U.S. Army Sgt. Paul Gregory will receive a Purple Heart on Tuesday, about nine months after a catastrophic explosion in Baghdad almost killed him.
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He planned to fly from Juneau to California, where Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was going to be distributing the awards. But first Gregory had a promise to keep to his young brother-in-law. He had to see him graduate from Juneau-Douglas High School on Sunday.
Gregory, 26, took a few moments before the event to tell his story. He described his work in Iraq, the suicide attack and his lengthy and challenging recovery. He discussed his dreams of going to college and becoming a doctor. He said he and his wife, Maily Miramontes-Gregory, hope to buy a house in Juneau because they love it here.
They have endured immense difficulties during his treatment in military hospitals in Maryland and California, but they stay positive. Parts of his skull were replaced in plastic, and doctors are trying to relocate a nerve in his arm. He is undergoing extensive memory training and therapy.
"It feels like it's been a long process, and it still has quite a ways to go," he said. "But I've been treated well, and I'm going through several surgeries. Everything is going, I guess, as planned."
Gregory manned an entry point to a power plant in Baghdad as part of Battery C, 4th Battalion, 27th Field Artillery Regiment. His duties included searching the Iraqis who worked at the plant and investigating the explosion of improvised explosive devices in the area. The soldiers slept in a warehouse inside the plant, he said.
On Sept. 12, 2006, he and other soldiers were standing outside, getting briefed on their mission of the day. Then a dump truck pulled up near them. Its driver had managed to sneak his secret cargo of about 10,000 pounds of explosives into the area. Gregory and his crew were about 15 feet away, behind a barrier, when the bombs were detonated.
"I guess the blast initially threw me about twenty feet up and twenty feet far," Gregory said. "That's what I was told by my medic. It set me on fire, pretty much just my uniform. There was a melted pole in my left leg, and ... my medic said he found me in the sitting position, shooting blood. He came up and he pulled the pole out of my leg, and there were burns on my hands and metal going through my body."
Gregory remembers the sound of his first sergeant yelling his name. His eyes were full of dust and blood, and then everything went "quiet and black," he said. After a moment, he came to and saw the sergeant.
"I saw him, and he was bloodied in the face and checking on me. I thought I was fine. I had no idea was just happened. I remember looking at the building we lived in, and the whole front side of it was demolished."
Two friends grabbed him by his arms and tried to carry him to safety, he said. But the heat of the explosion had ignited two Humvees and a tank, and stray bullets started ricocheting around the area.
"We all hit the floor," he said. "At that point, I guess I thought I was dying. I started praying. I started talking to God, trying to make peace before anything happened. Then they threw me in a truck, and I remembered nothing else until I woke up in a hospital."
Gregory traveled from a hospital in Baghdad to one in Germany. Doctors had called his wife, a Juneau resident, because of the extent of the injuries. But he started recovering after they removed part of his skull to alleviate brain swelling. He was transferred to a hospital in Bethesda, Md.
"My wife was there waiting for me," he said. "She's been with me ever since. I think I've gotten much, much better."
After treatment, he was transferred again to a hospital in Palo Alto, Calif., for rehabilitation. Doctors told him it may take another eight months to a year to complete.
"I start my day at nine o'clock doing classes for memory," he said.
He and other soldiers practice telling stories and exercising their memories. He takes a class about post traumatic stress disorder and a speech class. He works on rebuilding vocabulary and reading skills. Therapists have him identify objects through photographs.
He also receives treatment from an occupational therapist for his fused elbow. His arm is almost completely locked straight now after the explosion. Doctors said he needs an operation on the nerve commonly known as the "funny bone."
"There's a tunnel the nerve runs through," he said. "Mine got destroyed. They're going to cut me open and place my nerve somewhere else. This thing has been a really big challenge."
A surgeon plans to drain more fluid from his head, and he faces ear surgery as well.
"They're going to refurbish my ear drums with muscles from my abdomen," he said. "I'm pretty interested in everything that's going on. I'm really fortunate to be with all these good surgeons."
Throughout the ordeal, he had the love and prayers of his wife. Gregory, a native of Phoenix, met his wife while staying in Juneau in 2003. They immediately connected. And in meeting the challenges of his injuries, their mutual love and respect has grown fuller.
"He's been brave and really strong," Miramontes-Gregory said. "He was able to overcome all the obstacles. He showed me that he had so much power in him. He tried to do his best, and he was always positive ... I feel really, really proud of him. He's my role model. I really admire him now more than ever because of what he's done and what he's been able to overcome."
On Sunday, the two were looking forward to a peaceful day of watching the high school graduation and spending time with friends and family. They were excited about meeting Schwarzenegger the next day. And they were hopeful for the future.
"The days are getting brighter now," Miramontes-Gregory said.
Ken Lewis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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