jason Johnson, Buddy Groom and Willis Roberts, in full uniform, visited with the group about 30 minutes before the first pitch. Seated in rows on the club level, they were shown on the stadium video board after the fourth inning. The crowd rose for a long ovation, and players in both dugouts moved to the top step and applauded while the words "Thank You" appeared on the large scoreboard screen.

Only Jackson, 28, agreed to meet with reporters before the game, and he couldn't provide many details of the ambush because of the ongoing investigation. A New York Yankees fan at heart, he promised after finishing a hot dog with mustard and sauerkraut to root for the Orioles.

Jackson had been confined to a hospital bed in Germany for a week before checking into Walter Reed on April 1, nine days after being wounded. He was shot three times, in the upper right arm, right hip and left thigh. Though he has suffered nerve damage in the arm and doctors inserted a plate and screws to heal a broken bone, Jackson is expected to make a full recovery within six months.

It will take much longer for Jackson to stop reliving the events that led to his injuries and to the deaths of at least eight members of the convoy. He remembers the rush of adrenaline, so heavy he didn't realize the extent of his wounds. All he knew for certain was that his arm was broken.

"It's hard to sleep sometimes, thinking about what happened there, just replaying the whole thing in my head," said Jackson, who has served in the military for 11 years.

Jackson reportedly was wounded as he was trying to get several injured soldiers out of harm's way.

"The military told us that he walked for a mile after he was shot and kept encouraging the others to come along with him," Jackson's aunt, Adrianna Hunter, told the El Paso (Texas) Times. "Tarik told them: `Look at me. I've got all these injuries and I'm walking. Keep going, keep up with me.' "

Asked about the possibility of being called to duty again in Iraq, Jackson said: "Knowing what I went through, it's kind of hard to say. If I had a choice, I wouldn't, but if I had to go, I would."

A native of Miami, Jackson was stationed at Fort Bliss, Texas, before flying to Iraq. He received the Purple Heart on Saturday, with 21 family members crammed into a small hospital conference room. His 9-month-old son remains in Miami.

"He was a bit surprised when he walked in. We couldn't even get them all into the bedroom," said his cousin, Deidre Pollock, who accompanied Jackson to the ballpark. "We warned him ahead of time that there were quite a few, and he walked in and said, `Wow.' We've been trying to make sure that he's got plenty of family support, plenty of love, plenty of caring around the clock.

"They have to kick us out of the hospital and tell us to be quiet because we're having way too much fun in the room. The people next door complained because we were so really loud, mostly because we're laughing. It's not sad stuff, really. We're laughing about some of the good memories."

Pollock flipped through the pages of her memory book until she located Groom's note, which read: "It was a great honor to meet you, to know there are guys like you that keep us safe. Good luck and take care."

"They all said thanks for what we were doing, fighting for our country," Jackson said. "It feels pretty good to hear that from different people. You never know how much people appreciate what you do."

Said Johnson: "For them to go over there and defend our country is just amazing to me. I go out there and throw a baseball for a living, and for them to risk their lives going over there to defend our country ... there are plenty of words that could describe that, but I can't find them."

Morban debuts

Jose Morban made his major league debut yesterday, replacing shortstop Deivi Cruz in the eighth. Batting for the first time above Single-A, he grounded into a forceout in the ninth.

Morban didn't exactly milk his opportunity. He swung at both pitches, fouling off the first.

"He runs pretty good, and I like his bat speed. He's not bashful about swinging the bat, and we'll continue to look at him as we can," manager Mike Hargrove said.

Short bullpen

Roberts didn't pitch in the three-game series because of a sore right shoulder, leaving another hole in Hargrove's bullpen. Only Rick Bauer, Kerry Ligtenberg and Groom were available.

Hargrove expects Roberts, who felt better yesterday, to be available for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays series that begins tomorrow.

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