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CNN: Newsnight With Aaron Brown

Injured Troops Return From Iraq: Luis Calderon

Aaron Brown, Beth Nissen

December 25, 2003
Copyright ©2003
eMediaMillWorks, Inc. (f/k/a Federal Document Clearing House, Inc.). All rights reserved.

AARON BROWN, HOST: Good evening again from New York. I'm Aaron Brown.

Of all the pieces we do on the program, and all the stories we tell, few have touched a nerve quite like the ones you're about to see. We know this because you've told us so in your letters and e- mails and phone calls. We also know because when the tape rolls and the pictures play and the stories unfold, it is tough to watch sometimes and it is impossible to turn away.

The stories reported by NEWSNIGHT'S Beth Nissen concern people, mostly young people, who have sacrificed much, and the men and women who make it their duty to help them. They are the wounded and the injured of the American combat operations, and the doctors and the nurses and the therapists who tend to them. These are sad stories, some of them terribly so. Yet what moves us more has little to do with sadness and more to do with strength and heart and hope. So war stories in a moment. War stories with a difference.

BROWN: We try to pay close attention to the e-mails we get from viewers. And in August, we received one from Luis Calderon, the father, the proud father he wrote, of a son who had been critically injured in Tikrit in an accident.

For several weeks, Luis the son was in intensive care at Walter Reed, just down the hall from the only casualty of this war whose name most Americans know: Jessica Lynch.

It was hard for Luis the father to see the media focus so completely on Private Lynch and her unit. "They are recognized, deservedly so, as heroes," he wrote to us. "But my heart cries out, what about Luis?"

So this story is about Luis.


NISSEN: The photos of Luis Calderon in the family album are like those of thousands of other young men. Luis as a star fullback in high school. Luis and his wife Darlene on their wedding day.

The pictures change after his enlistment in the Army. His deployment to Iraq as a tank mechanic with the 4th Infantry. Then in one snap, the image is changed from this, to this.

Luis' father got the phone call from Iraq May 5.

LUIS CALDERON, FATHER: The individual identified himself as the Army captain. So that almost killed me right there. But then he said that my son had just suffered an accident.

NISSEN: An accident involving Luis' 70-ton armored vehicle and one of the hundreds of walls in Iraq painted with the image of Saddam Hussein and systematically destroyed by U.S. troops.

SPC. LUIS CALDERON, 4TH INFANTRY DIVISION: We saw two murals with Saddam's picture on it. So then we got the permission to knock them down, because we had some heavy armored vehicles.

NISSEN: But when Luis rammed into the wall, it broke in half and fell forward on his tank. A crush of debris slammed through the open hatch, breaking his neck, damaging his spinal cord near the base of the neck.

CALDERON, FATHER: They're saying he's a complete quadriplegic. In other words, he's not going to have full function of all four extremities.

NISSEN: After more than two months in intensive care at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, Luis was finally stabilized and transferred to the spinal cord injury center at the V.A. hospital in Miami.

Doctors and physical therapists here are working to increase the limited movement he has in his shoulders and upper arms.

DR. ALBERTO MARTINEZ ARIZALA, CHIEF, SPINAL CORD INJURY CENTER, MIAMI V.A. HOSPITAL: The central nervous system, specifically the spinal cord, has some inherent capacity to heal itself. But it does so poorly. We're hopeful with time that he'll regain function.

NISSEN: After three months of painful effort, Luis has made progress. Using an arm brace he can now move the joystick on a motorized wheelchair. Although he cannot move his hands, his fingers.

CALDERON, SON: Working with my hands, really that's the hardest thing for now for me. My personal goal is to just move my hands. And if I move my hands, I will be the happiest guy.

NISSEN: It as constant struggle for him, balancing hope that he'll improve with accepting and learning to live with his injuries.

CALDERON, SON: I haven't accepted I'm a quad yet. I can't believe it. I'm in a dream still. I don't know. A big maybe.

NISSEN: He has been depressed. He has been angry at fate, at himself for miscalculating how the wall would fall. Yet he says he has no regrets about enlisting, about serving in Iraq.

CALDERON, SON: I was just a soldier. I was just doing my job.

CALDERON, FATHER: He was in the same danger. He was in the same danger every day. He was eating the same sand, in the same heat, with the same enemy. What was different?

Doesn't my son get any kind of recognition? I don't mean a parade with confetti and a national hero. No, just a pat on the back, job well done.

NISSEN: It matters, he says, when members of the community, like these children from a local grade school, come by with cards full of glitter and encouragement.

It would matter, he says, if more administration officials visited those injured while in service to their country.

CALDERON, FATHER: Give these kids some love, because they will never know that anybody cared if nobody tells them. Somebody has to tell them.


NISSEN: As we continue to report the story, the numbers of the wounded and hurt from Operation Iraqi Freedom are still climbing.

The total of those wounded in action is nearing 2,000. Almost 350 others have been injured in non-combat incidents, accidents.

But the numbers of those affected by these war wounds and injuries is much higher. For every private first class or specialist fighting to recover at Walter Reed or Brooke Army Medical Center, there's a mother, or a father, or a wife at the side of the bed, or in the physical therapy room.

They, too, have been through great pain. They, too, are trying to recover.


NISSEN (voice-over): It is an under recognized form of collateral damage: the trauma suffered by the families of the war wounded and injured.

A battalion of mothers, fathers, and nearly half the U.S. Armed forces married, spouses and children.

Darlene is the wife of specialist Luis Calderon, injured May 5 in Tikrit.

DARLENE CALDERON, WIFE OF INJURED SOLDIER: Everything's changed drastically in our lives now. My whole life is centered now around the hospital. I'm here every day. I bring him fluid every day. Seven days a week, I'm here.

NISSEN: So are the parents of Specialist Calderon, one of the most grievously injured soldiers thus far in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Luis' neck was broken and his spinal cord damaged when a wall fell on the tank he was driving, leaving him a quadriplegic at 22.

It is hard for his father to see Luis, who was once so fast on the football field, now unable to move his hands, his legs.

CALDERON, FATHER: When you as a father see that it just breaks your heart. But then, you know, you gather yourself and then you say, "Hey, if he's coping with it I sure as heck have to cope with it."

NISSEN: Coping can mean upheaval for the entire family. To be with their son, Luis' parents moved to the U.S. from Puerto Rico. His father, an experienced facilities manager, took the first job he could find: as an electrician in the V.A. hospital in Miami where his son is being treated.

CALDERON, FATHER: I only have one priority in this world now, just one. And it's Luis.

NISSEN: His family's devotion has helped steady Luis, has restored his crushed spirits.

CALDERON, SON: I used to pray every day, every day, every day. They always thought that you're going to be all right, you're going to be all right. Don't worry about this. We're going to be there for you.

NISSEN: Family support can help the seriously injured, medically, psychologically.

ARIZALA: This is a major ordeal. It helps to have people help you, you know, get through this. Doing it alone is very, very hard.

WANEK: That support is extremely important. Extremely important to their long-term how they do.

BROWN: We'll wrap up this special edition of NEWSNIGHT in just a moment. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BROWN: Thank you for your work tonight, and thank you for your work on this series of stories, which I think has touched all the people who watched the program over the last six months. They've been extraordinary.

NISSEN: Thank you.

BROWN: Thank you, Beth Nissen.

Good to have you with us tonight. That's our report. We'll see you again next time. Until then, good night for all of us at NEWSNIGHT.

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