The recovery ward at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, Ramstein Air Base, Landstuhl, Germany, Wednesday afternoon, June 6, 2007
Steel Cameron woke up in the dim room. He was in a hospital bed, and he could see the hanging bags and hear the monitoring equipment beeping. He didn’t know where he was, and his head felt muzzy. He didn’t exactly feel any pain, but he knew something wasn’t right. And then he remembered the explosion, the blinding pain for a moment before he was out of it. He had been on night patrol with a platoon of forty men, including some Iraqi soldiers. While searching for Iraqi insurgents in the Malab district of Ramadi, the Humvee he was riding in had encountered an IED, or improvised explosive device. Steel didn’t know how many of his men had been injured or killed. That he was in a hospital and not a mud hut, or dead, indicated that at least some had made it.
When his eyes opened, he saw the chaplain make the sign of the cross over him, and he said, “Steven, you’re safe now. You’re in Ramstein, Germany.”
“How bad is it, sir?”
“It could have been worse, Major. They had to amputate both your legs below the knees, but with the newest state-of-the-art prosthetics, you will definitely be mobile.”
“What about my stick and stones? I know a lot of guys with lower body injuries like that don’t have their…”
“Relax, Major. You had no genital wounds.”
“There was a lot of damage, and the wounds on your legs needed to be cleaned before the amputations, so they kept you out. You were treated on site by a 91 Whiskey medic under fire. You could have died at the scene, but he managed to stop the bleeding. You received further treatment from a forward aid station and then were transported by helicopter to the US base at Balad, north of Baghdad, and then by C-17 to Ramstein. It was a long trip, Major. You will be seeing your surgeon to discuss your injuries shortly.”
“What about my men?”
“Eight in the platoon were killed, two in your vehicle. There were some other less serious injuries.”
Steel felt the silent tears sliding from his eyes. Eight killed. Fuck, but he had to buck up, suck it up, move on. He had a wife he needed to get back to at home. When he got out of here, he’d have to contact his men’s families. Shit. That was the hardest part—explaining what had happened to loved ones. He always felt personally responsible for casualties.
Steel’s eyes closed. “Thanks, Padre.” He was asleep again.
* * * *
The Cameron home in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Friday morning, December 21, 2007
Steel had been home for two weeks, but had not moved back into the master bedroom. His excuse had been he didn’t want to keep his wife, Janice, awake with his thrashing around at night. The truth was he dreaded seeing her face when she saw what was left of his scarred legs for the first time. Crap. He had to take his clothes and the prosthetics off sometime.
Steel was sitting on the edge of the bed in the guest room changing the bandages on his stumps when Janice walked into the room carrying a cup of coffee. Her eyes moved down from his face to below his knees, and she dropped the cup. The pottery mug smashed on the floor, and the coffee splashed everywhere.
“Steve, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” She tried to cover up her shock and horror by cleaning up the mess, but he’d seen the look on her face. She couldn’t help it. He thought his stumps were pretty horrible, and he’d been looking at them every day since June. But, nonetheless, he was crushed. He knew in his heart there was no way they could get past this unless he miraculously grew his legs back.
“It’s okay, Janice. It’s not your fault.”
Their relationship had been iffy before he’d been redeployed to Iraq for a second tour. She wanted children and a husband who was home. Why she’d married a career soldier with a West Point background was beyond him. Hormones he guessed—and the way he’d looked in a dress uniform when he could still stand up on his own two legs. He tried not to be bitter, but that wasn’t working out so well. He’d been in counseling, talked to other amputees and wounded warriors, but he knew he’d never be the same man he was before that IED blasted his legs off. Physical therapy and rehabilitation training had helped, and he was slowly getting used to the prosthetic legs. He could get around pretty well. When the pain became too much, he resorted back to the wheelchair before he forced himself to give it another try. He knew he would eventually master the legs, maybe even be able to run again. Who knew? Some guys did great. There was always wheelchair basketball. Christ.
The other problem was that his brush with death had forced him to confront his deepest, darkest secret. Major Steven “Steel” Cameron was bisexual. He had managed to keep that fact from his closest friends, family, and his wife. But the fact of the matter was that his Johnson responded to a good-looking man as quickly as it responded to a good-looking woman. It was a private matter, and he’d never felt compelled to share it with anyone. He knew when he’d seen Janice’s face a moment ago that their marriage was over. Maybe it was time to live what was left of his life his way, and fuck everyone else and what they might think.