California soldier loses his leg, but not his fighting spirit

abraham_odisho_20091.jpgBy Michael Doyle
McClatchy Newspapers

WASHINGTON — Abraham Odisho lost part of his left leg in Iraq. He considers himself lucky, in every way.

On Friday, the 20-year-old graduate of Johansen High School endured his eighth surgery since being grievously wounded March 27. Now bedding down on Ward 57 at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the Army private has a long march ahead of him.

He’ll need grueling physical therapy. He’ll get a prosthetic. He’ll face the prospect of phantom pain and, one presumes, some inevitable nightmares.

And yet for all that, he sounds remarkably composed; content, even, particularly with his now life-altering choice to become a soldier.

“I’ve done things that 90 percent of Americans haven’t done,” Odisho said Friday, “let alone, raising my right hand and taking the oath.”

He may not yet have absorbed the totality of his circumstance. A potent nerve block dulls the lightning bolts from his traumatized legs.

Celebrities keep swinging by Ward 57 for a morale boost; on Friday, Miss Maryland wanted to meet him. His mother, Catherine, and his 13-year-old sister Edail are in town to offer hands-on solace.

“I’ve been in the hospital, standing by him,” Edail said Friday, “and every single time he’s in pain, I will hold him.”

Still, Odisho sounds like a glass-half-full kind of guy. He can tick off his advantages.

Yes, he’s now one of 700-plus amputee veterans to have come out of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars — but the amputation was relatively modest, about 8 inches below his left knee.

Yes, he’s no longer with his comrades in Bastard Company, 2nd Battalion of the 35th Infantry Regiment — but they are lauding him for his adroit behavior under fire.

“They’re saying I saved everyone,” Odisho said.

Odisho is an Assyrian Christian who was born in Iraq and moved to the Central Valley with his family in 1991, when he was 3. His parents became naturalized U.S. citizens.

His father died of a heart attack five years ago. His mother now works as a caterer.

As for Odisho, he always knew he would go into the Army.

Slender and tall, standing a little over 6 feet, he wanted hard-core: infantry all the way. He imagined kicking down doors, sweeping through towns; a modern incarnation, he felt, of the warrior Assyrians found in the Bible.

“I felt like it was in my blood,” Odisho said. “I really wanted to fight for this country.”

A member of Johansen’s Class of 2006, Odisho enlisted in the Army 10 months ago. By October he was in Iraq. He was stationed at Patrol Base Woodcock, about 10 miles north of the city of Samarra.

The base was small, but the food was OK, the living quarters acceptable and the incoming fire just enough to keep everyone on their toes.

On the day he was wounded, Odisho was part of a team pulling security for Maj. Gen. Robert L. Caslen, the 25th Infantry Division commander, who was visiting the agricultural town of Ad Dawr.

Odisho was driving an armored fighting vehicle called an MRAP, for Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle. It’s sturdy, but not invulnerable.

At 12:30 p.m., Odisho was crawling along about 5 mph on a divided four-lane road. His vehicle was the third in a convoy.

They had just passed an intersection when the gunner swore and dropped down out of the turret. Then Odisho heard an explosion.

An insurgent, or whoever it was, had thrown an anti-tank grenade at the passenger’s side. A superheated copper ball tore through the compartment, grazed Odisho’s right leg and then obliterated his left shin.

Odisho’s legs no longer obeyed orders. On a scale of 1 to 10, the pain was a 10. In the moment, he knew but one thing.

“I have to get out of the kill zone, or we’re going to die,” Odisho thought.

With his hands, Odisho manipulated his right foot so it was back on the gas pedal. Then he used a hand to push down his leg and get the vehicle rolling again. He finally caught up with the rest of the convoy, where he could be pulled out, hauled back to base and flown to the first of a series of hospitals.

The three others inside the vehicle suffered minor injuries.

Now Odisho has plans. He wants to be assigned to San Diego for his serious rehabilitation. He intends to get some fierce-looking tattoos on his prosthetic leg.

He’d like to finish out his four-year Army tour; after all, why would he leave before his job was done?

“I am Assyrian by blood,” Odisho said, “and American by choice.”