Shawn Graves said a final goodbye to the world as he lost consciousness. A man wearing a suicide vest had blown himself up inside a dining hall in northern Iraq. Graves had wounds all over his torso, and he did not expect to open his eyes again.
“I thought I was done,” he said.
The platoon sergeant from Fort Lewis woke up from a coma three weeks later. He had survived one of the worst attacks against U.S. forces in the Iraq War, an enemy infiltration that claimed 22 lives and wounded more than 70 other people inside a forward base most troops figured was safe.
On the 10th anniversary of the war, Graves still can’t explain how he made it through.
Today the 37-year-old combat veteran is sewn up, healed and home with his wife, Elizabeth, in Medical Lake. But his journey isn’t over.
It never really is for many of the nearly 32,000 service members who were wounded or injured in the eight-year war, which officially ended in December 2011, or for the families of the 4,409 service members who lost their lives to it.
“Between the physical wounds and the mental wounds that come with it, it’s a lifetime change, and it affects both them and their spouses,” said Brittney Hamilton, of Tacoma, director of a nonprofit group called Operation Ward 57 that supports wounded service members.
Calming tactics learned over time
Graves hears Iraq whenever a piercing note reverberates in his ears, reminding him of the sound of the explosion that nearly killed him. He feels the war in the debilitating chest pain that dogs him eight years after he was wounded.
He has learned how to calm himself when the war surges back into his mind, telling himself, “You’re OK, you’re fine,” until he is.
His wounds gave him a sense of his own mortality that drives him to make the most of his life. “Life can be short. I want to just enjoy life now the best I can,” he said.
Graves deployed to Iraq in October 2004 with Fort Lewis’ second Stryker brigade, the 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division. It rolled into the northern city of Mosul with about 4,000 soldiers, replacing a sister brigade from the base south of Tacoma today known as Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
Back then, the American public had a sense that the war would take a greater toll than the Bush administration had suggested before the invasion in March 2003. Soldiers recognized a persistent insurgency with enemy fighters laying bombs in roads and targeting U.S. forces with abandoned Iraqi government weapons.
The mess hall bombing at Forward Operating Base Marez that wounded Graves on Dec. 21, 2004, revealed how dangerous the war would become. Six of the 22 fallen soldiers belonged to the same Stryker brigade.
“It’s a sad day in Mosul,” said then-Brig. Gen. Carter F. Ham, who led American troops in northern Iraq at the time. Years later, Ham told a USA Today reporter that he thought about the Mosul bombing daily.
Graves thinks about it often, too. He remembers sitting down for a meal with soldiers from his field artillery battery. He stood up to retrieve food for a friend who could not make it to the mess hall.
That’s when the bomb tore through the building.
“I instantly hit the ground and basically was trying to assess myself, what had happened to me,” he said.
A noncommissioned officer appeared and told Graves he had a possibly fatal sucking chest wound. Medics placed Graves in a triage line, and he passed out when he reached a combat hospital.
He would lose 7 feet of his intestines. It took two years to sew him up completely, and that only happened after a trip to the emergency room at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.
‘I felt real excommunicated’
His next challenge would come when he left the military with a medical retirement out of Madigan Army Medical Center and prepared to return to the civilian world.
He and his wife moved to Medical Lake, a change that made sense because it brought them closer to Graves’ family. On the other hand, it exacerbated the distance between his new civilian life and his old one in the military as a sergeant first class with a rising career.
“I felt real excommunicated in a way,” he said.
His buddies from his Stryker brigade had been reassigned from Fort Lewis to Germany; others were preparing for more deployments to Iraq.
“I didn’t knock them for not staying in touch, because they were barely in touch with their own families,” he said.
Hamilton said the isolation Graves felt is common for wounded service members as they return to civilian communities.
In a military hospital, “you’re surrounded by people who are severely wounded, and then you go home and everyone around you is normal,” she said. “It’s a big change; I’ve seen it impact a lot of people.”
Her organization provides opportunities for veterans to mentor each other, getaways for injured troops in military hospitals, and small grants for personal emergencies from time to time. It aims to provide a soft landing in the civilian world to service members struggling to find their way.
Graves built his own network of former service members on the east side of the Cascades after he reached out for help in resolving a delayed disability claim with the Department of Veterans Affairs. Invitations welcoming him to retreats came from the Spokane Veterans Center, and he suddenly felt a renewed sense of belonging.
He even went to work mentoring veterans full time, but had to quit when he pushed himself beyond his physical limits.
Now he goes on fishing trips through an organization called Project Healing Waters and mentors veterans through the Wounded Warrior Project.
Graves thinks he felt alone in his first years back home because he was one of few severely wounded Iraq veterans in his community. His scars were under his clothes, and people sometimes did not recognize him as a wounded veteran.
“The hardest part was telling people, ‘I can’t do that because of this,’ and then looking at me like I was crazy or just a slacker,” he said, recalling his work at a relative’s business just after moving home.
As time wore on and more veterans settled around him, his community grew more sensitive to their experiences.
“Now that I have the veterans in the community behind me, I don’t have those looks anymore.”