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Iraq Leaves Vet in Fog of War
Associated Press  |  March 20, 2006
RICHMOND HILL, Ga. - His 3-year-old son Nicholas' first steps, the first time Liam, his newborn, smiled - Staff Sgt. Douglas Piper lived to see them. Then his scarred memory erased even those precious moments.

"I can't remember what they did yesterday," Piper says. "Sometimes, I can't remember what I did yesterday. The days are broken."

Iraq left the 30-year-old Piper in his own personal fog of war, one in which remembering the moments and days since April 2003 can be as confusing a puzzle as predicting his civilian future.

Three years ago, in the war's first month, Piper became one of the now more than 17,000 U.S. troops wounded in action. A grenade blast in Baghdad mangled his right eye, collapsed his right eardrum and slammed his brain against the inside of his skull.

In a conflict where explosions account for roughly two-thirds of Army combat wounds, and improved body armor and field medicine increase chances of survival, brain injuries such as Piper's are common.

At home in southeast Georgia, he drives his pickup truck, and even took a recent ski trip, despite having no depth perception after losing his eye. In public, he pops his prosthetic eye in and out of its socket without self-consciousness. He hears fine with the help of a hearing aid.

Yet his doctors tell him at least 80 percent of his short-term memory has been destroyed.

Watching "CSI" or "Law and Order" on TV with his wife, Sherry, he often has trouble following the plot. He has problems recalling the birthdates of their three boys - Matthew, 4, Nicholas, 3, and 13-week-old Liam. He knows the route to his desk job at Hunter Army Airfield in nearby Savannah, but needs help keeping track of appointments.

Sometimes he'll walk into a room and forget what he's doing there. Other times, he'll stop talking in mid-sentence and grasp for the word.

"I'll try to point at something like, `What is that?' he says. "The names of things, the words, sometimes they're just gone."

Routine and his wife's guidance help compensate. He keeps his keys, wallet, cell phone, medications and spare prosthetic eyes in a basket on the kitchen counter so he won't lose them. Sherry Piper enters his doctor visits and other appointments into her Palm Pilot.

Still, Piper puts his injuries in perspective. Among the other wounded soldiers he met at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, there was always someone whose injuries seemed worse - a Bradley armored-vehicle driver blinded in both eyes by a rocket-propelled grenade, a sniper who had been shot through the eye with a bullet that passed through his brain.

"I'd just think to myself, it could have been worse," Piper said, "so don't even think about complaining."

Walter Reed, home to one of eight brain injury facilities run jointly by the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs, has treated more than 600 troops with traumatic brain injuries from Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003.

Brain injuries were diagnosed in 28 percent of wounded service members sent to Walter Reed from January 2003 to November 2005. Common effects include headaches, sleep disorders, trouble concentrating and memory loss.

After six surgeries between April 2003 and August 2005, Piper expects to be cleared for a medical discharge by the Army in the next two months.

"A part of him, I think, does yearn to stay in the military," said Kim Mayes, his medical case manager at Hunter. "He'll walk in, if he saw something on the news, and say, `Man, I wish I could go back over there.'"

Piper signed with an Army recruiter at 17, entering the service a year later in October 1994. As a teenager in Bridgewater, N.H., he saw the Army as a chance to escape the doldrums of a small town where most young men went to work manufacturing rubber gaskets at a local factory.

He passed the rigorous training required to join the elite Army Ranger regiment, and served eight years in its Hunter-based battalion. He planned on a full 20-year military career.

Then came the war - the last thing he remembers with clarity.

He wanted to deploy to Iraq so badly that he left the Rangers because, having just joined a new company, he expected to be sidelined. As war loomed in early 2003, he transferred to the Pathfinder Company of the 6th Battalion, 101st Aviation Regiment at Fort Campbell, Ky. Eight days after he arrived, Piper left for Kuwait.

On April 13, 2003, less than month after U.S. troops crossed the Iraqi border, Piper was leading his six-man team in a hunt for weapons and munitions in southern Baghdad.

The sun was setting outside a library building where the soldiers had discovered a stockpile of small arms and mortar rounds. Piper stood outside, deciding which building to clear next.

A car passed on the street. Someone leaned out the window and lobbed a grenade, announcing an ambush with an explosion a few feet from Piper's back. The blast flung him five feet, sprawled facedown behind a Humvee.

"I didn't feel any pain or anything like that, but I saw this huge halo of blood in front of me," Piper recalled.

He reached to feel his right eye, but his hand slid straight to his ear. It felt like the side of his face had been flattened, the bones of his eye socket pulverized.

Amid the fighting, two soldiers grabbed Piper to rush him to a medivac helicopter. He insisted on giving them his ammunition and grenades first. En route to the nearest field hospital, he blacked out.

Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, an Army hospital in Germany, was Piper's first stop out of Iraq. On his third day there, he insisted doctors wheel him to a bathroom mirror so he could see his face.

"When they told me the extent of the injury, I was thinking to myself, `I'm going to have a big hole in my head,'" Piper said. "My main concern was with the boys. What would they think?"

Beneath the bandages, his skin was scabbed and bruised and his right eye had turned completely black. But his face was intact. The crushed bones of his eye socket could be repaired.

On April 21, 2003, doctors at Walter Reed removed Piper's eye and reconstructed shattered bones scattered in tiny fragments from his brow into his nasal cavity. Five months later, he was fitted for a prosthetic eye, hand-painted to match the hazel hue of his remaining eye.

Piper focused on getting used to navigating with one eye. He was often bumping into walls and objects on his right side. Once, he tripped over a bush during a stroll outside the Army hospital.

"He never once said, `Oh, great, now I'm never going to be able to do this,'" Sherry Piper said. "The day he got back from Walter Reed, we came to the airport and got in the car. I was going to drive and he said, `No, I'm going to drive.'"

The Pipers say it was several months before they started to notice symptoms of his memory loss. At first, Sherry Piper attributed it to her husband's hearing loss.

"I would just be talking to him and he wasn't paying attention. I'd say, `Did you hear what I just said?' and he'd say, `No,'" she recalled. "That's how we kind of realized he was having a problem remembering."

Neurologists confirmed Piper had frontal-lobe damage to his brain, affecting his short-term memory. Periodic testing over the past year has shown little improvement, said Mayes, his medical case manager.

Piper carried a notebook for a while, jotting lists of errands and appointments, but kept losing it. For now, he relies on his wife to keep his schedule, and phones her when he feels he's forgotten something.

Grappling with short-term memory loss hasn't stopped Piper from looking to the long-term. Several months ago, he began working in his off-duty hours as an onsite supervisor for a construction company.

He isn't sure whether he'll stick with construction, but it seemed a logical first step. He's a woodworking hobbyist, and has made bookshelves, a cedar chest and end tables for his home. He likes working outdoors, especially as a break from Army desk work.

"I've been a trigger-puller for 11 years," Piper said. "I had to figure out what I was interested in other than blowing things up."

He treats his injuries with similar humor - deadpan matter-of-factness mixed with shock-and-awe. And the family is getting in on the act.

During a recent trip to the mall, 4-year-old Matthew asked if Piper could show his false eye to another boy who refused to believe his father had one.

"So I pop it out and clean it off and hand it to him, and he walks over there and opens his hand and goes, `See!,'" Piper said, laughing. "That boy about freaked out."

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