04/23/06 — Fighting a new battle

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Fighting a new battle

By Andrew Bell
Published in News on April 23, 2006 2:05 AM

U.S. Army Cpl. Maurice Burden felt uneasy as his Humvee crossed the median of a major highway in Iraq last September.

"When we started across, I just thought something wasn't right. I was about to tell the driver to slow down or something, but, by that time, we already started crossing," the 32-year-old Goldsboro native said. "I heard a pop, there was a flash, and there was smoke and dirt in the air."

The explosion sent Burden, the Humvee and his fellow soldiers across the highway into a nearby field.

With blood running down his face, Burden said he checked his arms and couldn't feel any injuries.

Then, he felt his legs.

The back of his lower right leg was damaged by shrapnel, and the blast had amputated his left leg from the knee down.

Moments later, which Burden said felt like hours, he was on a stretcher.

That moment was the most intense of his life, he said.

"I felt myself dying," Burden said. "I just laid there, and I felt like I was dying. I called on God to help me, and I felt myself coming back."

Burden was taken to the emergency room at his base, LSA Anaconda, in the Balad region of Iraq. In the emergency room, a doctor asked Burden questions as a team of nurses worked on his wounds.

After asking his last question, Burden said, the doctor looked up at a nurse and nodded. As drugs coursed through Burden's veins, he said he heard the doctor tell a nurse to prepare the operating room immediately. Then, all the soldier remembers is black.

Burden's next clear memory is in Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C.

It was there he learned what happened that night in Iraq.

The mission was to travel across the main highway in Iraq and to look for any insurgents in the process. As the gunner and lookout man for his Humvee dismount squad, he was standing behind the driver. It was his job to make sure an insurgent didn't detonate an improvised explosive device, injuring or possibly killing his fellow soldiers.

Burden had a sniper rifle and night-vision goggles to help spot the enemy. Even with the goggles, Burden said, keeping watch wasn't easy.

"When it's dark over there, it's dark. Try to remember the darkest stretch of road you have ever been on and times that by 10," he said. "There's no moon, no stars. It's the darkest of dark."

He didn't see any sign of the insurgent who would detonate the improvised explosive device near his humvee.

The main piece of the IED went through both of Burden's legs, the driver's seat, the driver's spine and the door before it slowed down. Smaller fragments hit Burden in the chin, stomach, back and shoulder.

One of the fragments severed the top half of Burden's liver and another fragment remains in his right shoulder.

Burden has learned some lessons from being a soldier.

"There is a realization in war. Other people want to kill you because of the uniform you wear. The older you get, you realize that the people around you might not come home," Burden said.

There was not a day during his time in Iraq that a unit was not ambushed with gunfire or hit with an IED, he said.

Now Burden has a new mission -- returning to civilian life. He still has daily challenges he must overcome. And he is determined to beat them.

After only two months of rehabilitation, Burden said he has learned how to walk short distances without the use of his crutches. Most of the time he uses his crutches or a wheelchair.

Burden walks with the help of a Talix foot on his left leg. The prosthetic limb was molded to fit his leg, he said.

Connecting Burden's leg and the prosthetic limb is a vacuum seal. When he walks, his leg pushes down into the prosthetic limb. The air that pushes up from the contact cannot escape because of the vacuum seal and the two limbs stay connected, he said.

Each step is painful because of a bone growth in his amputated leg. Doctors can't give him medication because it would stop bone growth in his other injured leg, Burden said.

Although it is painful to walk any distance, Burden said he is thankful he has the opportunity to walk at all.

During his time at Walter Reed Hospital, Burden had to lie on his back for six months while his wounds healed. He had 26 surgeries to repair his legs and other injuries.

But his time there was not without high points.

One day, his idol, Gen. Dick Cody, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appeared at his hospital room door.

Burden did not need to be introduced. He already knew a lot about the four-star general who stood before him.

"His Apaches fired the first bullets of Desert Storm," Burden said. "I asked him about his two sons, because they're both Apache pilots."

The two men struck up a conversation, and Burden asked Cody if he would present him with his Purple Heart.

"He said it would be an honor," Burden said.

Burden would continue to meet legislators, generals, senators and Cabinet members, including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. One of the greatest honors, he said, was meeting President George W. Bush and first lady Laura Bush.

"I hadn't had a haircut or shaved for a while," he said as he remembered that day. "I looked like Smokey the Bear when he came. He talked to me and thanked me for my sacrifice and what I did for my country. Then he said, 'Now it's time for you to sit back and let the country take care of you.'"

Even after all he has been through, Burden said he would return to Iraq, if he could, but only if he could rejoin his unit -- Task Force Liberty.

As an Army Calvary scout, Burden would crawl behind enemy lines in two- or three-man teams to provide intelligence to commanding officers on the enemy forces in the area, their weapons and vehicles.

Sometimes Burden would be 400 to 600 meters away from 3,000 soldiers who would kill him if they knew he was there.

"It's usually just you and another guy. You don't want to make a sound or do anything that'll let them know you're there," he said.

He misses his fellow soldiers, he said. They were like brothers.

"I would go back if I could. They said I could stay in, but that I couldn't stay in the Calvary. I wouldn't want to go back if I couldn't be with them. It's a tight, close family. You depend on your assets and one another."

When Task Force Liberty conducted missions in Iraq, Burden said he could see why American forces were there, but it was still a frustrating task.

"I agree with the president on being there," he said. "The Iraqi people are happy we are there. It's the insurgents that cause the problems. They come in from different countries and fight us. The Iraqi people help when they can, but it's like being a police officer in the States that works in a bad neighborhood and tries to get help. The people can't do it because the cops are not going to be there when the gangs come back. He's going to be safe in his home. They live around the insurgents. They know who they are."

For now, Burden is concentrating on walking again. He will return to Walter Reed on May 1 to begin the second half of his rehabilitation.

The Goldsboro High School Class of 1993 graduate said he expects to be able to walk on his own by the time he finishes his therapy.

Once he accomplishes that goal, Burden said the Army's medical review board will rate him and give him a medical discharge. Although he hasn't decided what he will do for work, Burden said he plans to use his time for relaxation and vacation after his rehabilitation.

Even though Burden earned a Purple Heart and other recognition for his combat duties, he said he is not a hero.

That distinction, he said, is reserved for those died serving their country.

"Freedom ain't free. Somewhere down the line, someone has to pay for it. They pay the ultimate sacrifice so we can do what we want to do. People I've seen around the world say they love America and they want to come because it's so free here. It's a paradise. It is, but people have to pay the price for this paradise. Being in the Army was just a job to me. It was something I volunteered to do for my family and my sons. I don't see myself as a hero. I just decided to do it. The heroes are the ones that didn't come home."