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Detroit Free Press

Another Iraqi Mission


20 February 2005
Copyright © 2005 Detroit Free Press. All rights reserved.

Iraq is inside her, fighting to come out.

Spec. Lymarie Serrano falls to the ground, losing all control. She tastes blood and hears gunshots and explosions in the distance. Her vision goes black, as if she is buried in a cloud of smoke and sand.

"Don't let me die," she shouts. "Don't let me die."

Her ears are ringing, but she can hear a muffled voice.

"You are in Michigan," her mother shouts. "Open your eyes!"

Serrano trembles, reliving the horror, lost in a memory, lying on the kitchen floor in an apartment in Waterford.

Until the panic attack fades.

And she is exhausted again.

Serrano, 20, takes a drag on a Camel Light, feeling old and tired, seven months after being blown up in Iraq.

Sometimes -- on one of the bad days, when her foot goes numb, and her leg aches, and her shoulder hurts, and her hand cramps, and it's hard to breathe, and the anger builds, and she can't sleep, and she can't remember where she put her cell phone, and her mind is going a million miles an hour, and she is certain that she is going crazy -- she wishes she had died in Iraq.

"It sucks because my best friend, Val, is still there," she says.

But Spec. Valerie Lathers is coming home, along with the rest of the 1462nd Transportation Company, a Michigan Army National Guard unit based in Howell that has been gone for almost a year.

Serrano needs her battle buddies. Needs them to get back soon. Because they understand her.

That is why she is going to Wisconsin to meet them at Fort McCoy. To be part of the family.

So she can feel normal again.

So she can warn them -- the war doesn't end in Iraq.

Feb. 14, 1100 hours, Howell

Serrano walks across the parking lot outside the Howell Armory, where she has worked since she came home. The ground is icy, the sky thick with heavy dark clouds.

"Sgt. Will!" Serrano shouts and hugs Staff Sgt. Anthony Williams, disappearing in his big, thick arms.

"This is the beginning of the end of the journey," he says.

They will go to Wisconsin, getting in a vehicle together for the first time since they were injured in northern Iraq.

On July 3, 2004, Serrano was in the driver's seat of a semi-truck, the fifth vehicle in a convoy heading back to Camp Anaconda after dropping off supplies to Marines in Fallujah.

Williams, 37, who grew up on the east side of Detroit, was in the passenger's seat, armed with an automatic machine gun.

Fifteen minutes from camp, Serrano's truck was hit by a roadside bomb. She lost control of the truck in a cloud of sand and smoke. She couldn't see. Her eyes were caked with blood and metal and dirt.

Her face -- soft and beautiful, with dark innocent eyes -- was peppered with shrapnel, covered with blood.

"I'm hit!" she screamed. "I can't see."

The engine died.

"Go to the left," Williams shouted, trying to guide her.

She maneuvered the rig onto the median, and the truck rolled to a stop, out of the way of the rest of the convoy, saving countless lives.

It was an ambush.

They were taking fire from both sides.

Serrano tried to get out, but couldn't feel her legs. She knew the Iraqis were out there, rushing to her truck.

Where was her gun?

Serrano, who is 5-foot-4 and called "Sis" by her fellow soldiers, tried to find her gun, but couldn't move. She thought she was paralyzed.

She heard a voice, but it was muffled. Her left ear drum had been damaged.

Blood covered her face.

"Big Will," she cried.

"Baby Girl, I got you."

Williams grabbed a handle on the top of her flak jacket and yanked her to the other side of the cab. He threw her over his left shoulder like a duffel bag, carried his gun with his right hand and kept firing, getting her to safety.

He burned through 300 rounds, shooting between the passing trucks, as the convoy kept moving through the kill zone. Williams had 34 pieces of shrapnel in his leg, but kept fighting. He would refuse treatment until he knew she was out of danger.

Staff Sgt. Andrew Nowack, a first responder in the Grand Rapids Fire Department, started working on Serrano.

"Tell my mom I love her," Serrano said, feeling the worst pain of her life. "Tell my family. Tell Val I love her."

"No, you aren't going to die!" Nowack shouted. "You are gonna be OK."

Nowack got her on a bench in a 5-ton truck, which transported her to a safe point a mile away. Sgt. 1st Class William Merrow and Sgt. Brian Brace carried her out onto the ground for treatment.

