One Day, Four Soldiers

May 1 was a turning point in a war, and also in many lives.

March 14, 2004|By Stories by Linell Smith | Stories by Linell Smith,SUN STAFF

Sgt. Tiffany Tinker: Injured May 1, Talil, Iraq

Sgt. Tiffany Tinker walks without a limp. She will not let what happened on May 1 loom too large in her mind; that's not the sort of person she is. Tiffany Tinker believes in getting on with things.

The military police officer is patrolling paper trails and company records, tracking the medical care of other soldiers who have returned, assisting with rear operations for her unit of the National Guard, the 933rd MP company, stationed near Baghdad.

She is safe at home in Chicago.

Yet she still feels separation anxiety: She would rather be with her comrades in Iraq.

Tinker has a history of surprising people. The slender, freckle-faced redhead was the first in her family to leave Ohio. Then she shocked everyone by joining the Army. That, in turn, introduced her to martial arts, to life and friendships outside the United States, to becoming the first in her family to go to college, to believing she should always "Stand up in life and do what you need to do!"

In 2002, after three years of active duty, Tinker returned to school. Last winter, she was completing her associate degree in criminal justice when her Guard unit was called up.

By April 15, Tiffany Tinker had arrived "in theater." Things looked promising: Saddam Hussein's statue had been toppled, Iraqi resistance appeared sporadic, less organized. As a military police officer, Tinker maintained order in the streets and neighborhoods of Talil, a town roughly 200 miles south of Baghdad, and provided security for the base camp there. She knew this kind of work from a similar mission in Kosovo.

Her age - 32 - made her a respected veteran, the voice of experience to other members of her unit. In uniform, she did not think of herself as a woman - or even as African-American. She was a soldier, doing her job to the best of her ability.

Until the accident.

It happened at 1 in the morning on May 1. Tinker was patrolling the outlying area of Talil in a Humvee with her driver and gunner. Without streetlights, with clouds of blowing sand, with the desert the same color as the dirt road, visibility was lousy. As Tinker remembers, she didn't realize she was off the road, crashing into a ravine, until it was too late.

Putting Tinker back together would require a 3 1/2 -hour operation at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., three stainless steel plates, 14 regular screws and one large screw to hold her pelvis in place.

Two days after surgery, as she gritted her teeth and began the agonizing business of maneuvering out of bed - what you might call the first stage of physical therapy - the plain-spoken officer found herself in a strange new place.

This was not Iraq, or the hospitals in Kuwait or Germany, where military physicians stabilized her. She was on U.S. soil, and the press was everywhere. Pfc. Jessica Lynch also was being treated at Walter Reed, and America was eager to hear the stories of soldiers who had returned. People felt proud about toppling a cruel despot, relieved that the war hadn't claimed more American casualties and eager to thank anyone who had served. All returning soldiers were heroes.

Still a little groggy from painkillers, Tinker marveled at the top brass who stopped by her bed. There were also entertainers - mostly country-western singers she hadn't heard of - and people from the Veterans Administration. Tinker received a service coin from an appreciative Sergeant Major of the Army, as well as gifts of clothes, blankets, and handmade tokens of gratitude. She couldn't help but feel like a VIP.

Until she entered the sobering world of the hospital's physical therapy unit.

Now, with the war nearly a year old, roughly 2,700 Americans have been wounded in action; another 423 have sustained "non-hostile" injuries like Tinker's. But last May, while she struggled to move her leg, the country was still getting used to the vision of soldiers with nasty chunks out of their limbs and Frankenstein tracks of sutures.

Such sights reminded her that she was not wounded in combat. Did that make her injury less significant? She wondered.

Pain, she discovered, served as a great equalizer.

After three weeks at Walter Reed, the soldier was well enough to return to Chicago where she stayed with a friend until she could make her way around a new apartment. She hobbled on crutches for almost four months, learning the difficult new art of accepting help. When people saw her, they assumed she hurt her ankle or knee because she was not wearing a cast. She recalls their conversations:

Did you fall or something?

No. I was injured in Iraq.

That stopped them.

You were in Iraq?

Yeah.

Did they shoot at you?

She would explain the incident. Again and again. When people began "to gush," the soldier would tell them, "Calm down!"

For a while last summer, Tiffany Tinker was a trophy friend.

Hey, this is my friend. She was in Iraq. She got hurt.

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