Operation Homecoming

An Excerpt from "Purple-Hearted" U.S. Army Reserve Staff Sergeant Jack Lewis

He's young enough to be my son. Annoying enough, too.

When I beat on his hooch door to wake him up, he was his typical floppy-jointed, addle-headed, eye-rolling self -- but he had known what the mission was since the night before.

Yuse was headed downtown to broadcast pro-election messages over our "Long Range Acoustical Device." "Be at the office no later than zeroseven- thirty," I told him before throwing on a uniform to go there myself.

I was closing in on a peak experience of blood pressure when he slouched through the door at 0729.

"I took the trailer off."

"Oh," I said, surprised at his initiative. "How we doin' on fuel?"

"I filled it last night."

"Damn, Yuse. I hardly know you!"

I dropped him down at Apache's hangar, and off he went into Tall'Afar, but I never went out on my mission. After briefing the squadron commander, I ran into the battle captain.

He said, "It's good you're here. Yuse's your guy, right? We got a report he was shot in the neck -- "

"WHAT?"

" -- but apparently he was wounded in the hand. A fragment hit him in the chin, and they thought he had a neck wound."

I went to the aid station to wait. Yuse couldn't be evac'd immediately because Apache's combat power needed to stay and fight. Then, after Apache's CO rolled his own vehicle out to the castle to pick up my soldier, they hit an IED on the return trip. When A66 finally rolled in and dropped ramp, my kid soldier was sitting inside, holding up a bloody bulb of gauze the size of his head.

The first words out of his mouth were, "I'm alright, sergeant."

Yuse was running the LRAD when the castle came under fire. He put down his MP3, picked up his rifle, and took up a security position along the battlements. When the sniper found him, the neckaimed bullet hit him in his forward hand, bounced off his rifle and dug into his armored vest with a heavyweight punch. A fragment of the bullet jacket flew up and cut his chin to the bone. Infantry and commo soldiers gave him buddy aid. He wheezed pretty hard, but he stayed alert -- and he never complained.

What Yuse did do, after he was shot: He trained up a commo sergeant to run the LRAD and sustain his mission until evac. He secured his sensitive items and PSYOP equipment. He told everybody not to worry.

At the aid station, he only said this: "These elections better work. They better get democracy, and freedom, and their rights, and hot chicks in tight jeans. I hope I didn't take this bullet for nothing."

Specialist Josh Yuse was bandaged, given a bit of morphine, and then evac'd to the 67th Combat Support Hospital by a Black Hawk helo.

I made sure he had his IBA with the souvenir slug in one pocket, helmet, coat and the bloody shirt with his name on it. They can wash it out at the hospital. They do it all the time.

I'll miss Yuse here, and not just for the work he does, which is plenty if I remind him often enough. I'll miss his pulling dumb stunts, working so hard at not working that it exhausts him just to think about it, dropping to do pushups just because I gave him a hard look.

He's a near-total dingbat with no sense of planning who still gets things done. A lazy sloth who works like a sled dog. A good kid with bad manners. A graceful athlete who trips over his own size twelves. Mostly, he's just too much of a goofy kid for me to have expected him to take this like a man.

Yuse didn't want to deploy to Iraq. He wanted to chase women around Seattle, and go to college and find out what he wanted to be. He wanted to play video games, drink beer, and buy a Mustang. Guys my age are supposed to gripe about how kids today are going to Hell in a hand basket, how there aren't any standards anymore. After all, we've taken such good care of things.

Maybe it's because guys my age usually work with guys my age. Guys Yuse's age are just parts for the big machine in civilian life: laborers, clerks, apprentices. Yuse went from busboy to combat soldier.

I don't want to hear any more about the passing of "The Greatest Generation." Ain't no generation better than his. Specialist Yuse didn't just take it like a man. He took it like his brothers across the generations, and earned his flagon of mead at Valhalla or at least his pint of Bud at the local VFW. He took it like a soldier.

After surgery in Landstuhl, Germany, Yuse was treated at Fort Bragg, NC. Lewis returned from Iraq to Washington State in 2005. He and Yuse still keep in touch.

Excerpted from Operation Homecoming, edited by Andrew Carroll. © 2006 by Southern Arts Federation. Reprinted by arrangement with The Random House Publishing Group.