Brace, who is called Preacher because he always led a group prayer before every convoy, kissed her on the cheek. He stood up and wiped blood from his lips, thinking he was cut, only to figure out that it was hers. Later, he realized he had forgotten to say a prayer before that mission.

Serrano, who was born in Puerto Rico and moved to Pontiac when she was 6, floated in and out of consciousness. She had lost a lot of blood and her pulse was weak.

When she reached the hospital at Camp Anaconda, Serrano saw Lathers and started crying.

"I'm all messed up," Serrano said. "My face is never gonna be the same."

Spec. Kip Maher, one of her closest friends, a thick, muscular body builder, stood at her bed and started crying. "I've never seen a big guy cry before," Serrano remembers.

Her face was cut and swollen from shrapnel, leaving her soft skin discolored and bumpy like frosted glass. Lathers had to turn away, hiding her tears, trying to be strong for her best friend.

"You are still beautiful," Lathers said.

For the next two days, Lathers was relieved of her duties as a truck driver and cared for Serrano. She fed her, stayed in the room all night and carried her to the bathroom.

Serrano and Lathers, 20, from Chesterfield Township, had met on their first convoy, back in the States. Two weeks before she left for Iraq, Serrano was dumped by her fiancé and her parents got a divorce. She and Lathers grew so close that they were like sisters. They did everything together. They shared everything. They were referred to as the twins, the Puerto Rican Princess and the Prom Queen, for being so dang cute and fun to be around.

Serrano has a street edge. Hip-hop. Baggy sweats. Baseball caps cocked to the side.

Lathers, a petite blonde, is more like the neighborhood baby-sitter, dependable and direct. She volunteered to go to Iraq, hoping she could take the place of someone with children.

"She's awesome, man," Serrano says. "She's down to earth, has the biggest heart, the most lovable person I've ever met. She's a great person. She was there for me."

Serrano was shipped from Iraq to a hospital in Germany, to Walter Reed hospital in Washington, D.C., to a hospital in Fort Knox, Ky. For a month, the doctors didn't know if she would walk again.

Over the last seven months, she has had physical and occupational therapy, and counseling for her fragile psyche.

She has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. PTSD.

About half of the men and women who have spent time in war zones experience some form of it.

On bad days, she is distant and isolated, as if the life has been sucked out of her, and she thinks about ending it all.

She got hooked on prescription painkillers at Fort Knox. "To tell you the truth, Fort Knox is like the worst place for a soldier to go," Serrano says. "It's so depressing. Everybody is on drugs or drinking, because you are so depressed. You want to forget about the world, you know what I mean? It's easy. Everybody would be trading pills. These people are coming back from war. I saw so much crap."

She was taking a cocktail of pills for anxiety, depression, pain and sleeplessness, and a muscle relaxant.

"I'd just sit there and play video games all day," Serrano says. "I was like a crackhead. I was addicted to the pain killers."

Serrano was able to communicate with Lathers by e-mail. She confided her drug problem. "Val told me to stop, it's not the way to go," Serrano says.

"Thank God I had her."

Serrano got the addiction under control a month ago.

1345 hours, Battle Creek

At a rest stop, Williams and Serrano get out of the car and stretch. His knee is stiff. Her leg hurts. The cold weather makes it worse. They move slowly, painfully.

Serrano has nerve damage in her right leg. She can't feel the side of her leg, the bottom of her foot. Her toes are always really hot or ice cold. And when her leg starts to cramp, her toes curl uncontrollably.

Still, she can walk. But she can't play basketball or run, and that makes her even more depressed.

She suffered shrapnel wounds to her left arm and shoulder. The left side of her face is peppered with small dark scars, and there is a piece of shrapnel embedded in her eyelid. Sometimes it feels like it is scratching her eyeball. For a month after the attack, she couldn't eat solid food because of shrapnel in her jaw. "I couldn't shove a french fry in my mouth," Serrano says. "I couldn't eat anything."

She went from 127 pounds to 105.

Serrano also suffered a fractured skull, causing short-term memory loss, which might be the most maddening problem of all.

"She forgets everything," says her mother, Marilyn Morales. "I have to repeat again and again and again."

Morales will tell her daughter to pack lunch for her brother or pick him up from school, and she forgets.

