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Despite the hurdles, he hasn't lost heart

Nathan Handville is 22. He'll get his second Purple Heart today.

By LORRI HELFRAND, Times staff writer
Published August 3, 2007


It was a routine patrol. Marine Cpl. Nathan Handville was leading a dozen men north of Karmah, Iraq.

He'd earned a Purple Heart two years ago and his third tour of duty was coming to a close.

Within five weeks, he'd be back at his base, 29 Palms in California. Then, there was a blast. Searing pain ripped through his right arm and head.

An explosion shattered his wrist, broke his fingers, lopped off the tip of his index finger, sliced his face and neck, fractured his skull and blew out both of his eardrums.

Insurgents were firing at the Marines, who returned fire. Handville, a 22-year-old who grew up in Largo, wouldn't let the medic give him morphine. "I didn't want to be out of it," said Handville.

Today, eleven days after the attack, Marine Corps officials plan to award Handville his second Purple Heart.

* * *

After they were attacked, Handville's squad dragged him to safety and a medical helicopter flew him to a local hospital. Friday, he arrived at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.

"I'm unlucky because I was hurt twice, but I feel lucky because I'm still here," said Handville, who underwent two surgeries to clean and repair his arm Thursday.

His buddy from Oregon, Lance Cpl. Garrett Jones, is sharing a hospital room with him. Jones, who lost his left leg, was standing right behind Handville when the improvised explosive device, or IED, went off July 23.

Handville's first injury occurred in the fall of 2005. He was temporarily blinded when a Humvee he was driving was hit by an IED. Although his corneas were lacerated, he returned to duty about 10 days later.

Handville's parents, brothers and sister are by his side at the hospital. They know he'll have a tough road to recovery, but say they're relieved he wasn't hurt worse.

His mother said she was shocked when she first saw her son's handsome face with 45 stitches. One trail goes along the left side of his jaw to his chin. Another runs between his eyes and down the side of the nose.

His father, Ray, a Largo mailman, said he's grateful for top-notch medical care. His voice cracked with emotion when he described visits from Rep. C.W. Bill Young and his wife, Beverly.

During her first visit on Monday, Beverly brought Handville a CD player and noticed his Johnny Cash tattoo.

She came back Tuesday with two Johnny Cash CDs.

"We are the envy of the floor," said Ray Handville.

* * *

An uncertain future

Growing up, Handville was a daredevil and a class clown.

He was rambunctious and fond of climbing trees, said his mother, Barbara.

"He had stitches three times before he was 5," she said.

Handville enlisted during his senior year of high school and entered boot camp two months after he graduated from Largo High in 2003.

"He was definitely strong-willed and knew what he wanted to do," his mother said.

Handville, who is with Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines, saw the Marine Corps as an opportunity to see the world and get money for college.

A couple of weeks before he was hurt, he re-enlisted. He planned to become a machine gun instructor in Virginia, he said.

He's not sure how his injuries will affect that goal.

"I don't know the long-term extent of my injuries. They won't know until they repair everything and I go to physical therapy," Handville said.

But his family said Handville has retained his sense of humor.

Earlier this week, he wheeled his IV stand over to the nurses station and announced, "I'm here to check out."

And shortly after his arrival, an anesthesiologist asked Handville if he was allergic to anything.

At first Handville said he was allergic to ampicillin.

Anything else? the anesthesiologist asked.

"Yeah," Handville replied matter-of-factly. "IEDs."

Lorri Helfand can be reached at 445-4155 or lorri@sptimes.com

Fast Facts:

The Purple Heart

The Purple Heart is awarded in the name of the president to all who are injured or killed in combat.

The precursor to the modern Purple Heart, the Badge of Military Merit, was created by Gen. George Washington during the Revolutionary War. The medal fell out of use until after World War I, when it was revived by the War Department and renamed the Purple Heart.

Nathan Handville's other medals and awards include:

The National Defense Service Medal, the Iraqi Campaign Medal, the Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal, the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal, the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, the Good Conduct Medal and the Joint Meritorious Unit Citation Medal