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Casualty Of Iraq War: Soldier's Sacrifice: Quadriplegic Aims For Life Beyond VA Hospital


October 26, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE MIAMI HERALD. All rights reserved. 

The veteran of Delta Company, just 22, is learning to motor his wheelchair about the halls of Miami's Veterans Administration Hospital. U.S. Army Spc. Luis Angel Calderon is a quadriplegic.

He last felt his legs in Iraq on May 5, the day his squad set out to topple a concrete wall, emblazoned with a portrait of Saddam Hussein in full military uniform.

''I went to knock down Saddam's mural,'' he said. ''It was fun destroying things.'' The armored vehicle plowed into the wall, and it came down atop the turret -- and on Calderon's head.

'That was it. I couldn't feel nothing. I felt my feet separate from the gas pedal, but they were still on the gas pedal. The sergeant is saying, `Calderon, stop. Calderon, stop.' ''

Calderon finally whispered, ``I can't.''

Today Calderon is the youngest by nearly two generations at the VA hospital, where he undegoes therapy and rehabilitation. He and his young wife have already seen the lonely plight of wheelchair-dependent war wounded from Vietnam and Korea -- soldiers with nowhere to go, and no one to visit them.

But Calderon wants a life outside these hospital walls. The young soldier is waging apersonal battle now, buoyed by the steely devotion of extended family members from Puerto Rico who uprooted their lives to come to South Florida for him.

''Thank God I got my family here,'' Calderon said, practicing sitting in his new battery-powered wheelchair. ``Especially my wife. When I need to talk to somebody, she's there.''

Calderon's story illustrates the tragic costs of the U.S. campaign in Iraq, which has so far left 1,947 wounded troops beyond the 344 killed in both hostile and noncombat circumstances. But it also shows the triumph of the spirit of a remarkable family, for whom service means both kin and country.

In the five months since Calderon's accident, which occurred four days after President Bush declared major hostilities over in Iraq, the soldier's wife, parents and in-laws have left their jobs and lives in suburban San Juan and moved to Broward and Miami-Dade counties to support the young man who still pines to be back with his unit, serving his country.


His accident resulted from a simple, tragic miscalculation.

He drove his 70-ton armored vehicle into the 20-foot-tall concrete mural of the Iraqi strongman, seeking to send it crashing forward.

Instead, it snapped in half, on top of him. His neck was broken.

Since then, life has been a saga of surgeries, fear and depression -- from Iraq to Germany to Walter Reed Medical Center in suburban Washington and finally Miami -- filled with scary nights and frustrating days, somewhat eased by the family that swept in to support him.

''It's hard,'' said his wife, Darlene, 22. ''I'm scared about the day he comes home. What am I going to do?'' She took a deep breath and said the family will get through it together, calling it a ``good, tight, united family.''

Calderon's parents have moved to an apartment in Kendall. His father, Luis Noel Calderon Sr., 53, left the comfort of a civilian airport inspector's job, secured after 32 years in the U.S. Air Force, to come to Miami.

Darlene Calderon and her parents have moved from San Juan to Miramar, where they lived in the 1990s when her father, Carlos Rivera, was an Army recruiter.

Today, Rivera, 44, has found work here as a security guard at Everglades High School, so the extended family can help Darlene and Luis set up a disabled-accessible home for the couple when he leaves the hospital early next year.


They all chose to move here because the VA hospital is one of the best in the nation for spinal-cord injury victims. Now, their lives revolve around the downtown hospital.

Calderon's father, Luis Noel, brings breakfast in the morning, before he starts a shift as a hospital electrician, a job he saw posted on a bulletin board. Next comes his mother, Angela, 53, with lunch.

The VA hospital serves meals, of course, but not to Luis' liking. So Darlene comes later from Miramar with a home-cooked Puerto Rican dinner -- rice, beans and chicken are a favorite -- and action videos to pass the time.

Luis Angel Calderon joined the Army three years ago this month. He was 19, and he and his new wife moved from Puerto Rico to Fort Hood, Texas, where he became a mechanic. When the war came around, his wife left Texas to rejoin her family in Puerto Rico. He was issued an armored tow truck -- a 70-ton recovery vehicle for pulling disabled tanks out of the battlefield.

His unit, Delta Company of the Forward Support Battalion, was sidelined in the war itself because it was initially assigned to Turkey, then eventually sent to Kuwait, where, with the 4th Infantry Division, it followed the fighters of the 3rd Infantry Division.

