March 25, 2008

The Fight Home

: Iraq almost made Brandon Sword a statistic. It hasn’t made him a quitter

Someday, Christian Xavier Wayne Sword will want to know about Iraq. It’ll be a while, though: He’s 12 days old today.
When the questions come, Christian will want to know about his dad’s bum right ankle, why he’s deaf in his left ear, and why, on occasion, he picks pieces of metal, tile and concrete out of his skin. Maybe dad will reply: “Because some bad guys wanted revenge.”
Maybe he won’t say anything at all.
The near-fatal conclusion of Army Sgt. Brandon Sword’s combat career came last March, 10 miles from Iskandiriyah, at the southern tip of the Sunni Triangle. The area is better known as the “triangle of death” because of its high casualty rate for U.S. troops. Sword enlisted in 2004, a decision he doesn’t necessarily regret.
“I pretty much knew I was gonna join after 9/11,” he says by phone from Wasilla, Alaska, 35 miles north of Anchorage, where he and wife Stacy plan to start a real estate investment company. It’s 6 p.m. their time on a Tuesday night, and he sounds exhausted.
After graduating from Trinity High School in 2002, Brandon studied justice administration at U of L for two years. Academic pursuits couldn’t override his desire to enlist.
The Army stationed him at Fort Richardson in Wasilla. He was redeployed there several times during his tour, though stateside trips are hardly vacations. In country, Brandon patrolled Iskandiriyah, arresting terrorists and digging up bombs. Action was limited, but about once every two weeks, insurgents waged major battles.
If one broke out, Brandon had to be ready to rumble in 15 minutes. Burnout was common, and to ease fatigue, he decompressed at an abandoned Iraqi police station behind “the wire,” an imaginary barrier differentiating the safe zones from the suspect ones.
On March 16, 2007, Brandon and Chris Brevard, a 31-year-old four-wheeling enthusiast and father of two, were part of two teams that raided a municipal building that housed the Iskandiriyah mayor’s office. The mission objective remains classified, but it was Brandon’s last as a scout — three days before he was told he was being promoted.
Patrols inside the triangle require constant coordination and awareness the moment troops step outside the wire. “You never wanna go straight to where you’re going,” he says, “just in case.” After four years of war, electricity was a luxury inside the triangle, so darkness was also a foe. “At night, in a country full of rubble and garbage, you’re not going to see anything. In my opinion, it’s not a war that should be fought at night, especially since they’re using IED (improvised explosive device) ambushes,” he says, referring to the deadly bombs that are hidden underground and therefore more difficult to locate once the sun sets.
His night vision consisted of a single lens that blocked his peripheral vision and distorted depth perception. Nevertheless, both teams made it to the building unscathed. “So we get to the objective,” Brandon explains. “I remember I sent the first team upstairs and radioed down to the second team. I made the first call. I didn’t hear anything. I saw (Brevard) coming toward me, and we meet up so we can come up with the next plan. We radio the second team to come upstairs.”
As soon as both teams reached the roof, boom.

‘I should’ve seen it coming’
Brandon initially thought someone tossed a grenade at a nearby wall, but the bomb was embedded in the concrete roof.

“I saw a flash, an explosion, first,” he recalls. “I can’t describe how it felt. It knocked me off my feet.”
Explosions tend to come in pairs, so insurgents can kill troops who arrive to assist the wounded. Brandon’s mother, Louisville Metro Councilwoman Madonna Flood (D-24th), would be informed later that the whole building was set to blow, but only one bomb detonated.
Brandon fell to the ground immediately. Blood poured from his head. He could only move his right arm and neck. Every team member was injured, but in the chaos, they managed to secure the roof. He instructed one soldier to fasten a tourniquet on his left arm and left leg, and to bandage his head. The explosion destroyed the radio that had been wired to his helmet, so another soldier called for a Medevac chopper.
Brandon was losing massive amounts of blood — he would later need two liters — so to stay conscious, he counted to five and squeezed his right hand. After 15 minutes — an eternity when you’re seriously wounded — he and Brevard were put on stretchers and loaded into the chopper.
Brevard wasn’t talking. “Chris is always the guy — even if he’s hurt and missing a leg — he’s awake, and he’ll say something,” Brandon says.
The team’s designated landing zone had been used during the week, so the chopper had to land at a more secure area until Brandon could be flown to Camp Anaconda in Balad. According to globalsecurity.org, Balad’s nickname is “Mortaritaville” for its near-constant mortar attacks.
Brandon kept asking nurses, doctors and any soldier who would listen about Brevard’s condition, but no one would answer, fearing that the news, combined with his blood loss, would send him into shock. Finally, a chaplain told him Brevard had died before the chopper could reach Balad.
“We kind of knew this,” Brandon says, “but you’re always of the mind where he’s fine.”
Doctors don’t like to operate on soldiers in Iraq. “You can sit in your septic system and get operated on, and it would be cleaner than it would (be) in that country,” he says. Their health concerns include acinobacter, a bacteria that is immune to most treatments in the United States. It has been found only in Iraq.
After five days in quarantine, doctors removed a pump that was blocking veins and arteries in Brandon’s right leg. With no time to administer anesthesia, and under heavy sedation with morphine, doctors suggested he take ketamine instead. “It’s not gonna put you to sleep,” the anesthesiologist told him, “but you’ll never remember you were here.”
Ketamine is a dissociative anesthetic. It caused Brandon to hallucinate and think he had been captured. “I would’ve rather been cut on without it.”
It had been nearly a week, and he didn’t call home once, in part, because of his condition but also because he said, “I didn’t want to upset anybody.”
The Army called his mom anyway.

