ABOARD THE USNS COMFORT - When the grenade ripped through his armored vehicle, and shrapnel burned into his right leg, Marine Cpl. Michael John Meade thought first of a promise he made to himself before leaving for the war: If he ever lost a limb, he would find a way not to come home.
Returning in such shape would be too humiliating; but yesterday, the red-headed 20-year-old from Michigan's Upper Peninsula was sitting comfortably in a wheelchair on this floating hospital ship, his intact leg wrapped in clean white gauze.
Just three days from the horrifying attack in An Nasiriyah, scene of the some of the worst fighting in the weekold war, Meade said he would get up if he could and rejoin his Marine buddies on the front. He would support those who pulled him from the smoking vehicle, afraid that its gas tank would soon explode. He would kill Iraqi soldiers, just as they had tried to kill him.
He would see Iraqi President Saddam Hussein fall, and only then would he come home.
Maybe that day will come, and maybe it won't, he said. But for now, Meade sobbed with gratitude for the Marines who rescued him in the battle and for the nurses and surgeons of the Comfort who saved his leg from amputation.
"I'm so grateful for the treatment here, so grateful for the Comfort," Meade said in a 40-bed ward that was mostly empty but held two other Marines injured in the attack. "They're fixing me, doing a great job."
Meade, who graduated in a class of 100 from a rural high school, had lots to say about patriotism and about protesters at home, who he feels are not supporting President Bush or the fighting troops. He also wanted to counter what he believes is a sanitized version of the conflict being presented by nonstop television news.
"War is exactly what it's called - war," said Meade. "It's watching your buddies get shot, buddies who are your family. Please don't misunderstand what it's like."
The assault on Meade's unit came three days after his convoy moved from Kuwait into Iraq. Crossing the desert, it entered An Nasiriyah on Sunday and began to take small-arms fire. Partway into town, the armored vehicle that carried Meade and 11 other men stalled from an overheated engine, so they hopped on another.
With twice its normal load, this "track" - so named for its tanklike treads - was so full that Meade and others were forced to sit on the hood, their legs dangling into a hatch. The ride was treacherous. Iraqi fighters hid behind sandbags on rooftops, firing at oncoming vehicles.
Marines returned fire but were ordered not to shoot at buildings where they could not see the enemy. In the confusion, Iraqi civilians ran into the cover of their homes, waving at Americans not to fire at them.
Suddenly, an explosion rang out, flipping Meade and several others onto their backs. A rocket-propelled grenade had ripped through the track, setting off a shoulder-fired rocket stored inside. "It wasn't like boom-boom," said Meade. "It all happened at the same time."
Meade felt an awful pain in his lower leg. A lance corporal who understood his fear of losing a limb ripped open his pant leg and saw that he was bloodied and burned, but whole. He pushed Meade into the vehicle, but Marines approaching in another track pulled everybody out when they sensed that the fuel tank might explode.
"We were put right back on the other vehicle, and we took some mortar rounds," Meade said.
What transpired over the next two days was blurred by his anesthetic haze. But Meade knows he was flown by helicopter to a field hospital in Kuwait, where doctors cleaned the wound and stabilized him, and then he was airlifted to the Comfort.
Meade was one of three or four injured Marines from the same unit who were flown to the Comfort. Yesterday, he wheeled his chair to the bedside of Pvt. Jason Keough, 26, who was also recovering from leg injuries.
Though surgeons were not available yesterday to describe Meade's treatment, the young corporal said they removed shrapnel and relieved swelling that impinged on vessels and nerves. He might have a second operation today. This is a common occurrence among injured troops whose wounds become contaminated by pulverized clothing, shrapnel and the desert sand.
Surgeons often have to operate several times to make sure such "dirty wounds" are fully decontaminated before the injuries can be sutured shut. Otherwise, patients can contract deadly bone and blood infections.
For the past two days, blinding dust storms have prevented helicopters from delivering additional patients to the Comfort, a converted oil tanker that is docked in Baltimore during peacetime. Yesterday, surgeons operated on eight patients who arrived earlier, said Cmdr. Ralph C. Jones, chief surgeon. Most arrived with shattered legs, though a few had chest wounds.
"A few will have multiple surgeries to wash out their dirty wounds," Jones said.
The Comfort has taken on about 20 patients, most of them coalition forces but also some Iraqi soldiers and civilians. The ship's crew members said they treat all wounded without preference for nationality, abiding by their medical oaths and by the Geneva Conventions.
Meade said he respects the rules but felt an instinct for revenge when he saw a wounded Iraqi at Camp Coyote, the base where he was first flown, and two more in the Comfort's emergency room.
"At Coyote, I was in a lot of pain, and I was asking my [superiors] for weapons to shoot him," said Meade. "It was just a spur of the moment. I was just so mad that we got injured like that. But I thank God I didn't [shoot him] because I'd be in the brig if I had."
The Iraqis he saw on the ship were a man and a young boy. Meade suspected the latter had shot at Americans, though he couldn't explain why. "It traumatizes you," he said of the war. "It affects your brain."
Meade said he doesn't hate his Iraqi foes but still wishes Americans had thrown their prisoners into the sea and let them drown. "We really see it as Saddam's fault that we are here," said Meade, adding that killing soldiers is the means to topple their leader.
"Revenge is an ugly word, and I probably shouldn't have used it. Now, if they bring EPWs [enemy prisoners of war] and keep them away from me, that's OK."