''It was pretty interesting. I learned a lot,'' Calderon said. ``I wish I could go back there. I never thought I'd be in a tank, driving it, fixing it.''


Luis Noel marvels at his son's recovery so far. His heart stopped three times in the weeks after his multiple surgeries, he lost half his stomach to surgery, and he spent 75 days in intensive care. Still, ``he's not bitter at all.''

Calderon's older brother, Luis Noel Jr., a Satellite Beach cable TV installer, added: ''He's not angry,'' just ``disappointed at what life has handed him at such a young age.''

His family was surprised at how much he loved the Army. A star high school fullback in San Juan, Calderon seemed without goals until he and his grade-school sweetheart, Darlene, decided to marry, and his father-in-law helped him enlist. After 18 weeks of training for Calderon at Fort Jackson, he and Darlene set off for Fort Hood -- their first time together off the island.

''The Army wasn't that bad,'' he said. ``I thought it would be bad. But I liked it, except for exercising sometimes in the morning.''

His wife added, ``He did really good in the Army. He used to get up early every morning, and his boots were shined and his uniform was perfect.''

And he's genuine, she said, in missing his unit.


``He's my hero. He's sacrificed a lot. And just to say, after all he's been through, that he wishes he was there is amazing.''

In a series of visits and interviews with The Herald, Calderon showed no bitterness about his plight or mission. Despite his accident, his opinions sound similar to those of other soldiers sharing their views in Iraq.

''We're doing too much. Our soldiers are doing just too much,'' he said on a Sunday afternoon in the hospital's lounge, an eye on a televised football game. ``First of all, we were trying to look for these guys, the fedayeen. Now we're trying to be police. Guys over there are risking their lives. They should be back already.''

Now the Calderons are planning new lives in South Florida, chosen after counselors at Walter Reed Hospital suggested that both Miami and Tampa have some of the best services for spinal-cord injury victims.

''Miami is very unique,'' between the VA hospital and the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, said his doctor, Alberto Martinez-Arizala, who boasts that the area has advances in new technology, such as voice-operated computers, as well as procedures such as in vitro fertilization.


And he sees a future for his young patient. ''Knowing what I know about him, if I had to bet, he'll probably find some kind of job and do something,'' he said, noting that he has seen similar patients work as telemarketers. Besides, ``he's got great family support that goes with him.''

But it still won't be easy.

The fracture of Calderon's C-5 neck vertebra means that ''he can pull, but he can't push,'' said Martinez-Arizala, who oversees the hospital's spinal-cord injury program.

Although Calderon has to be lifted into his battery-powered wheelchair, he has already learned to manipulate a joystick to drive it, and move an arm to his face, meaning that he can perhaps some day feed himself and brush his teeth.

Meantime, everyday activities -- taking a drink of water, going to the bathroom, changing a TV channel -- have to be done for him or with assistance.

''He can reach a level of semi-independence,'' Martinez-Arizala said. ``Can he be alone all day? No.''

Darlene is learning to be his primary caregiver. Federal benefits pay her a salary, she said. And if she decides to go to school to train as a physical therapist, the government will provide for another in-home caregiver.

The couple started dating as adolescents in Bayamón, Puerto Rico, where they studied in a school for the children of military personnel.


In the eighth grade, they were chosen as ''class couple.'' By then, Luis had already declared that they were fated to a life together. ''We were at a party in the eighth grade,'' Darlene recalls. 'He said, `We're going to be together for the rest of our lives.' I was, like, 15 at the time. I thought he was crazy.''

She said he still has a bright future. ''I think he's going to be able to do everything, to be honest. He may not be able to use his hands and feet, but he will be able to do sports,'' she said, echoing a counselor who showed her special sports programs for quadriplegics.

But first there are more pragmatic matters. Once he is able to leave the hospital, in a special van, the family plans a day trip to find a home suitable for a wheelchair-accessible makeover. To pay for it, the family has a $48,000 federal grant and a $30,000 gift from a Dallas foundation, the Fallen Patriot Fund.

For what life has handed them, there is very little looking back.

''Imagine him. He has to lie there and look at the ceiling,'' his wife said quietly. Then she summoned a smile. ``But now he has things to look forward to -- get up in the morning and do therapy, passes to go out, houses and car shopping, then home.

'At first it was, like, `Why has God done this to us?' Now there's no more why. It's 'Let's get on with it.' ''

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