Healing soldier recalls battle, looks ahead

Baltimore native injured while heading to attack on Baghdad's airport

War in Iraq

April 17, 2003|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,SUN STAFF

Pfc. Donald R. Schafer has had enough of hospitals already.

But since he's stuck in one for a while - weeks, probably - he's using the opportunity to catch up on the news, which was in short supply in Iraq.

With newspapers, magazines and articles printed from the Internet sprawled across his tray table and bed at Walter Reed Army Medical Center yesterday, the 23-year-old Northeast Baltimore native pointed to a picture of an unnamed soldier on a stretcher in a recent issue of Newsweek. That's him.

And there's the April 6 Atlanta Journal-Constitution, with a front-page column by reporter Ron Martz under the headline, "I owe these heroes my life." That's Schafer, too.

Schafer, part of the 3rd Infantry Division based at Fort Stewart in Georgia, was headed to attack Baghdad International Airport on the morning of April 5 when the tank in front of his was hit and couldn't be saved. Making way for the displaced soldiers, he moved over to the personnel carrier where the Atlanta reporter was riding.

Schafer's orders en route: "Nothing is friendly out here. We were firing at anything that moved."

Shots came flying. His buddy, Christopher Shipley, was hit, Schafer thinks in the head. Then he was hit as well - how many times, the doctors don't even know.

"I just know that my arm is broke, and I got holes in my back," Schafer said.

Shipley survived, meeting up with Schafer at a hospital in Rota, Spain.

A life saved

Martz said the pair took bullets that otherwise would have hit him. Schafer said he didn't realize what was happening. He was just doing his job.

"Everything when you're fighting like that is instinct," he said. "I was surprised how well it kicked in."

After he was injured, Schafer was transported from Iraq to Kuwait to Spain to Bethesda before arriving at Walter Reed in Washington on Tuesday. His family agonized during that time, not knowing where he was or what kind of condition he was in, said his father, Donald C. Schafer, a hydraulic mechanic for the city of Baltimore.

Schafer's parents were thrilled when he joined the Army on Jan. 30, 2000, after watching him play video games and work at Taco Bell and a party rental store after his graduation from Parkville High School.

But for the past two weeks, all they've wanted is for him to be back home.

Father and son were together yesterday. Sitting up in bed next to three "Welcome Home" Mylar balloons, the younger Schafer wore black sweat pants, turquoise socks and a white tank top.

A bullet hole under his right arm was visible, as were two dark scars from his first chest surgery in Spain.

Four nails, stabilized by a black metal bar, are holding his right arm together. He has tubes coming out of his left arm and his nose. He has to practice breathing into a machine. He is scheduled to be cut open again today to have new chest tubes put in for the blood clots in his lungs.

Really, though, he feels fine.

He continues to reject offers of pain medication. He doesn't know that today's procedure is necessary, but he thinks doctors are being extra-cautious after NBC reporter David Bloom's death in Iraq stemming from a blood clot in his leg.

Schafer is far more concerned about Shipley's recovery than he is about his own.

Next step

But he does wonder whether getting wounded earned him a promotion or an award.

Schafer knows he wants to go home already.

He doesn't know, however, what he will do with his life after that happens. He may become a police officer. If he goes back to the Army, he'd want a less dangerous job.

"I did my time in the battlefield," he said.

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