Wounded Modesto native adapts to life at Walter Reed

By Michael Doyle | McClatchy Newspapers
WASHINGTON — Abraham Odisho taps the remains of his left leg, distracting the phantoms.

They keep shrieking anyway.

Born in Iraq, raised in Modesto, Odisho is a proud U.S. Army private presently inhabiting a world of hurt. Nearly one month after being grievously wounded in combat, he’s feeling pain in the place where his left shin used to be. He’s adapting.

“I tap it,” Odisho said, pointing, “and it reminds the nerves that my leg ends here.”

Look. The 20-year-old Johansen High School graduate pulls back the bedcovers to reveal a pale, diminished leg that ends abruptly in a bandaged stump, about eight inches below the knee. Over the course of 45 minutes, Odisho will tap it constantly, like a crucial Morse code message that isn’t getting through.

Odisho is an infantryman, a Purple Heart winner, and one of about 830 U.S. amputees to come out of the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

On March 27, about six months into his first Iraq tour of duty, Odisho was driving a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle on a mission in the town of Ad Dawr. In a brief ambush, an anti-tank grenade punched through the protection and tore away his lower left leg. He’s been at Walter Reed about three weeks.

Recuperating, he wears a 25th Infantry Division ball cap and a black Walter Reed Army Medical Center Alumni T-shirt. His doctors and nurses wear camouflaged uniforms. On Wednesday, Army Secretary Pete Geren stopped by to visit him.

“I told him I want to stay in the Army,” Odisho said.

He eats Gummy treats. He likes watching “The Family Guy” and “Saving Private Ryan.” His mother is with him, every day.

“I feed him, I clean his room and, when he’s in pain, I hug him, I kiss him,” Catherine Odisho said. “He’s my baby boy.”

In Modesto, Catherine Odisho works as a caterer while she raises two daughters. They have both returned to California for school. Her husband passed away several years ago. She remains in a Marriott hotel, where every morning she rises and comes to the hospital. She does not leave until 8 or 9 or 10 o’clock at night.

Odisho has a single, Room 5711, and it congests quickly. Nurses come in at all hours to check his vitals, give him serious meds. It’s almost impossible to get a good night’s sleep.

“Sometimes,” Catherine Odisho said, “he kicks me out.”

A Tropic Lightning banner, another emblem of the Hawaii-based 25th Infantry Division, welcomes visitors. But first, the visitors must scrub their hands and don yellow protective gowns. Odisho is weak, and prone to infection.

He may be living in a hospital for another six months or more; soon, though, he hopes to relocate to San Diego. He’s had 10 surgeries so far, and expects several more. He used to be on morphine, until doctors switched him to something akin to Oxycontin.

“I’m just taking it day by day,” Odisho said, “and I’m looking forward to the day when I can walk up to my house.”

Some 10,000 wounded soldiers have passed through Walter Reed Army Medical Center since the Iraq and Afghanistan wars began. Currently, roughly 25 of the hospital’s estimated 180 patients suffered war injuries.

Not all were hurt in combat. One of Odisho’s platoon buddies, from Bastard Company of the 2nd Battalion, 35th Infantry Regiment, is in Walter Reed after busting an ankle while hopping over a wall. How it happened is kind of a funny story, Odisho says. Others have injuries that demand a salute, multiple amputations and brains rattled beyond comprehension.

“We’re proud to announce we have gone 34 days without any patient falls,” a sign states on a bulletin board near Odisho’s room.

An Assyrian Christian, Odisho has been buoyed by the prayers and best wishes conveyed by members of the San Joaquin Valley’s Assyrian and Chaldean communities, his mother said. He reads the Bible regularly. He keeps returning to the Book of Revelations, although he says it’s confusing. The Book of Psalms is more straightforward, soothing.

He also likes the magazines Car and Driver and Road and Track.

He’s going to change his look. He plans on getting some tattoos for his prosthetic leg, perhaps an eagle and a flag. He’s thinking of getting American and Assyrian flags tattooed elsewhere on his body, the part that’s still him.

“Freedom isn’t free,” Odisho says, in the middle of talking about something else.