03/18/07 — Even now, his heart is with his unit

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Even now, his heart is with his unit

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on March 18, 2007 2:08 AM

Forget about the wheelchair -- Michael Russell would rather be in humvee in Iraq.

Replace the doctors and specialists lining his bedside daily with his "brothers" in the Army's 2nd Brigade Combat Team -- that is the private's simple wish.

Take away the pain he feels when his mother cries, looking down at her 23-year-old and the scars from a gunshot wound to the head he now wears above his right eye.

Give back the Purple Heart he recently received and put him, again, in the desert and on the front lines.

"I wish I was over there with them right now," the Goldsboro native said. "They're still fighting for their lives. Our main goal was to bring each other back alive, to watch each other's backs. Now I can't do that."

The fight for a free Iraq is never far from Russell's thoughts.

It has taken priority over learning how to walk again, speech and motor skills therapy and knowing that he was seconds away from death a few months ago.

When he awoke from a six-day coma in late January, the soldier had no idea he had been hit by an insurgent sniper -- or that he had been evacuated to a hospital back in the United States.

He was ready and willing, even then, to stand and fight.

"They said whenever it happened, once I got shot, I was knocked unconscious," Russell said. "When I woke up, the whole time I was thinking, 'I was shot? When? How in the world did that happen?'"

He has since remained determined to return to the war that missed costing him his life by mere centimeters -- to show his family and friends that a kid from Goldsboro can "stand for something" and see his dreams come true.

"That's my goal -- to stay in," Russell said. "But I still have a lot of stuff to do to get back."

The soldier has already endured a coma, surgery and dozens of shots to prevent blood from clotting in his brain.

But for him, the most trying experience was having his mother watch him struggle to regain a sense of normalcy.

"The first day I got the chance to walk out of the wheelchair, I took 15 steps and I had forgotten how," Russell said. "I was kind of embarrassed."

He wasn't ashamed that he had a challenge ahead, he said -- a soldier always takes on a fight with pride.

Instead, his concern was for his mother, Dorothy, having to see him so vulnerable.

"My mother, she always tells me she's proud of me that I have done really good for myself," Russell said. "I had to walk all over again and looking at her looking at me, knowing I was in pain, I could tell that she wanted to cry. And it made me want to cry."

These days the sorrow is fading, though, he added. The road to recovery gets shorter with the passing of each day.

"What will get me through this? The determination to get better and knowing that Mom is happy that I'm doing OK," Russell said. "When I was young, if I got into a situation, I would go to my mom and she would help me out. That's the reason I wanted to go into the military -- to be independent. If I got into a situation, it was up to me to get out."

And he knows it will be up to him, now, to get through the next few months -- the therapy, poignant moments with family and friends and reevaluation by Army doctors.

"My doctors have been asking me, 'What do you want to do?' I tell them I want to finish it, what we started. I want to stay in," Russell said.

He's a man who believes in America's mission and in Iraq's future.

"When I went to enlist, I chose this job -- infantry. I knew I was going to have to go to Iraq," he said. "When I think about it, when the 13 colonies were here, we were kind of in their situation. Our government was not as strong as it is now. I look at Iraq and we can go in there and help somebody."

And so he lies on a hospital bed at the McGuire VA Medical Center in Virginia, praying for a swift recovery -- the Purple Heart pinned close to his chest.

The medal is a symbol, now, of Russell's determination to rejoin his brothers on the front lines and finish the job they started.

"It shows I still believe in something," he said.