A Soldier's Return

In 2004, this Army National Guardsman was removed from active duty in Iraq by an RPG. Eleven surgeries and a $100,000 prosthesis later, he is getting back to civilian life one hunting trip at a time.

Field & Stream Online Editors

Sgt. Lucas Wilson remembers seeing a black-robed figure stepping from behind an abandoned building with something on his shoulder. The convoy he was in, carrying fuel and supplies to Baghdad, had come under attack moments before on the night of April 8, 2004, as it crossed the Euphrates River. About 25 insurgents opened fire with small arms, machine guns, and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs). A bomb hidden in the road blew up. Riding in the open bed of a Humvee were Wilson and his M4 rifle, along with Cpl. Steven Baldwin at a pinion-mounted M240 machine gun and Spc. Andreas Molero with another M4. They had only "hillbilly armor"--plywood and sandbags--for protection. All three had been in the country less than 48 hours at the time of the ambush. Wilson saw a telltale flash and yelled, "RPG!" before the vehicle was rocked by the impact and everything went white for a moment. He reflexively returned fire, scarcely registering a slight tingling in his left knee. He looked over at Baldwin and Molero to verify that they were uninjured, and continued to call out targets until his magazine was empty and they were out of the immediate kill zone. That's when he looked down and saw that most of his left leg was gone, all but taken off by a direct hit of the RPG. The remainder hung by strings of flesh and tendon. Bright arterial blood was gushing.

He slumped back in the vehicle, undid his helmet, and looked up at the brittle stars of the desert sky. So this is where I'm going to die, the 24-year-old thought. He roused himself long enough to call out, "Guys, my leg's gone," then blacked out. Molero heard the sound of Wilson's death gasp and saw his eyes roll back. Baldwin leapt from his machine gun and started punching Luke hard, yelling at him not to die.

Molero and Baldwin continued to return fire as they worked on their sergeant. The irony of the situation would not occur to them until much later. It was Wilson who had given both soldiers much of their combat medical instruction. Now he was their first patient. He came to as they were trying to insert an IV into his arm. "Molero was shaking so bad I was more afraid of him than of the incoming rounds," he recalls.

"Then Baldwin takes the needle and says, 'If I can give tattoos, I can do this.' But he was coming at the vein sideways instead of in line with it, and I knew he'd miss it and just tear me up some more. So I told them both to just calm the f--- down and talked them through it."

They raced to a field hospital. Each beat of Luke's heart brought another jolt of pain in what remained of the leg. He had been careful not to look at it again but saw a nurse's face turn ashen as he was wheeled inside. A bloody surgeon appeared by his head. "I'm sorry, son, but we're going to have to amputate that leg." The morphine had started to kick in, but Wilson had not yet gone under. "What was your first clue, doc?" he asked. "The RPG that went through my calf?"

Stoic humor for someone who'd lost 6 pints of blood and sustained a traumatic wound. He was loaded onto a Black Hawk chopper and flown to a Baghdad hospital. Most of the doctors didn't expect him to live.

Photo courtesy of Ian Spanier; www.ianspanier.com

[NEXT "A Survivor"]

A Survivor
When he awoke the next morning, he saw from the way his blankets lay that the left leg was mostly gone. The doctors wanted him at Landstuhl Army Medical Center in Germany as soon as possible. He was helicoptered to Balad Air Base outside Baghdad, where he was delayed by a 20-hour mortar attack. He lay on a gurney while nurses crawled around on the floor and shells landed 150 feet away. Wilson then spent a week in Germany, respectfully declined the option of dying, and was flown to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where he stayed for 11 mths and 23 days, undergoing 11 operations on his leg.

There, he refused sleeping pills because he wanted to know exactly what was going on. He told the shrink, a captain who tried to convince him he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, to "Go to hell, ma'am," even though he had most of the symptoms: flashbacks, anxiety attacks, insomnia, unpredictable outbursts of anger. There were nights he went to sleep hoping he wouldn't wake up, and days when the agony of awakening injured muscles in physical therapy brought him to tears.

