Special return for wounded hero
By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer
By William Cole
After a year of dust and war, every Hawai'i-based soldier in Iraq dreams of an airliner's touchdown, a return to sea and sand, friends and loved ones, a brass band and a hero's welcome.
Thousands already have received such grateful thanks. For most in Hawai'i, it's been relatively on schedule.
Spc. Bryant Jacobs' homecoming last night at Honolulu International Airport came more than a year late — following serious injuries from a roadside bomb and many surgeries — and with the assistance of a cane.
For many of those seriously wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan, such a return is never made.
But the heartfelt welcome Jacobs received from more than 175 fellow soldiers and dozens of family members showed he hadn't been forgotten.
The crowd hoisted banners, cheered and started shouting "Jacobs! Jacobs! Jacobs!" as the soldier, looking a little shellshocked, got off an airport van at a specially-arranged area outside foreign arrivals at 8:12 p.m.
"Your family is still here," said Sgt. 1st Class Juan Azucena, 31, who was Jacobs' platoon sergeant in Iraq.
"Always will be," added Sgt. Christopher Harry, 28.
Jacobs, wearing khaki shorts that revealed scars on both legs, figured he'd be greeted by his first sergeant and nobody else.
The 25-year-old said it felt great to see his buddies again and talked about the bonds he developed in Iraq.
"That's what you want to do," he told reporters. "You want to see your old guys again and catch up."
Fellow soldiers said it was long overdue.
"When we came back after 14 months, we got treated like kings. They had the band, they had people all over the place. They had a huge ceremony for us," said 1st Sgt. Walt Howell, who served with Jacobs in Iraq.
"He's missed that," Howell said of Jacobs. "He's been in the hospital."
Jacobs, who still is undergoing rehabilitation at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington D.C., wasn't about to give up that return-home dream.
"He can't wait. He loved the beach. He loved the barbecues," said Sherry Scheiding, Jacobs' mother, before the trip to Hawai'i. "Those were the things he was looking for."
The celebration of the Salt Lake City man's return has just begun. There will be deep-sea fishing on Sunday and golf on Monday. On Tuesday at Schofield Barracks, he'll receive a Purple Heart, Army Commendation Medal and combat patch, among other awards. A luau is planned at Paradise Cove on Wednesday.
LOOKING FOR CLOSURE
Scheiding, who lives in California, said the trip will close a chapter for her son, who probably will be retired out of the Army.
"He didn't know he was leaving Iraq (when he was hurt), so I think he needs some closure there just to see the guys and basically let them see him, and let them know he's OK," she said.
Jacobs' unplanned departure from Iraq began on Dec. 3, 2004, when a roadside bomb hit the Humvee he was riding in while performing route clearance near Kirkuk Airbase, for, ironically, roadside bombs.
"He was looking for this kind of stuff, and he found one," his mom said.
The soldier, described as quiet and never complaining, had been in Iraq for 11 months and was looking forward to returning home.
The blast killed Spc. David P. Mahlenbrock, 20, who, like Jacobs, was assigned to the 65th Engineer Battalion. Both were blown out of the back of an open-backed Humvee.
Jacobs lost his large intestine and some of his left calf; his right leg was broken above the knee, and a lot of his right inner thigh was gone.
"I just remember how uncomfortable it was, and then I just went in and out of consciousness," he said.
He recently was able to leave behind his wheelchair, but walks with a cane and has "drop foot" from nerve loss.
"He's got a pretty positive attitude, and I think that's helped him a lot," said Scheiding, who flew in with her son. Jacobs' father is arriving tomorrow.
Spc. Jonathon Hunter, 25, who went to basic training and deployed with Jacobs to Iraq, said it was good to have him back.
"I haven't seen him for so long," said Hunter, who's from Brooklyn, Mich. "He's a good buddy of mine. He's been just as excited about coming back as we are about having him back."
As a wounded soldier, Jacobs is part of a relatively silent majority that dwarfs the total of war dead for Iraq and Afghanistan. As of yesterday, the Pentagon reported that 2,364 U.S. personnel have been killed in Iraq, and 17,549 have been wounded.
For Afghanistan, war dead stands at 223, with 710 wounded.
19 PURPLE HEARTS
About 410 Schofield Barracks soldiers have been injured in Iraq and Afghanistan, officials said. A breakdown of serious versus minor injuries was not available, but the 65th Engineer's Bravo Company — the unit to which Jacobs belonged — received 19 Purple Hearts alone, according to Army records.
Colleen Guerin, whose son was partially blinded on Oct. 14, 2004, by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan, said it's "awesome" that the 65th soldiers — now called the 66th Engineer Company — turned out last night for the homecoming for Jacobs and have the other activities planned.
"I just think that they (the wounded) have sacrificed so much, and are humble and are like, 'Oh, geez, don't make such a big thing out of me,' " she said. "But I do think it's a nice feeling to see so many people that care about him, cared about what happened. I think it's very important."
Spc. Jeffrey Guerin, part of the 2nd Battalion, 5th Infantry at Schofield, was in the back seat of a Humvee when it was ambushed in the town of Miam Do in Uruzgan province.
Spc. Kyle K. Fernandez, 26, of Pearl City, and Staff Sgt. Brian S. Hobbs, 31, of Mesa, Ariz., who also were in the Humvee, were killed. Colleen Guerin said Spc. Joey Banegas, the turret gunner, was blown out of the vehicle, and lost his right leg.
MISSING BODY PARTS
Colleen Guerin, who lives near Syracuse, N.Y., said the American public has little idea of the extent of war injuries U.S. service members receive and struggle to recover from.
"If you look at the little ticker tape on Fox News or CNN and it says, 'Five soldiers were killed today and seven were wounded.' When you see the 'wounded,' you think, 'Oh, they broke their finger or they have some little problem. They'll be OK, but five were killed,' " she said.
"Five were killed is horrible, I'm not minimizing that," she added. "But nobody understands what that 'wounded' means. If you went to Walter Reed, you get a pretty good idea. When you are there every single day and all you see are young guys missing major body parts — I mean there are some guys that have one arm left — it's horrible."
Spc. Guerin, Jacobs and other wounded Hawai'i service members — like Marine Cpl. Brian Johnston, 23, who lost a leg and arm to a roadside bomb in Fallujah, Iraq — have benefited at Walter Reed from organizations like Operation Second Chance, a grass-roots group that helps the recovering troops by making visits and taking them on trips outside the hospital.
Guerin, 23, is blind in one eye and has limited vision in the other. He can make out sports on a 65-inch television.
He was discharged from the Army on March 29.
Guerin bought a house, has a fiancee and, like a lot of other wounded service members, has no regrets, his mom said.
Colleen Guerin said her son loved the Army, and "wouldn't change a thing. He thinks everyone should serve their country and he's not sorry for anything."
Reach William Cole at email@example.com.