The Day My Life Changed Forever

Author: Dustin Ferrell '00

On March 22, 2003, life as I knew it changed forever. On the third evening of Operation Iraqi Freedom, my infantry battalion raced north on a starless night through the wide-open desert of Southern Iraq, headed for uncertain dangers. I sat patiently in the backseat of a HMMWV (High Mobility Multi-purpose Wheeled Vehicle or Humvee), contemplating what lay ahead, and falling in and out of uneasy slumber.

I had first set foot in Kuwait in early February after a month of uncertainty and seasickness aboard the USS Kearsarge. As winter snow covered much of the eastern United States, I squinted in the dust and heat of Kuwaiti Naval Base to gather my belongings for the drive north. I wore a Kevlar helmet and flak jacket, keeping my gas mask in a carrier strapped to the side of my waist opposite of my pistol.

After finding my gear, I settled into the back of a black SUV driven by a Marine major, amazed by the desolation of our journey. It took three hours of driving along a featureless landscape with an occasional Bedouin camp to reach the outer perimeter of Camp Shoup. In the approaching darkness, I surveyed what would become our home for the next month.

Situated fewer than 20 miles from the Kuwaiti-Iraqi border, Camp Shoup was one of dozens of U.S. camps dotting the otherwise vacant desert of northern Kuwait. Countless rows of tan canvas tents were lined up in military precision to house Marines and sailors in groups of up to 20. In the center of camp, larger white tents with plywood floors housed administrative offices and, more importantly, the chow hall. Designated hygiene areas appeared randomly throughout the area, complete with portable toilets and wooden tables for brushing teeth and shaving. A menacing wall of sand and barbed wire enclosed the camp, and Marines guarded each entry point with automatic weapons.

In this primitive setting, troops divided their time between training and waiting for the unknown. Using personal radios, many listened to Voice of America broadcasts, hoping for any news on the political climate in Washington. While diplomats pleaded for giving more time to the Iraqi government, I reasoned that the war was inevitable. I could not imagine placing so many American troops near the border of Iraq as a mere “show of force.”

I used my spare time to rehearse as an assistant air officer, calling in simulated air support missions and medical evacuations (MEDEVACS). I tried to keep my mind off of the deployment by reading and writing letters to my wife, Rachael (’98SMC). Her prolific pen gave me plenty to read, and I struggled to keep pace. I wrote bland, cookie-cutter letters, explaining that I would soon return home safely.

In early March, my 25th birthday came and went, and rhetoric from all sides heated up. While no definite orders surfaced, I reasoned that March was our last month in Kuwait. Speculating on the start of the war felt awkward, to say the least — I had no desire to witness or cause death, much less receive the business end of Saddam’s chemical arsenal. Like most of my peers, I wished to get on with the war and return home. And though I could not foresee it, home was only weeks away for me.

A month of speculation ended on March 20 as we listened to broadcasts of the opening hours of Operation Iraqi Freedom. With vehicles packed and ready, we loaded up and drove toward a camp closer to the border. Shaking off our anxiety, we joked about better names for the operation, few of them fit for print.

As we drove, I tried to imagine how my father and grandfather felt during “their” wars and realized that this was my war. I wondered if I was tempting fate, whether the Ferrell family had exhausted its good fortune in past conflicts. I remembered my graduation from Notre Dame and my earlier decision, at the idealistic age of 17, to pursue a Marine Corps commission. I thought of my wife and my home, and did not want to die in a barren wasteland. I shook off these thoughts as we approached our new position.

We settled in for the night, relatively safe but close enough to watch the war unfold. I could see rockets tracing white paths across the starry sky toward targets I could only imagine. Somewhere, I supposed, unsuspecting enemy soldiers took their final breaths. I pondered the certainty of our targets and how many civilian casualties we deemed “acceptable.”

I had the time for moralizing, time I might not have in the coming days. At any moment we could find ourselves dodging mortar explosions or machine gun fire. I wondered how I might distinguish enemies from civilians when our enemy willingly used its own people as shields. Would I think back to discussions on Just War Theory in the Pasquerilla Center at Notre Dame? Or would a base, animal-like will to survive dictate my actions? I silently hoped my peacetime assumptions would be vindicated.

I awoke early on the third day of the war after several hours of sleep, hearing engines revving and leaders barking orders to move out. I threw my pack into my vehicle, hastily filled my foxhole, and prepared for a long day of driving.

Sergeant Nicholas Hodson drove my vehicle, a Humvee crowded with radios and other equipment. Hodson was a lanky 22-year-old from outside Saint Louis with a quick wit and charm that made the journey much funnier, if not easier. When he wasn’t driving or asking for the peanut butter packet from my MRE (meals ready to eat) pack, Hodson repaired much of the battalion’s equipment, finding even less time for rest than most of us.

The afternoon continued with our convoy dragging along through a traffic jam in the middle of nowhere. Thousands of Army and Marine vehicles “raced” toward a mission I only vaguely understood. At one stretch, I took time to shave and write in my journal, resting my flak jacket against a tire on the Humvee to create a makeshift chair. The only battle I fought that afternoon was against complacency. But some time after my rest, something happened that I don’t remember. My memory skips from the heat of midafternoon to the dead of night.

“Lieutenant, squeeze my hand! Good job! Keep your eyes open, sir!”

“Someone get an I.V. now!”

I stared into the desperate faces of Navy corpsmen and Marines assessing a situation I could not yet grasp. Flashlights pierced the darkness around me. I felt as though I had the wind knocked out of me, only tenfold. My eyelids grew heavy, and I struggled to stay awake. With my body in shock, I felt a strange calm. Finally, I spoke:

“Am I going to live?”