"I feel bad," Serrano says. "I totally forget."

She forgets where she puts things, what she's done and what she says.

A counselor tells her to write things down but that scares her, too. "I'll probably lose the paper and lose my mind."

She has changed a lot, Morales says. "Now, she doesn't want to do anything. Sometimes, all she wants to do is sleep. I worry a lot about her.

"I don't know what to do when she has the bad days. She's grumpy. She's mad and sad at the same time. It's hard for me. What can I do?"

1500 hours,

5 miles from Gary, Ind.

The music is thumping. Hip-hop. Serrano gets hungry, so she grabs another handful of Doritos.

Williams is behind the wheel of a '96 Buick Regal with 184,000 miles.

They are following Spec. Gregg Godbey, 36, who is driving a four-door Saturn. Godbey was shot in the hand in Iraq on Aug. 16.

The two cars hit 80 m.p.h., following each other in a mini convoy. Like old times. Staying in constant communication with cell phones.

"We roll fast," Williams says. "We are truckers."

"I can't wait to see everybody," Serrano says.

"We are family," Williams says.

Serrano started out driving a Humvee for a platoon leader, which meant that she went on nearly every convoy. For six months, she went on hundreds of missions across Iraq, all the way up north to Mosul, through Baghdad, over to Fallujah and then down to Kuwait.

"I had the most miles in the company, in the first month. Over 10,000 miles," Serrano says. "That's how you get your driver's badge. I ended up getting it before anybody in the company. For a month straight, I swear I didn't have a day off, we'd go on missions and missions and missions."

She guesses that she drove 70,000 or 80,000 miles in Iraq. "Sometimes, we would go without nothing happening. That was our best days. No shots. No IEDs (improvised explosive devices). Nothing. It would be clear. Those were the good convoys." But most days, there were sniper shots or rocket-propelled grenades.

As she drove through so much uncertainty, her mind would race. "I'd sit there, thinking, who is gonna shoot me now? Your head keeps running over and over. Am I gonna get shot today? Am I gonna get blown up? What's gonna happen? Am I gonna make it home? Am I gonna make it to the next camp? Your mind just goes a million miles an hour, because you aren't doing anything but driving or manning a gun."

1550 hours, Chicago

Driving through Chicago, somebody cuts Williams off, but he stays calm -- this time.

"I got road rage the other day," Williams says.

"Me, too!" Serrano says. "I was taking my little brother to school and this guy was tailing me and I almost went ballistic on him."

"I rolled down the window and said, 'You got something to say?' "

Serrano says that everything is compressed. Her attention span. Her temper. She goes from happy to angry in a flash. She gets antsy and can't stand in line in a store. She feels trapped in small rooms and has no patience.

"I get mad at everybody," Serrano says. "My mom. My dad. I would be waiting in line and say, 'This is stupid,' and walk away."

When she sees somebody wearing Middle Eastern clothing, she feels anger and resentment.

The panic attacks come when she's under stress. She starts to lose her hearing, her vision goes dark and then she relives the attack.

"If my mom calls and complains about my dad and if my dad calls and complains about my mom, and I have a lot of people calling with a lot of stuff that I really don't want to hear, and I finally get home and relax, that's when you feel it."

When she is driving down the road and hears a loud noise, she freaks out. She jumped the other day when a balloon popped. "It's always there. I think it's always gonna be there."

Serrano doesn't like to sleep alone. "My little brother sleeps with me because I don't trust myself," she says. "Dreams are crazy. It's so real. It looks like I'm looking down at myself. I see myself driving. The dark cloud. I hear myself screaming. You wake up thinking it happened."

Serrano thinks it will be harder for married guys to return to civilian life than single ones. "Single people can go out and be drunk and be stupid," she says. "But it's hard to be with your friends because you've changed. You feel old."

A week earlier, she was talking to another soldier, Spec. James Lish, who is also struggling with PTSD. Lish, 32, won't be in Wisconsin to greet the company because he has been sent to Walter Reed for psychological testing and counseling.

"My wife will never understand what I went through," Lish said in early February. "She can't quite comprehend what I'm talking about. She doesn't see what I saw."

"The PTSD doesn't come out until you are settled into your home life. You are trying to settle in and revert back into a civilian, after spending so much time, go, go, go."

