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Back from Iraq, must soldier fight for lifetime of care?

The wife of U.S. Rep. C.W. Young says America should ensure that incapacitated veterans receive care and compensation.

Published September 5, 2004

TAMPA - Pete Herrick seemed to have it all: a wife, two kids, friends, church and a 5-acre Florida spread.

But Herrick worried about the future.

The 34-year-old was a self-employed construction worker, and his retirement plan wasn't particularly strong.

To shore up his finances and help his country, Herrick enlisted in the Naval Reserves in 2001. His wife, Diana, looked at the bright side.

"I thought it was a midlife crisis," she recalled. "At least he's not out with some other woman."

But Herrick was called to active duty in Iraq six months ago. A month after landing in the war zone, his unit was blown up. Five people were killed and several others were injured in the May 2 attack.

Herrick lost his left leg and was paralyzed from the neck down. He is being treated at the spinal cord center at James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa. When he gets out, Herrick, now 37, will need special housing, transportation and around the clock medical care.

Beverly Young, the wife of House Appropriations Chairman C.W. Bill Young, R-Largo, is calling attention to the plight of wounded soldiers. She cites case after case of lives shattered because of serious injuries in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the frustration of dealing with government red tape.

"America needs to know this story," Mrs. Young said. "We have to do better."

* * *

Pete and Diana Herrick met in 1984 at Tarpon Springs High School.

They became friends by sharing dating advice and Nerds candies in the back of Ms. Heistand's physiology class. In 1985, at the end of their senior year, he asked her to the prom.

"I was 18, and she had those physical qualities," he said, laughing. "She had that friendliness."

Their first kiss, Mrs. Herrick said, was "like kissing your brother."

The second kiss was a keeper.

The Herricks married in 1986. They had a daughter and a son. He worked construction; she looked after the kids. The family settled in a doublewide mobile home in Columbia County.

Herrick was activated for duty on March 1. He arrived in Iraq a month later.

The Herricks spoke by telephone about once a week and regularly e-mailed each other. She stayed away from the television news.

But with the kids in bed on May 4, Mrs. Herrick switched on the television. She heard that Herrick's unit had been attacked two days earlier.

"My heart was racing," she said.

Before long, his doctor was on the phone, reciting the life-threatening injuries. He had shrapnel in his right lung and was on a ventilator. He had multiple wounds to his right arm and leg. His left leg had been amputated. He was paralyzed.

"I'm crying," Mrs. Herrick, 37, said, recalling the conversation, "and every time he'd say, "Are you okay? Because there's more.' "

* * *

Pete Herrick loves football and hunting and video games - and Guinness stout.

A Civil War buff, he acknowledges he always has been fascinated by war, "by the terror and the emotion the guys must feel when you go through that situation."

In the summer of 2001, with his family squared away, Herrick said he was looking for something to do. A buddy at work was in the reserves. Herrick said he figured he could supplement his income, secure a pension and pay back his country.

With the Cold War over, Herrick told his wife he wouldn't be in any danger. But he was activated early this year and soon found himself in Iraq.

During a night mission outside Fallujah, his convoy hit an improvised explosive device and two men were killed. He said the enemy easily could have taken them out. Herrick was at the tail end of the convoy, behind a 50-caliber weapon.

"You talk about fear, sitting there, you talk about tension," Herrick said. "I got my taste of war."

Two days later, his unit came under mortar fire at the military base in Ramadi. Herrick said all he remembers about getting hit is feeling like he had been electrocuted.

When he awoke, he was at a military hospital in Bethesda, Md., with his wife by his side. After his doctors told him the extent of his injuries, Herrick said he wanted to die. "That was hell," he said, crying. "That was definitely hell."

During the interview, Herrick sat in a wheelchair in a recreation room at Haley, with Mrs. Herrick slipping him tea. He appeared to be in good spirits but choked up easily.

He said his family and his faith keep him going, and he saw blessings in what's happened to him. His father, for example, has become a Christian since he got hurt.

He also looks back at his life, at things big and small. When he went to Iraq, he weighed 240 pounds. Now he weighs 160.

"There are times when I think, "What the hell have I done?' " he said. "But I think about it, and I would do it all over again."

* * *

A few weeks ago, Beverly and Bill Young quietly arrived at the spinal cord center at Haley, and they visited with the Herricks and other patients.

The Youngs thanked them for serving their country and offered to help any way they could.

Away from the patients, Mrs. Young complained the government wasn't doing enough to help soldiers incapacitated by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. She said in many instances their pension is too small to make ends meet.

She said a young Marine paralyzed from the waist down has no place to live after he is discharged. Another soldier could not get pain relief because the medical procedure would have violated VA policy.

"What is America's role in this?" Mrs. Young said. "You will not see much support."

Young said medicine has improved so soldiers who previously would have died in combat are surviving.

"We haven't prepared for that," he said.

About 33,000 veterans who served in Afghanistan and Iraq have sought treatment at VA facilities. How many veterans have suffered permanent paralysis is unclear, but in the past year Haley has treated dozens of patients for head and spinal injuries.

VA spokesman Phil Budahn noted that the benefits veterans received are tied to the severity of their injuries. In addition to medical benefits, he said the most severely injured can get up to $6,404 a month, tax free. They also can qualify for home loans and educational benefits.

Mrs. Young said the government should identify the most severely injured soldiers, and monitor their progress to make sure they get proper help.

For example, she wondered how Herrick would survive in a trailer in a rural area, with a wife and two teenagers to support.

Mrs. Herrick said the Navy, the VA, family and friends, including the Youngs, have helped her family survive the worst. She says Herrick gets about $3,000 a month in military pay, which pays the bills, and they both give Haley a glowing review.

She said her husband is lucid and they have conversations. He makes her laugh a lot. The hardest days are when he's in pain, she said as she cried.

But they take it one day at a time.

"If you think too much into the future," Mrs. Herrick said, "you really stress."

[Last modified September 4, 2004, 23:35:33]

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