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Wounded Iraq veteran learning to live with disability

| Sunday, Sept. 4, 2005

Joe Jenkins sometimes wishes the bullet that paralyzed his legs had taken his life instead.

"I know the big crash is coming one of these days," said Jenkins, 37, of Lower Burrell, as he sat in his partially renovated home.

Jenkins, a Verona native, is one of 15 severely disabled Iraq war veterans living in Western Pennsylvania. Thanks to advanced technology and a better emergency medical system, more soldiers such as Jenkins are surviving severe battlefield wounds. The mortality rate for wounded soldiers in Iraq is 12 percent, the lowest in history, according to the U.S. Department of Defense.

The higher survival rate means more soldiers are returning home with disabilities.

According to an Aug. 6 Defense Department report, the latest containing state-by-state figures, 91 Pennsylvanians have died in Afghanistan and Iraq while another 602 have been wounded. Nationally, for the same time period, 14,414 were wounded -- 2,046 fatally. When the two battle fronts are combined, the mortality rate for wounded soldiers is 14 percent.

Many wounded soldiers return to duty. Jenkins is not one of those soldiers.

Jenkins was a sergeant with the Army's 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment of the 10th Mountain Division when the unit was ordered in April 2004 to hold two bridges west of Fallujah so that enemy fighters couldn't escape a Marine offensive.

The enemy lobbed a couple of mortar shells at the unit on April 29, 2004, one missed and the other was a dud. Despite that aborted attack, the unit was relaxed.

"That day, there was nothing major going on," Jenkins said.

Then a group of enemy fighters attacked in an attempt to open a bridge Jenkins' unit was guarding. Standing on a rooftop with other soldiers, Jenkins opened fire.

"The next thing I know, I was laying on the ground," he said.

He could feel his legs were sticking up in the air, but he couldn't lower them. His arms felt like they were burning.

"I knew I was paralyzed, but I didn't know where I was shot," he said.

Jenkins had been shot in the neck. While he quickly would regain use of his arms, he remains in a wheelchair more than a year later.

He almost destroyed his two-year marriage before learning to accept his disability. That the marriage survives is a testament to his wife, Peggy, Jenkins said.

"We've been arguing for over a year," he said.

In August 2004, he left her for two weeks because he felt like she was treating him like a baby. He now admits that she was just looking out for him.

"Most wives probably would have walked away," he said. "I was taking my anger out, but I was taking it out on the wrong people."

Jenkins joined the regular Army after nine years in the Pennsylvania Army National Guard with no steady civilian career. Joe met Peggy at a Pittsburgh night club in March 2003 when he was home on leave from Kosovo.

With two days left on his leave, he offered to cover Peggy's wages if she would call in sick so they could spend the next day together. She said no.

Instead, they began a long-distance courtship that led to marriage. The newlyweds had about four months together before Joe deployed to Iraq in January 2004.

"I didn't want to do it, but that was my job and I accepted that," he said.

Four months after that, he was on the phone telling his wife that he was paralyzed from the waist down.

Now the couple is trying to get their new home livable for themselves and Peggy's three children from a previous marriage.

Peggy said the remodeling has made everything harder because most of their furniture and other items are in upstate New York near Fort Drum, where they lived before the Iraq deployment.

"We've been over a year trying to get it done," she said.

Joe said the original contractor walked off the job, so friends are pitching in to finish the work.

"All we want is our house -- then we can worry about having a life, doing things," he said.

Some of those things include sled hockey, a version of ice hockey where players use their arms to propel themselves across the ice. Joe also wants to do more fishing and start hunting again.

Eventually, he plans to get a computer and start attending college, but he's not sure what his major will be.

"I just want to get back into doing what I was doing before -- just in different ways," he said.

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