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Iraq

Foot in a cast, Pasco Marine on way home from war

Mary Katherine Mason, 20, traded college classes for combat in January but broke her ankle before seeing the front lines.

By JAMIE JONES, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 13, 2003


Mary Katherine Mason did what most college students do: She partied. She studied. She hung out in coffee shops.

"It was boring," Mason said. "I like an exciting life."

After her freshman year at the University of Southern Florida in Tampa, Mason, 20, joined the Marine Corps Reserves. She learned to throw a grenade. Dig a manhole. Ambush soldiers.

Lance Cpl. Mason's reserve unit was activated in January. She flew to Kuwait and waited for war, scared but ready.

But on March 24, before the Zephyrhills High School graduate could witness any action, she fell off a truck and broke her ankle in southern Iraq. For Mason, the war was over.

She's scheduled to arrive in Tampa this morning, among the first of the military personnel from the Tampa Bay area to come home.

Mason's mother, Pam, will be waiting at Tampa International Airport and plans to take Mason, the youngest of five children, back to Dade City, where she will spend the next 30 days recovering.

Mason's mom can't wait.

"I'm going to smile a lot, probably cry," she said. "I'll have to wait my turn to hug her."

Mason is thankful for a safe return, but regrets the circumstances.

"Everyone else in my unit is fighting, and I'm laying here helpless, a stupid cast on my foot," she said. "We were all supposed to come back together."

Saturday, Mason sat in bed at Camp Pendleton in San Diego, flipping through the television channels, looking forward to seeing her family's schnauzer, Rocky.

"I'm ready to relax at home," she said.

Two years ago, Mason was one of the best multisport athletes at Zephyrhills High School in Pasco County -- captain of the basketball team, a record-setting swimmer, a member of the track team. Mason, who has had her share of injuries, thinks it will take several months for her ankle to completely heal. After her 30 days at home, she'll stay on active duty at Camp Pendleton until she is fully recovered.

She sustained the injury while her unit was refueling its trucks near Nasiriyah.

Mason, whose duty was to drive a truck for a motor transport battalion, was refueling a truck when it started to move. Mason jumped off, fell 8 to 10 feet and crushed her ankle. She was taken to a hospital in Kuwait and then arrived at the San Diego base about a week ago.

Mason decided to become a Marine partly because her two brothers had served. Her brother-in-law also is a Marine.

"I wanted a challenge," Mason said. "The Marines are the best, the most elite."

She went to boot camp in May 2002, then spent several months in combat training. She went back to USF for her sophomore year, where she lived in the dorms and enrolled in public speaking, math and liberal arts classes. In mid-January, a week into the curriculum, Mason was activated.

Several people in her company are friends from Zephyrhills High, and they could laugh about not showering or getting through sandstorms. She hasn't talked to them since her injury, or to her boyfriend, Scott Henson of Brandon, a Marine whom she met on the ride to boot camp.

"Being over here (in the United States), this is like nail biting because you don't know what's going on," she said. "I completely hate it."

Mason isn't sure she will re-enlist after her five-year term ends. She plans to pursue a career in film or advertising.

"It will be cool for my kids to say that their mom is a war veteran," she said. "I think I'll get respect from a lot of people. They won't think I'm a punk college kid who didn't have discipline."

-- Jamie Jones can be reached at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6245, or jjones@sptimes.com.

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