Wilson followed his unit's progress from Walter Reed. He wrote sympathy cards to the families of every soldier in his company who was killed. But there was one thing he couldn't do, and that was face those families at the funerals. He felt too guilty, too ashamed. He had survived. Not because he was special or brave, he had just been lucky enough not to die: How could you look mothers and fathers in the eye while they lowered their sons into the earth, when you knew there was no good reason why you were alive while their boys--perhaps better soldiers and better men--were not? Sgt. Lucas Wilson, combat veteran of two whole minutes, was safely back stateside, eating steak with four-star generals who wanted to shake his hand, getting calls from reporters who wanted to wrap him in their b.s. stories about plucky amputees. They didn't get it. The real heroes--the guys who gave everything they had to give--were dead. Or they were still in Iraq, exhausted, dirty, and scared, knowing there was no way to defend against a lucky mortar round, a roadside bomb, or a sniper's bullet.

He tried not to let his thoughts veer toward self-pity. He'd been one of the 18 out of 85 in his Ranger class who had made it through the indoctrination. He owed it to everyone he knew not to give up. After just under a year, Wilson went back home for good, walking on a $100,000 graphite-and-titanium prosthesis that monitors his weight transfer 50 times a second. His gait isn't pretty, but he gets around.

He returned in time to stand with his company for a demobilization ceremony in April 2005. As the names of the living and the dead were read off, he stood in the ranks and made no effort to wipe the tears streaming down his face. He saw Baldwin and Molero for the first time since the ambush and hugged them both. When Baldwin said, "I love you, man. I love you," Wilson couldn't say it back. He didn't need to. It was etched in his face, piercing him so deeply it looked very much like pain. There is an unshakable bond between men who have fought together and entrusted their lives to one another. His embrace of Baldwin had a kind of ferocity to it, just as Baldwin had once beat him relentlessly to stay the departure of his soul. They just stood there for a long time, neither willing to let go. They had made it home.

[NEXT "Born to Serve"]

Born to Serve
Luke Wilson had grown up hunting mule deer and elk with his father and three brothers. He loved to hunt pheasants near his home in Hermiston, Oregon. And his whole family backpacked into the Blue Mountains every summer to fish for trout. His mother has never known why her son wanted so badly to be a soldier. It was just there, since the time he was 3. At 17, he told his parents either they could sign the papers that would let him join up the summer before his senior year or he would go on his own when he was 18. His parents tried to bargain: They would buy him a truck and pay his way through college if he would just go. But it was an offer he had no trouble refusing. College would just delay his entry into the Army.

Right after high school he signed up, and eventually he became one of the elite, a Ranger. He spent three years at Fort Lewis, Washington, "basically praying for a war," before joining the National Guard to spend more time at home in an attempt to rescue his failing marriage. They divorced anyway, and when war did come, his Guard commander denied his request to transfer back to the Rangers. He wasn't about to lose one of his most experienced men.

More recently minted soldiers like Baldwin and Molero were drawn to Wilson's confidence and drive. He'd trained all over the world, done night parachute jumps, and could fast-rope 120 feet down from a helicopter. Wilson had selected forward observer as his specialty, a job (formerly the province of commissioned officers only) that entailed advising the on-scene combat commander about the types of ordnance that could be called in--artillery, naval guns, mortars, rockets, and close air support--as well as whether they were on target. He was career Army, the guy who looked out for the newer soldiers' welfare, yelling at them to keep their helmets on and weapons ready as the convoy rolled from Kuwait into Iraq.

[NEXT "A New Mission"]

A New Mission
Barely a month after he returned to Oregon, Wilson made good on a promise to three other sergeants from the Guard to go hunting as soon as possible. James Ellifritt, Ryan Searls, and George Ryland were all forward observers, too, and each had been in one of the seven segments of the convoy the night Wilson was wounded.

