For U.S. soldier injured by friendly fire, the wounds run deep
The Seattle Post Intelligencer

  USA - SNOHOMISH -- Though he was wounded in Iraq last fall, Sgt. 1st Class Rick White gets no Purple Heart. White, 43, a 26-year career soldier and member of the Washington Army National Guard's 81st Brigade Combat Team, nearly lost his right leg Oct. 19. The shooter was not the enemy, but another U.S. soldier mishandling a machine gun.
  It was friendly fire, a military euphemism that left White with a wound for which no medals are awarded but with a life-altering injury as crippling as any delivered by an enemy.
  As the Seattle-based 181st Support Battalion, of which White was a part, returns home this week, White continues to face a long fight, having endured 10 surgeries so far in hopes of one day walking on his own.
  White, however, is recuperating not at home with his wife and 3-year-old daughter, but with his sister, Teresa Alldredge, in Snohomish. His two-year marriage -- his second -- also became a casualty while he was away.
  "If not for my sister, I don't know where I'd live, what I'd come home to," he said. "I have my good days and my down days. The down days are the ones when I can start crying at the drop of a hat."
  The Army paid to furnish the 12-by-12-foot room in which he sleeps with a hospital bed, a physical therapy machine, a wheelchair and, in the bathroom, a boost for the toilet. A laptop computer is a main link to the outside world, its clock set to remind him to change his pain patch every three days. It's among the seven painkillers he takes. White's sister, a professional quilter, decorated the room with hand-hewn quilts donated by well-wishing Americans from around the country, photos of White's daughter and get-well notes from family, friends and strangers.
  White is still in the Army, allowed to remain at home while assigned to a medical holding company at Fort Lewis, where he goes every three weeks to refill prescriptions. An avowed "four-wheeled Jeep nut" whose e-mail handle is "wildman," White only in the past month has been able to drive himself, even though his fragile leg can't bear weight.
  "As long as I can stand up one day to play with my daughter and to go four-wheeling with my (19-year-old) son, I'll be happy," he says. "I want to get together with people in my company when they get back. I can't party in a wheelchair. My hope is I'll be walking again without crutches."

Bullet tore into leg
  Physical therapy twice a week at the Summit Rehabilitation Center is a half-hour down the road from the Alldredge's house. Today's treatment, under the caring hands and watchful eyes of physical therapist Kevin Graham, begins with a cocoa butter massage to loosen soft tissue for flexing exercises later on.
  White's eyes close as Graham goes to work. "Hurts a little today but pretty good," White responds when asked. "It was change-pain-patch day."
  A single 7.62 mm bullet, "small-arms fire" in military parlance, tore into his leg on Oct. 19. A small scar the size of a dime on his hamstring was the entry wound. The other side of his leg is a spider web of scars.
  The exit wound measures 5 inches across. The bullet blasted away 2 inches of his thigh bone and shredded an artery, nearly killing him. The exit wound's deep, thick scar tissue, like a black hole, sucks more tissue inward, tightening White's leg, requiring massage.
  Foot-long scars left by the efforts to save White's life snake down the inside of his right thigh and right calf. A similar scar stretches down the inner thigh of his left leg, where surgeons removed a "spare" vein to replace his severed right artery. Bone for a graft to fill the 2-inch gap left in his right thigh was taken from his hip. Smaller, round marks dot his skin where pins were screwed to keep him immobile.
  "I've gotten a whole medical education since this happened. In my first treatment in Iraq, the wounds weren't sewn but let open because I was operated on in a tent, and they had to make sure all the dirt was cleaned out," he said. "I was told that if this was the Vietnam War, I probably would have died."
  A long scar down the length of his calf is from the fasciotomy. "They do it so when your muscles swell, they don't rip. They put something like a rubber band around them to hold the meat together. The reason I know is because I watched them do the cleaning one day. I wanted to know."
  Another scar on his right leg is from a surgery to relieve a nerve, the deep perennial nerve responsible for his curling toes and sensations that alternate between deadness and hypersensitivity.
  "Mostly my leg feels nothing from the knee down," White said. But "at Christmas it hurt so much I was crying."
Adds his sister, Teresa:
  "If you walked past him, just the breeze would send him into pain."

'Still barking orders'
  "I can tell you what it sounds like when a bullet hits your body," White says. "It's a pretty good 'thwack.' If you ever hunted, it's about the same as if you hit a deer when you get close."
  He did not know at the time it came from a "friendly."
  "I was still barking orders when I was hit. I wanted to protect my soldiers and to make sure they were down. Then I yelled for a medic. I had no idea where the fire had come from. The most vivid picture in my mind is of a medic working on me. She was covered in blood up to her elbows."
  Because it happened inside an Army camp near Baghdad, a medical tent was nearby.
  "In the emergency room, I cussed out the crew because they wanted to cut off my armored vest," he says. "These vests are hard to come by. I told them to take it off, not cut it, because somebody else will need it. That's about all I remember before they started doping me up."
  White said he was forming a patrol to send "outside the wire," beyond the gate and protective walls of concrete jersey barriers, when he was shot. He later learned the bullet came from the top of a building 15 meters away, where a team of soldiers to cover the crew was positioned. One of those soldiers, a spotter for a designated marksman, was not qualified to use the M-240 machine gun but "for some reason, she decided to try to load it," he said.
  A report of the investigation doesn't say why the soldier tried to load the weapon, only that she did so and the weapon misfired, sending nine bullets White's way.
  An investigation ensued, National Guard officials confirmed. The incident was deemed an accident. The soldier who caused the misfire received an undisclosed punishment.
  "Our brigade commander said she has real remorse," White said. "I don't know how I'd feel if I saw her. She didn't do it on purpose, but I can be bitter about it."

An uncertain future
  An Army evaluation board will determine White's future when his treatment is considered complete.
The Army could make any number of decisions, including discharging him or letting him stay in, perhaps by giving him temporary retirement until he is recovered.
  White appreciates that there are troops more seriously injured than he who will never walk or be independent again. He shares with them a sense of life-altering limitations and expectations.
  "I went from being a person who was active 20 hours a day to being able to do nothing," White said "If I can't work on cars anymore, I think I'd like to be retrained to work on computers. I read technical manuals like novels."
  White acknowledges his life has sometimes been a battle with himself. In 1978, White dropped out of Snohomish High School in 10th grade and joined the Army. It gave him structure and focus. He earned his high school diploma, some college credits and vehicle mechanic certifications. In 1992, he left the Army to work as a mechanic but later joined the Oregon National Guard, then moved to Yakima and transferred to the Washington National Guard. White's immediate goal is to be cleared to walk on his leg by April.
  The biggest frustration, however, has been "a foot drop." Nerve damage caused White's toes to involuntarily curl. Results of a recent surgery to relocate the nerve won't be known for months.
  White grows glum. "One reason I'm so open about myself is because it's good therapy," he says.
  At home, White's sister tells him that a Vashon Island woman who has been making and donating quilts to wounded soldiers was herself feeling low recently, wondering if they really made a difference.
  "Oh," White says, eyes brightening as he reviews those hanging in his room. "They make a difference, a big difference."

P-I reporter Mike Barber can be reached at 206-448-8018 or