Monday, November 14, 2005

Americans Among Us

Walt Gaya

I had yelled goodbye to Walt just before the mission, and some hours later when a bomb tore through the bottom of his Stryker vehicle, every man in it--including Walt--was wounded.

Lying in the hospital, still in Iraq, Walt Gaya was in the United States Army, but he was not an American. Not on paper, anyway: Walt was born in Argentina. He survived the blast, but his new wounds would preclude his flight from Mosul to Baghdad in time to participate in a swearing-in ceremony that would have been his official welcome as a new American.

Sergeant Mark Bush, who was also wounded in the blast, told me that only angels could have saved them. The bomb ripped through armor like it was wet paper. That anyone survived seemed miraculous. Just after the blast, the stunned and knocked-out soldiers came back to consciousness, at first thinking they were dead or dying, but then realizing they'd made it through an attack. Walt Gaya's ears were severely damaged, shrapnel tore through his left eye. Every wounded man actually got out ready to fight.

I speculated that the automatic fire suppression system was a final defense that saved the men, but Mark Bush had other ideas. He told me about the angels of Ben Morton and Adam Plumondore, two soldiers who'd recently been killed in combat. Mark said Ben and Plum had become angels, and had raised their hands to block the blast.

Adam Plumondore

Many American soldiers are not actually citizens of the United States, but the "foreigners" in the US Army I got to know in Mosul didn't fight with any less commitment than those born in the US.

Shortly after the attack, when Walt was in the hospital in Mosul, Robert Prosser, the Command Sergeant Major of the "Deuce Four" battalion, came to check on his men. He found Walt more concerned about missing his citizenship ceremony than losing his eye. Walt had post-war plans to become a photo-journalist. Shortly after the blast, he'd written off that damaged eye, and his camera had been battered; but what mattered to Walt was his citizenship. When they flew Walt back to America he did miss the ceremony in Baghdad.

Antonio Castaneda is a reporter for the Associated Press. I saw him around Iraq from time to time. Tony spends much time on the battlefields of Iraq. He has the courage of a soldier. Reading his articles, I came to respect his work and him. When Tony came to Mosul I told him about Walt, hoping Tony might pick up on the story. Publicity might help Walt achieve his career goal, even with his newly injured eye. Tony eventually flew back to the United States, and from there wrote a story on Walt.

Suddenly Walt was all over the news: the internet, newspapers coast to coast, and even television. In telling an honest story about an interesting soldier named Walt Gaya, Tony also helped a wounded veteran.

Meanwhile, I was still in Iraq, and CSM Prosser and others were still fighting. One day we got into a fight in which the commander got shot down in front of us, and CSM Prosser fought so well that day, nearly getting himself killed in the process, that he was awarded a Silver Star. But LTC Erik Kurilla, who'd now been shot four times in Iraq (three bullets that day), was headed back to the United States, full of new holes. When Kurilla landed at Fort Lewis, he learned that one of his soldiers was still having problems with his citizenship. Kurilla began shepherding Walt through the normal bureaucracy.

Tony Castaneda stepped in again, and wrote another honest story about an interesting soldier, this time saying Walt's citizenship was being held up. Good grief--the power of the press! There was Walt again: on television, on the internet, in newspapers coast to coast. When I flew back to America to see some of the soldiers I had spent so much time with in Iraq, we spent a day to drive to Mount Rainer. I walked into a store and there was Walt on the front page of a Sunday paper!

Walt was everywhere, and people who now felt they knew Walt were angered because he wasn't getting his citizenship. I know the people were angry because some even contacted me about the problem with Walt's citizenship, while others said they wanted to buy him a new camera (it was reported in some places that his Leica had been blown up), and still others offered to hire Walt.

When I arrived at Fort Lewis, I found Walt standing in his commander's office. They were a pair: the commander still on crutches recovering from a few gunshot wounds--but expected to make a full recovery--and Walt with his semi-closed eye, planning for a career in photo-journalism. I asked about Walt's citizenship, and they assured me that the Army had taken control of the situation and there would be no further problems or delays.

Walt said that his very expensive Leica camera was not actually blown to pieces, but just scratched up with some minor internal damage. But he was deeply honored that so many people had offered to help, and he asked that I kindly tell the many people who had come to his defense, "Thank you. Thank you. Thank you." I told Walt that's our way of welcoming him to America.

Thank you, Walt.