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Chicago Tribune

Bleak Memories, Bright Outlook

Joel Gomez returned from Iraq with his spine shattered but his spirit strong and solid

By Ted Gregory

October 9, 2004
Copyright © 2004
Chicago Tribune. All rights reserved. 

Joel Gomez can remember the thick dust and stifling heat of Iraq, the piles of trash in fields, the ornate monuments and palaces. He even remembers laughing at the movie he and his buddies were watching March 17, a few hours before embarking on a mission to find Iraqi insurgents.

After that, though, his memory blanches, until he recollects waking in a hospital bed in Germany, trying to move his arms and failing, and watching his girlfriend weep. That was about a week after his Bradley Fighting Vehicle tumbled into the Tigris River, killing two of the six men aboard and leaving Gomez paralyzed below the neck.

Gomez, 23, a U.S. Army sergeant from Wheaton, is trying to reclaim his life at Hines VA Hospital near Maywood. On Friday night, he visited home for the first time since his buddies pulled him from the muddy, ancient waters. At Wheaton Warrenville South High School, his alma mater, Gomez gave a pre-game talk to the football team and delivered the game ball at kickoff.

"I was pretty nervous at first," Gomez said after the ceremony, at which he received a standing ovation. He had a tear in his eye. "But after that it felt like I was finally home."

He graduated in 1998 from South, where he was on the student council his junior year, the soccer team his sophomore and junior years, and the wrestling team as a sophomore, the year he wore a tie in his yearbook photograph.

Now, he operates a high-tech wheelchair and other devices through a "sip and puff" straw mechanism about an inch from his lips. His spine is broken in two places and he endures erratic but deep neck pain, despite methadone and more than a dozen medications a day.

In early June, he shrugged his right shoulder slightly, and he's increasing the time he can be off the ventilator. He has come through three bouts of pneumonia and three heart attacks, which prompted surgeons to implant a pacemaker. He is 5 feet 5 inches and, until he was wounded, weighed 187 pounds. He figures he is about 140 pounds now.

"I've adjusted to it pretty well," Gomez said of his broken body, while waiting for physical therapy in the gym at Hines one morning. He speaks in a raspy near-whisper by timing and channeling oxygen from his respirator over his vocal cords.

"The hardest thing is not being able to hug my family," he said. "My whole family can give me hugs, but what hurts the most is not being able to give it back--and not being able to use my hand to scratch my nose."

Never walk again

He will never walk again, said Dr. Yvonne Lucero, a rehabilitation physician at Hines who is Gomez's doctor.

"But the flip side is that there is no reason that Joel cannot go to school, get married, have children, own a business and have a normal life," she said. "It wouldn't surprise me if he lived to be 70 years old."

Gomez receives four to five letters a week. People have made afghans and a quilt for him, called him an inspiration, even a hero, accolades he finds unsettling.

"This new war is a horrible, horrible thing for some of these soldiers," Gomez said. "It shouldn't be portrayed as a source of inspiration."

Born in Geneva, Gomez was raised in a three-bedroom apartment in Wheaton with two older siblings. His father, Algimiro, is a construction laborer born in Puerto Rico. His mother, Emilia, a native of Mexico, came to the U.S. in 1975. Both have difficulty speaking English.

Gomez had talked often about joining the military. After graduation, he followed his older brother, Ruben, into the Army. He was stationed in Georgia, New York, Korea, Kosovo, Bosnia and Germany. On Feb. 15, his unit was dispatched to an airfield in Bayji, Iraq, about 130 miles north of Baghdad. Gomez was glad to get into the action, even though the camp came under frequent mortar and rocket attacks, he said, and the soldiers were hampered by broken night vision goggles and guns missing internal parts.

A mission misfires

On March 17, Gomez and five other men were sent in a Bradley fighting vehicle, a tanklike armored personnel carrier, to capture enemy soldiers who had been firing on the base. The vehicle tumbled--from an explosive or from the road crumbling under the weight of the 50,000-pound Bradley--between 60 and 200 feet before landing upside down in the Tigris. They found him bent in half at the waist, a box of ammunition resting on his back. His spine was broken in two places.

Gomez was airlifted to the Army's Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, where he underwent surgery to implant metal plates and screws to stabilize a vertebra, the insertion of a feeding tube and a tracheotomy for the respirator. His parents were flown to his bedside.

"It was weird," Gomez said. "I just suddenly came to. I remember my mom and dad being on my right side and my girlfriend and her sister crying. I tried to move my arms, tried to say hi, then I noticed the tubes going in and out of my body. That's when I realized I was paralyzed."

He was flown to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., April 3 and arrived at Hines in early May. At Reed, he was angry, frustrated and contemptuous of God, Gomez said, but regular visits from a pastor helped dissolve his anger.

"I was really kind of surprised," Gomez said, "and it kind of opened my eyes to what happened. I don't know why God did this but it must have been for a good reason. He could have let me die and he didn't. There must be something left for me to accomplish."

Nurses wake Gomez about 7 a.m. for breakfast, tracheal cleaning and a bath or shower. About the time he is getting dressed, his father, mother and sister arrive. The rest of his day is consumed by therapy, treatment of his lungs, a doctor visit, lunch and hygiene.

By late afternoon, he may nap or buzz around the floor in his chair, visiting other vets. Around dinnertime--he especially enjoys fried mozzarella sticks, fruit salad and cheeseburgers--he will receive medication that makes him drowsy and he will drift to sleep about 8 p.m.

Near his bedside after school are his niece and nephew, Sonia, 9, and Julio Sanchez, 8, of Addison. Gomez is determined that they know, despite his broken body, that he again can be the fun uncle who took them to movies, arcades and bowling.

On the first visit to see him at Walter Reed, they stepped quietly into his room, kissed him on the head, walked out the door and wept, Sonia said. Now, they hop into his hospital bed to watch DVDs. They feed him doughnuts. Sonia has cleared his airways with suction equipment. Sonia and Julio scratch their uncle's nose and ears.

"When he got here, he started talking," Sonia said. "He started doing all his goofy stuff, sticking his tongue out at us, teaching us jobs. That's what changed a lot. It doesn't matter how he is, as long as he's here."

Gomez will finally get his wish to go home--but only for this weekend. His family cannot yet take care of him long term. The Wheaton and Naperville VFWs are talking about raising money to build an accessible home for him and his family in Wheaton by Easter.

Gomez said his wounds have failed to shake his belief that the war is just. He did, however, say his vote in the presidential election will go to John Kerry--even though Gomez calls himself a Republican--because of Kerry's support for stem-cell research and his military experience.

Gomez is considering studying for a degree in political science or history, becoming a teacher or a lobbyist for people with disabilities. But he doesn't want to stray far from the crazy uncle role.

"Sometimes I dream about running through the desert," Gomez said in his room one afternoon, Julio leaning against the bed. "And I'll wake up with a shock and I'm kind of disappointed and I'm kind of not because as much as running and flailing your arms are fun, I'm still having fun. I just have to learn to have it in a different way."

He looked sideways at his nephew.

"Hey Julio, can you scratch my ear?"

Julio grabbed a towel to rub his uncle's ear.

"Can you lick it?" Gomez asked. He waited a beat. "No, I'm just kidding."

And Julio smiled.

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