Friday, July 28, 2006

Female veterans find common bond

WRAP hosts wounded vets for some R&R

Express Staff Writer

Army Specialist Lisa Gutierrez takes a break from the activities during her recent visit to Central Idaho. Express photos by Dana DuGan.

In Vietnam, women were volunteer nurses. In Iraq, they are soldiers, marines, pilots and sailors. Today, danger for all women in the military, no matter what conflict, is merely a blink away. That common bond was apparent at a recent gathering of veterans in the mountains of Central Idaho.

A group of nine wounded Iraq war veterans and a support team arrived on Saturday, July 22, at Gowen Field in Boise. They were greeted by Idaho Gov. Jim Risch, military personnel and members of the Wood River Ability Program, headed by Ketchum resident Marc Mast.

The group is from Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas.

The Ability Program is working closely with Brooke to bring disabled vets to the Wood River Valley to play in the outdoors and, in the winter, to train for possible inclusion in winter sports competitions. The connection has gained momentum this year after Mast twice visited Brooke and held meetings on how best to serve wounded vets while offering options for their futures.

Among those who are being hosted in the area this week are three amputees, and three burn victims including Cpl. Aaron Mankin, 24, and Army Specialist Lisa Gutierrez, 25, who sustained a severe left foot and leg injury. After spending two days in Sun Valley, the group was flown to the Middle Fork Lodge, in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, to spend another three days fishing and relaxing.

Hosted by Hailey residents Chris and Melissa Grathwohl, a Sunday evening barbecue was held for the wounded soldiers and Marines. As the visitors milled around the Grathwohl deck on a beautiful-but-muggy evening, Lance Cpl. Diana Kavanek Mankin, 22, spoke quietly about her and her husband's experiences. A burn victim, he was at St. Luke's Wood River Medical Center receiving fluids after suffering from dehydration that day.

Women make up 8 percent of the U.S. military population serving in Iraq, and there are stories to tell, both heartbreaking and hopeful. But as with any large group, feelings differ from person to person.

"We met at Camp Lejeune in the fall of 2004, and we were deployed in February of 2005," Diana Mankin said. "He was hurt May 11. I stayed until February 2006."

Diana Mankin can't elaborate on what happened to her husband. All they know are the reports from others who were there. A combat correspondent, Cpl. Mankin was riding in an amphibious assault vehicle with Operation Matador, patrolling the Syrian border while a bridge was being built. He was filming through the open bay door on the top left of the vehicle when a roadside bomb exploded. The company ultimately sustained 21 casualties that day, eight killed and 13 wounded.

Aaron Mankin received third-degree burns on his hands, arms, nose, mouth and ears. His lungs were badly damaged by smoke. He lost two fingers on his right hand, and his left is frozen like a claw. For the past year, he has been receiving extensive reconstruction at Brooke. Before the ordeal, he weighed in at a healthy 185 pounds. He now weighs just 135.

"He's upbeat and optimistic. Many are withdrawn and depressed," said Diana Mankin, who is pregnant with their first child, due New Year's day. "We live on base at Fort Sam and every day he goes to physical therapy and rehab, and I go to work (as a Marine liaison for patients) at Brooke. We have a routine, but it's not normal."

Meanwhile, Diana Mankin had a close call on another infamous day. On June 23, 2005, 17 American women on security detail near Fallujah became the victims of a suicide-bomb attack. They were riding in a convoy truck between the camp and a checkpoint, about 20 miles away. As women, they aren't allowed to sleep in the same quarters at the checkpoint as the men, and so have to be transported every day back and forth. The road between is considered one of the most dangerous in Iraq. Three of the women were killed, and 11 more were severely injured. It was one of the costliest days for American women in the military, ever. The next day, Mankin's unit was sent in as replacements to the same danger zone.

At Brooke she met some of those women, whose place she took when she arrived in Fallujah. "Some are burned, and some still have shrapnel in them. It's kind of ironic since I went and took their place. I was just lucky."

When Lyrissol Gutierrez, known as Lisa, joined the Army in 1999, it was a different world. The daughter of immigrants, she had strong feelings about her duty.

Gutierrez's luminous brown eyes sparkled in her clear face. And while she relayed the horrors of war, children scampered in the late-day sun below the Grathwohl's deck.

"I joined because my parents came here 30 years ago from Mexico," she said. "I wanted to thank this country—the land of opportunity—to give something back."

Home on leave in Michigan when the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, occurred, she watched the news on television, knowing her life was about to change. In March 2003, her unit was sent to Arizona to train.

"I was 'in country' in 2004, after being in Kuwait. I volunteered to be a mark 19 gunner on a convoy protection platform on a Humvee."

She laughed ruefully when surprise was expressed about her choice.

On Jan. 27, 2005—the day Iraqis went to register to vote for the first time—she was riding on the platform in a convoy of approximately 60 vehicles, carrying fuel from Jordan to Iraq, when there was an accident. She was thrown from her vehicle and run over by another Humvee.

The exact nature of the accident is not something she'll discuss. Her eyes cloud over showing the all-too-recent pain.

"I don't like to elaborate. I still have a hard time. Fourth of July reminds me ... gun sounds..."

In the hospital in Germany, doctors wanted to amputate her left foot.

"I asked them to wait until I got back to the U.S. I was flown to Brooke and had my last surgery in March to remove some of the pins and screws."

Now on crutches with a bandage rather than a cast, she was thrilled to be in Idaho. It was her first time away from Brooke since the accident.

The first person Gutierrez saw when she arrived at Brooke was Janice Roznowski, a flight attendant from Austin who volunteers for Operation Comfort, a patient-advocacy group. Roznowski is an important part in the strong bond that has grown between Brooke, Wood River Ability, Operation Comfort and the U.S. Disabled Ski Team.

"She invited me here just to enjoy myself," Gutierrez said. After her medical discharge comes through, she plans on moving to Arizona, where her sister lives, and becoming a teacher.

Gutierrez spent the majority of her time "in country" on the road but was based mostly out of Al Asad in northern Iraq.

"A translator told me that he was happy we were doing something good. To make a change is a good thing, he said. It gave me more reason to be there, to help someone else," she said.

"I volunteered to be a gunner because I wanted to see how it was. It's not the best way to visit a country, but I saw a lot of places. I saw a different culture.

"Marines here, they say 'Gunner? No way.' Even though there's a lot of talk about women in the military, women can do all the same jobs as men, anywhere," Gutierrez said. "We're doing a great job. If I had it to do again, I would go back."

Mankin has a different take. Her time in Iraq was disturbing. She came into a situation fraught with danger, and her fiancé was badly wounded.

"I feel like we're babysitting a country. They need to get their own defense. A lot of people are dying. Sometimes I wonder for what. Hopefully, our president will realize that people don't want war. And it gets old."

•  Though her face is youthful, she appears stoic and eerily mature, characteristics not normally found in women so young. Her feelings about the conflict are fierce.

"Women can do almost everything and anything in the military except be an infantry soldier. That hasn't changed. I worked with the infantry grunts. I carried a weapon. I was in as much danger as anyone."

Because she's pregnant, Mankin will not be eligible for redeployment. Her husband—they were married in February 2006—is waiting for his medical discharge to come through. He now wants to become a teacher, and she is going to go back into nursing, something she'd been studying when she joined up.

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