Lish spent most of his time in Iraq handling a gun on top of Serrano's Humvee. They had all kinds of rituals -- pounding two cans of Red Bull before every mission, slapping hands in a secret handshake, saying: "Love you, Bro" or "Love you, Sis" when they got rolling.

They went through all kinds of hell together. "I'm filled with remorse for the people we had to kill," Lish said. "What gives me the right to take their lives? My doctor says, 'It was either you or them.' "

Feb. 14, 2353 hours,

Ft. McCoy, Wisc.

The company is lined up front of a barracks, unloading duffle bags from a semi-truck. One hundred and thirty-seven soldiers came back; a handful had to stay in Iraq with the rigs.

The soldiers will spend a few days at Fort McCoy, going through processing, handing in equipment and learning where to go for help if they encounter problems, before heading back to Howell for a homecoming celebration.

The company went to Iraq with 60 semi-tractors and five Humvees. The vehicles logged 1,280,400 miles. Several of the vehicles were blown up, put back together and blown up again.

The soldiers from Howell earned 25 Purple Hearts, including the one awarded to Serrano that she keeps in her bedroom.

In many ways, this company experienced the most dangerous side of this war. The initial rush to Baghdad was quick and efficient. But the insurgency responded by going after soft targets like supply convoys. This company from Howell saw more of Iraq and faced more uncertainty than many soldiers in the initial attack.

Serrano and Williams sneak across the snow, in the dark, wanting to surprise their friends.

"You look a lot better than the last time I saw you," says First Sgt. Robert Kenney.

"Let's see your scars," somebody says.

Serrano pulls up her pant leg and pushes back her sleeve.

After 10 minutes, Lathers walks up.

They both scream.

Lathers knew Serrano would be here. After Serrano left Iraq, Lathers went into a shell. She didn't talk to anybody for months.

Over the next few days, they talk about their plans.

Lathers, smart and compassionate, wants to become a doctor.

Serrano wants to become a psychologist to work with soldiers in a VA hospital. She's fascinated by the human brain -- how it can work so well and then get so messed up.

"I like the way the mind works, the way different things trigger it," Serrano says. "The mind is amazing. I just want to help somebody. If you got problems, you can talk to me. That's how I want to be. I want to talk to somebody."

Lathers vows to get her to do it: "I really want her to do something. I'm gonna push her hard."

Feb. 15, 2200 hours,

Ft. McCoy, Wisc.

Kenney stands in McCoy's, a nightclub packed with his soldiers in civilian clothes. His eyes are bloodshot and floating in tears, as he looks at the dance floor.

There's Serrano, dancing with three guys that she considers her brothers. "When I saw her, after she was blown up, it didn't even look like her," he says, rubbing the corner of his eye.

And there's Lathers, waving her arms, her face lit up with joy.

And there's Spec. Shane Farland, who lost his right eye in Baghdad. He is wearing a prosthesis that matches his hazel eye. He has been diagnosed with PTSD and is going through a divorce.

And there's Sgt. Adele Garcia, 24, who lost the hearing in her right ear from the explosion in which Farland was injured.

And there's Williams, who keeps dancing until the pain in his knee forces him into a chair.

They are laughing, and grinding, and smiling, and dancing, and acting silly. The music is thumping. The lights are flashing. And the beer is flowing, steady and cold. They lived together, fought together and bled on each other.

The next few months will be a different kind of hell, as these soldiers leave the structure of the military and try to return to life across Michigan. There will be problems with spouses and children. Nightmares. Panic attacks. Depression. Detachment. And fits of anger. Some will think about suicide.

Others will come through it just fine.

"Who says we don't get nightmares already?" a veteran sergeant says.

It's a difficult transformation to go from a soldier to a civilian in just a few days. Or a few months.

But right now, out on the dance floor, as Serrano closes her eyes, and leans into one of her friends, letting the music carry her away, waving her arm in the air, swaying to the beat, everything starts to feel better. To feel normal again.

They aren't injured soldiers. They are a family. Acting crazy. Having fun. Letting loose. Celebrating life and honor and duty and trust.

Because they made it home.

Serrano still has shrapnel in her face. The other day, she scratched her skin and some glass popped onto the table.

Another piece of metal is working its way from her cheek to her mouth.

The war is stuck inside her, inside all of them, fighting to come out.

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