“Yes, sir, oh yeah, sir, you’ll be fine.” Three or more voices seemed to say the same thing at once. I wasn’t completely convinced. But I did not feel like I was dying. What does dying feel like? I asked a second question, later wishing it had been the first:

“How are the others?”

“We don’t know, sir!”

I did not feel any pain in my head, but my face was numb, and I could taste blood. A Navy corpsman stepped in front of me and muttered an expletive. I weakly responded to urgent yells to stay awake, squeeze fingers and “hold on.” Trying in vain to straighten my left leg, I decided it was broken. Men with scissors stripped me of my chemical protective suit and all other clothing.

Before long, I was placed on a stretcher and loaded onto an Army Blackhawk helicopter. The crew brought me aboard, and I screamed as my new attendees tried to straighten my leg, no doubt to appease some flight regulation written during peacetime. The crew finally let up on my leg, and we lifted off. I faded in and out of coherence, with so many questions on my mind, but one thing was certain — the war was over for me, another begun in its place. Two full days passed before I remember hearing another voice.

“Good morning, Lieutenant Ferrell,” I heard. The voice introduced itself as a doctor, then added, “You’re in Germany.” I found immediate comfort in the soft voice of the blurry white coat standing at my bedside. I looked up, searching the small room with squinting eyes. Machines beeped and hummed around me. The doctor continued his greeting.

“You’ve sustained some very serious injuries. We have you hooked up to a ventilator as a precaution.” I could hear the ventilator sustaining my every breath. The doctor read a laundry list of my injuries and finished with comforting news.

“You’re going to make a full recovery.”

Although my recovery was expected, it was anything but easy. The debacle broke most of the bones in my face, shattering my jaw and knocking loose 14 teeth. A bruised lung made upper body movement difficult, and a dislocated left hip kept me off of my feet.

Additionally, facial swelling threatened my airway during the MEDEVAC, and an Army medic performed a tracheotomy to save my life. Since I could not speak, I now communicated with pen and paper and frustrated hand signals. I shared my time with doctors, nurses and generals offering coins and handshakes. Otherwise, I trained my weary eyes on a small television set in the upper left corner of my room. Soap operas and cartoons gave me the opportunity to free my mind from my injuries and from the war.

On my fourth morning in the hospital, nurses brought me to the operating room. For more than hours, surgeons forged titanium and bone to reconstruct my battered face. After the surgery, I awoke to hallucinations of cartoon dogs on seesaws and waited anxiously for the anesthesia to wear off. I labored for a day and a half to open my eyes, and then saw only blurriness. With my jaw wired shut, I could expect a liquid diet for at least six weeks.

After one week in Germany, I looked forward to my flight home. On the afternoon of March 30, nurses loaded me into the back of an airplane bound for Andrews Air Force Base. As the crew brought me aboard, I could see casualties stacked three persons high on stretchers suspended from the ceiling of the aircraft. I settled into my rack, up front on the left bottom row. Upon takeoff I went to sleep, waking only to request pain medication.

Ten hours later, a police escort brought our chartered bus to Bethesda National Naval Medical Center in Maryland. Hospital staffers quickly wheeled me through the automatic doors at the entrance. I looked up from my stretcher to find Rachael and my mother standing among a crowd of loved ones searching for young men they might not even recognize. I could see that Rachael and Mom did not know me because of my swollen face. My wave to the crowd prompted a somber round of applause as nurses took me up to my room.

Whenever I asked about my accident, medical staff explained that a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) had hit our vehicle. When a visiting general repeated the account, I accepted the story at face value. Later, through my own queries, I discovered that the true cause had been a horrific collision with an Army truck while we traveled over 60 miles per hour. The Battle for An Nasiriyah exploded the next morning, claiming the lives of nine Marines the first day and ruling out further investigation into the matter.

Nearly one year later, the thought of lying helplessly on Iraqi soil is a blur, obscured by the morphine and the shock and the passage of time. Rachael, along with my friends and family, provides constant support and motivation when times are tough. The Notre Dame family, true to its reputation, continues to reach out in ways I could never imagine, much less repay. My physical recovery is steady and encouraging. While my face is nearly healed, I have at least one full year of dental surgeries remaining. My hip occasionally clicks and pops when I run, and a permanent blind spot obscures the vision in my right eye.

I am indeed very lucky. Had my crash not occurred near an Army surgical team, had my caretakers not performed a difficult tracheotomy in a combat environment, had anything gone wrong with my surgery in Germany, I might not be alive today.

My driver was not as fortunate. Sergeant Hodson rests in the Coastal Carolina State Veterans Cemetery, only a couple of miles from my home aboard Camp Lejeune. He left behind a pregnant wife and a young son. I can always hang my Purple Heart on the wall of an office cubicle; Sergeant Hodson’s medal is among his son’s few reminders of a father he closely resembles.

Like my father before me, I served in a just war. As with the Vietnam War, many cynical views of our justification for war persist, and partisans maintain their own versions as sacrosanct. But I never doubted Saddam Hussein’s threat to the free world. Iraqis now speak freely in the streets, both for and against America, proving that Saddam was much more feared than an American occupation, and that is sufficient for me.

I did not hear the crash of enemy rockets or watch illumination rounds dance above my head. I have no war stories. But I will forever carry reminders of my service in Iraq, especially Sergeant Hodson’s sacrifice. I can only bite my tongue at the comments of senior officers, unaffected by our “accident,” as war trophies decorate the walls of their Camp Lejeune offices.

“You guys just missed the action!”

First Lieutenant Dustin Ferrell serves as an assistant logistics officer for an infantry battalion at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.