Mixed signals
If truth is the first casualty of war, competence surely makes the top five.
First, the Army told Flood her son had been in an accident but that he was OK and would be fit to return to active duty. On the second call, he was en route to Landstuhl, Germany for treatment and surgery. The third call came from Brandon’s captain, who said that, no, he, in fact, was in Balad. The conflicting reports made Flood worry about mistaken identity. “I thought they had my son mixed up with someone else.”
She called the Army’s wounded soldiers hotline to ask about the conflicting locations. The warrant officers who answered the phones apologized, saying the volume of dead and wounded made it nearly impossible to stay accurate. You can practically hear Flood’s blood pressure rise when she repeats the Army’s explanation for why they could not tell her what had happened to Brandon.
Warrant officers working the wounded soldiers’ hotline said they didn’t operate on secure phone lines, and were afraid to breach privacy laws set out by in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996.
“It’s not a HIPAA violation if you don’t know what’s wrong with him,” she says. “I have Brandon’s power of attorney. There is no reason they should not have let me know what’s going on with him. You can’t cut those ties of blood because the Army said they signed a paper. It don’t work that way with me.”
In Landstuhl, doctors performed a faschiotomy on his leg, applying skin grafts to replace the dead and scarred tissue. Four inches of his Achilles tendon were also removed.
Repeated skin grafts on his legs kept failing, so the wound was left open. All the while, Brandon was under heavy sedation. “I remember a couple things,” he says, “but not much.” En route to the states, an artery ruptured in his head, forcing the plane to turn around. Brandon would have to land periodically for treatment and surgeries, one of which saw doctors pulling as many pieces of shrapnel as they could out of his left ear.
Brandon made it back to Fort Richardson by the end of March 2007. The fort is a closed base, meaning visitors must be accompanied by military personnel at all times. So when Flood called the base from Louisville to make arrangements to fly up and see Brandon, she was told that unless he came in person to the gate and signed her in, she would not be allowed on base, period. Protocol is protocol, they told her.
“I told them that Brandon was not ambulatory,” she says. They still would not let her in, so she called the wounded soldiers hotline again, and the warrant officers notified one of Brandon’s fellow sergeants at Fort Richardson. “Ma’am, we will be meeting you at the airport,” they told her, and they even made hotel arrangements and got Brandon’s truck out of storage so Flood wouldn’t need a rental car.
On May 1, 2007, the Army allowed Brandon to fly back to Louisville for 30 days of convalescent leave.
“He had this ritual,” Flood remembers, with no small amount of admiration. “It took him an hour and a half to change the dressings in his leg, twice a day. He was so methodical and meticulous about how he did this. He was gonna avoid infection at all costs.”
On May 27, he and Stacy were married at Waterfront Park.

Pain, killer
On Oct. 15, 2007, doctors in Alaska closed the 4-by-9-inch hole in Brandon’s leg for the last time. The unseen injuries were only beginning to surface.
“Once you’re hit by something like that, you’re never the same no matter what you do,” Brandon says. “That’s one of the things you don’t hear: Once you’re fixed, that’s when the worst part of the accident starts.”
Technically, Brandon remains on active duty under what the Army calls home care. He hasn’t put on a military uniform since the accident, and he has never been classified as seriously injured.
The blast, plus 15 subsequent surgeries, have left many of his nerve endings crossed. In certain parts of his body, he can feel pain but not normal sensations.
“They call it life-wrecking chronic pain, the pain that comes with being sick all the time,” he says. “Your body is so riddled with injuries, your nerves get crossed, and they send these flashes to your brain. It never goes away.”
He takes Oxycontin and Vicodin, but those only give him several hours of relief each day, and his body is slowly building tolerance to them. Last week, while Stacy was in labor with Christian, Brandon had to stand on pillows to help her with the delivery. “I’m 24 years old, and I feel like I’m 50,” he says.
Soon, a civilian neurologist in Alaska will attach a neurostimulator to Brandon’s spine. Essentially, the device shuts down his nervous system and reboots it. It will stay inside him for a year. Then, if he feels no chronic pain, doctors will remove it and see if the pain returns.
Brandon has researched the procedure on his own, and he sees it as a fresh start — Sword, version 2.0. “My neurotransmitter is kind of like a new beginning for us,” he says. “I wanna have a lot more good days than I do bad.”
Brandon is supposed to appear before an Army medical board this summer to determine whether he should be discharged. If he is, he will be transferred to the Veterans Administration hospital system. Because he had an aneurysm, which affects the arterial structure of the brain, the likelihood of a private carrier insuring him is almost zero.

The definition of insanity
Brandon believed in the war when he enlisted, but after seeing firsthand the complexities, corruption and overall execution, he has philosophical and strategic qualms.
“Every little step you take over there is gonna be taken back within a month,” he says now.
By his own estimation, 80 percent of the adult population is involved in the attacks in some way. “I’m not saying every one of them goes and digs a hole in the ground,” he says, referring to the method of placement for IEDs, but it makes him angry that such violent coordination kills his friends.
“The guy to the left and to the right of me — any one of their lives is worth way more than a thousand of those people to me,” he says. “I knew them. I knew what they were there for.”
And they weren’t there to be political pawns. “Soldiers’ lives are being traded for political gain within the cities,” he says. “‘But it’s OK, and we didn’t shoot back, and now the town likes us a little bit more.’”
For those Iraqis who have suffered since the fall of Saddam, a U.S.-led victory and complete reconciliation between warring Sunnis and Shiites is fiction.
“A couple of backpacks and MREs are not going to abolish thousands of years of hate,” he says. “We’re not going to bring these two groups together. It’s too political over there. It’s too political to ever make any good out of it. Of course Iraqis are not going to like Americans. Saddam passed out handfuls of cash. Why would they like you for pulling him out of power? You’re giving them a couple meals and a couple toys.
“You can delay the decline, but no progress can be made.”

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