They had all done some hunting, though Wilson was the most experienced. All of them were psyched for this trip. One of the few good things combat veterans bring home from their exposure to the transitory nature of human existence is a determination to live out whatever remains to the fullest. That has led each of these guys to get back into hunting and spending more time out in the land they had to leave for a time to fully appreciate.

It was May, turkey season. It didn't matter that none of them but Wilson had ever hunted turkeys before, or that not even Wilson had ever killed one. If turkeys were in season, that was what they were going to hunt. Nor did anyone consider not coming. Ryland, 40, had been in charge of their whole platoon of forward observers, who were then each assigned to a platoon of field troops. He had just started a civilian job, didn't own a shotgun, and hadn't seen his wife in 13 months. No matter. Driving 400 miles each way to hunt for a day and a half with Wilson and the others wasn't about killing a bird any more than getting married is about dressing up to eat cake with white frosting. It was a mission, equal parts duty, privilege, and honor.

Searls, 29, tall and with dark eyes that hint at his one-eighth Choctaw heritage, was looking forward to being able to show the others the elk he had been talking about for two years: a 7x7 Roosevelt bull scoring 2987/8 that he had killed on public land in 2002. Ellifritt, 24, known as Big E or simply E, is exactly what Wilson wanted to be until his injury got in the way, a soldier to the bone, a lifer. Quiet and intelligent, he has the leadership gene, that intawar did come, his Guard commander denied his request to transfer back to the Rangers. He wasn't about to lose one of his most experienced men.

More recently minted soldiers like Baldwin and Molero were drawn to Wilson's confidence and drive. He'd trained all over the world, done night parachute jumps, and could fast-rope 120 feet down from a helicopter. Wilson had selected forward observer as his specialty, a job (formerly the province of commissioned officers only) that entailed advising the on-scene combat commander about the types of ordnance that could be called in--artillery, naval guns, mortars, rockets, and close air support--as well as whether they were on target. He was career Army, the guy who looked out for the newer soldiers' welfare, yelling at them to keep their helmets on and weapons ready as the convoy rolled from Kuwait into Iraq.

[NEXT "A New Mission"]

A New Mission
Barely a month after he returned to Oregon, Wilson made good on a promise to three other sergeants from the Guard to go hunting as soon as possible. James Ellifritt, Ryan Searls, and George Ryland were all forward observers, too, and each had been in one of the seven segments of the convoy the night Wilson was wounded.

They had all done some hunting, though Wilson was the most experienced. All of them were psyched for this trip. One of the few good things combat veterans bring home from their exposure to the transitory nature of human existence is a determination to live out whatever remains to the fullest. That has led each of these guys to get back into hunting and spending more time out in the land they had to leave for a time to fully appreciate.

It was May, turkey season. It didn't matter that none of them but Wilson had ever hunted turkeys before, or that not even Wilson had ever killed one. If turkeys were in season, that was what they were going to hunt. Nor did anyone consider not coming. Ryland, 40, had been in charge of their whole platoon of forward observers, who were then each assigned to a platoon of field troops. He had just started a civilian job, didn't own a shotgun, and hadn't seen his wife in 13 months. No matter. Driving 400 miles each way to hunt for a day and a half with Wilson and the others wasn't about killing a bird any more than getting married is about dressing up to eat cake with white frosting. It was a mission, equal parts duty, privilege, and honor.

Searls, 29, tall and with dark eyes that hint at his one-eighth Choctaw heritage, was looking forward to being able to show the others the elk he had been talking about for two years: a 7x7 Roosevelt bull scoring 2987/8 that he had killed on public land in 2002. Ellifritt, 24, known as Big E or simply E, is exactly what Wilson wanted to be until his injury got in the way, a soldier to the bone, a lifer. Quiet and intelligent, he has the leadership gene, that inta