Roanoke native Jordan Sherwood is still a young man but already a combat veteran. Twice wounded in Iraq, he wonders: Will I go back again?
By John Cramer
Jordan Sherwood stares over the sandbagged side of his truck as it crosses the Euphrates River.
It's late morning, the sun nearly at its peak, baking the city and the desert beyond. A warm wind blows, leaving grit in his teeth. It's March 13, 2005, three weeks into his second tour in Iraq as a Marine lance corporal and combat cameraman.
He holds his rifle easily, his photography gear by his side. He watches the roadside, scans the horizon, looks for things out of place among the palm trees and bullet-scarred buildings. His Marine buddies jaw beside him in the back of the 7-ton truck, its big tires rumbling up reassuringly through the soles of their boots.
The truck crosses the murky Euphrates, flowing through the cradle of ancient civilization and the heart of modern war. Ahead is the 1st Marine Division's headquarters, a base nicknamed Blue Diamond, in the city of Ramadi in Anbar province, a hotbed of the Sunni Arab insurgency about 70 miles west of Baghdad. Ramadi is a dangerous place for Marines, who have taken hundreds of casualties and inflicted even more in some of the most brutal urban fighting of the war.
At this moment, it's quiet. Civilians mill about. Merchants hawk cigarettes from ramshackle stands. A few Iraqi soldiers stand sentry listlessly.
Just after the Marines' truck leaves the bridge, a roadside bomb buried in the dirt explodes. They are slammed in a whirlwind of shrapnel and shock wave. Their muscles contract spastically, eyes shutting, jaws clenching.
The truck grinds to a halt, tires blown out, gas tank punctured. Dust billows up, rocks rain down. Someone screams: Man down, man down!
Jordan looks at his sergeant, whose neck is slashed open, pumping blood. Holy s--t, the sergeant gasps, then closes his eyes and slumps over. A Navy chief has shrapnel jutting from his arm, but he tries to help the others.
Jordan, a 22-year-old Roanoke native, is closest to the blast. It reverberates through his lanky body, scrambling nerves, breaking apart bones, tearing open muscles.
He tastes cold blood, touches his face and flings away shredded skin. His right hand is mangled. He glances around for his missing finger but can't find it. His legs look fine -- his camouflage pants and boots are undisturbed -- but he can't feel them.
Someone's still shouting: Man down! And Jordan thinks: Are they talking about me?
There's confusion for a moment, scrambling, cursing, then order prevails. The Marines drag the wounded from the wreckage before it can catch fire. They radio for support. Jordan's ears ring from the blast, so the words are muffled. He spits blood through his reddened teeth. He looks at his friends, their rifles up, shouting orders, angrily looking for someone to kill. There's no one, just cowering civilians.
Jordan doesn't consider grabbing his camera or rifle. He can't stand up and his trigger finger is gone, so he lies on the warm ground, legs splayed out. He looks at the sky, feels himself breathing moistly, in and out, in and out, through the blood. He's suddenly cold, shivering in the acrid air, which smells of gasoline and smoke.
After several minutes, Jordan is loaded into another truck that retreats across the bridge, its steel girders flashing overhead in the sunlight. He wonders about the sailor and his sergeant. He's freezing now, his teeth chattering. He tries to move his throbbing legs -- the right one flops over woodenly, the left one doesn't move. But he doesn't think of dying, of being paralyzed, of being an amputee. He thinks: I'm all right, I'm all right.
The Marines can't get an IV going because of the lurching truck. They keep him conscious by asking urgently pointless questions: How are you, where are you from, what do you like to do at home? He can tell from their eyes that it's bad, but he manages a joke: Sir, I don't feel like answering your stupid-ass questions, sir.
They laugh, tell him to hang on. At the field hospital, a big soldier scoops Jordan up gently and lays him on a stretcher. The doctors and nurses and corpsmen cut off his clothes and drape him in a paper sheet. They take off his St. Christopher's medal, which his mother gave him for protection, and his dog tags -- two around his neck, another on his boot lace. They try to stop the bleeding, keep the shattered bones in place. Another millimeter, they say, and he would have been dead, at least lost his legs. When a nurse mentions he'll need extensive surgery on his nose, he wonders if it's been blown off.
He lies naked on the table, trembling, feels them pulling and prodding and poking. It feels as if they're working on someone else, talking about someone else. He looks at the ceiling, at the bright lights, at the serious faces hovering. He glances through the doorway, at the sunlight beyond, reflecting brilliantly off the sand as if each grain is electrified. He hears boots on gravel, a distant rumbling, the war going on without him. He drifts away.
Hours later, he awakens on a cot in a tent, the sun setting, the cold night coming on. His sergeant and the sailor lie next to him, and he thinks: We're alive. Then he closes his eyes and slips away into darkness.