BOSTON - It was the Fourth of July in Baghdad, a day off for Army Sgt. James
The Omaha soldier had six hours to kill before the online chat scheduled
with his wife. Their excitement was building about his return from Iraq -
already once delayed, but now, finally, only eight days away.
Bored, the helicopter mechanic and another soldier from his unit headed to
the recreation tent for a movie.
The mortar round that would forever change Lathan's life was the only one
the insurgents fired into camp that day. The haphazardly fired projectiles
usually never hit much of anything.
This one pounded into the earth directly behind Lathan, the blast sending
In the foggy aftermath, Lathan remembers the other soldier screaming for
help. Lathan tried to call, too, but his voice was mute. He felt nothing, a
strange weightlessness gripping his entire body.
"I just knew I couldn't breathe or move," Lathan would say later from his
bed in a Boston veterans hospital. "You just don't think at the time that
you've been injured so bad, so bad that it can't ever be fixed."
Lathan's is a face on a statistic that doesn't get much attention - American
soldiers wounded in the Iraq war.
The Pentagon releases the names of the war dead - a figure that topped the
1,000 mark last week. Those soldiers are remembered as heroes in their
hometowns, buried with military ceremony and rifle-shot salutes.
But defense officials release only cold statistics for those wounded or
injured, now approaching 7,000 and mounting almost daily. There were almost
1,100 in August alone, by far the highest combat injury toll for any month
since the war began.
Defense officials release no special tally for soldiers who suffer
devastating, life-altering injuries - soldiers like James Lathan Jr.
As he was urgently shuttled to military hospitals in Baghdad, Germany and
Washington, D.C., in the days after the mortar attack, Lathan would learn
the harsh realities.
The shrapnel that struck him at the base of the skull had left him paralyzed
from the neck down.
He almost surely would never walk again. Might never breathe on his own
again. Probably never wrap his arms around his wife or 4-year-old son again.
Today, the former Central High ROTC cadet is spending his 27th birthday in
the Boston VA hospital, a place where he's coming to terms with the
paralysis that grips his young, wiry body. He calls it "learning to live
with what I've got."
He once climbed mountains. He once ran marathons. Now he hopes someday to be
able to lift a spoon.
Almost every day there are small victories and firsts. Re-learning how to
swallow. A tinge of feeling in his right arm. But doctors are careful not to
encourage false hopes.
The gravity of Lathan's injuries has left his family with mixed feelings
about a controversial war that polls now indicate half the country thinks
was a mistake.
His stepmother, Emma, a teacher at Omaha's Kellom Elementary, sees no end to
the "potshots" U.S. soldiers are receiving and thinks it's time to get them
Lathan's father, James Sr., even as he prepares to send another son,
18-year-old Jonathan, to Iraq, thinks the U.S. soldiers are making a
For his part, Lathan pays little attention to the nation's debate and has
accepted his lot with the cool head and brave face of a soldier. He
expresses no regrets over his service in Iraq or the extreme price he paid.
"Would it help to sit around and pity myself all day?" he said over the
ever-present hum of a bedside respirator. "What else can you do but go on?"
Army a good fit
James Lathan Jr. was born in a military hospital in Germany, but he really
wasn't a born soldier.
He joined the Army, following in the booted footsteps of his father, because
he said he didn't have any better prospects coming out of high school.
But Lathan came to enjoy the rigor and regimen of Army life.
At his first duty stop he met his wife, Amy, a soldier's daughter who has
never known life off a military base.
His Army job, fixing hydraulic systems on Apache helicopters, was a natural.
As a kid he had been fascinated by how things worked, once taking apart his
new birthday watch to see what made the hands go around.
He and Amy saw the world, became parents of James III, and were able to save
some money. Lathan's ultimate dream was to return to Omaha and start his own
In April 2003, he first set foot on the sands of Iraq.
The ground war was winding down, and his outpost - the Baghdad airport once
named for Saddam Hussein - was considered one of the most secure places to
But the insurgency that followed made peace elusive and kept Lathan busy
patching helicopters. So busy that when he was due to leave the country last
April, his tour of duty was extended another three months.
"I'm a soldier," he would later say of what became a tragic delay. "I go
where I've got to go and do what I've got to do."
Unable to speak
All Lathan remembers of the first days after the mortar attack was the
helicopter ride that began his arduous journey toward recovery.
Days later he was flown by plane to a military hospital in Germany, near his
former duty station, where there was a heart-breaking reunion with his
family. At first, Lathan's son wouldn't touch his dad, afraid he might hurt
Then Amy was told she had just hours to pack. She and "Little James" would
be flying with him to the Army's Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington,
The long plane ride to the States gave Amy her first sobering picture of the
devastating toll on U.S. soldiers. Gurneys of gravely injured soldiers were
bunked three high and two wide, extending about 10 rows from front to back.
At one point Little James called out, "I want my Daddy," and the eyes of
soldiers lying nearby glistened with tears.
The focus at Walter Reed was on stabilizing Lathan. Nothing was severed or
broken, but the swelling and bruising around his spinal cord made the
prognosis uncertain. They could only wait.
Lathan couldn't speak, the tube in his neck through which he was breathing
keeping any air from reaching his mouth. He and Amy learned to communicate.
First she pointed to letters on a board and he blinked to indicate when she
hit the right one. She later learned to read his lips.
"G-O-O-D G-R-I-E-F," he once spelled when she was gone too long. "I
Once when Amy asked him whether he wanted her to turn on the TV, he mouthed,
"I'll just look at you."
He had a proud moment when a general came to his bedside and pinned a Purple
Heart medal to his blue hospital gown.
But he also often expressed helplessness, at one point telling his wife he
felt like a baby.
"Honey, it's just the beginning," she said. "You'll get better."
In Boston last week, Lathan sat in a wheelchair and sipped a vanilla
milkshake through a straw. It was the first time he had been out of bed in
two months, another small step in his new life.
The move to Boston late in August began the rehabilitation phase of
recovery. It's where he'll learn the full potential of his future.
Lathan started speaking again within two days of arriving. With his
breathing improved, therapists were able to adjust the breathing tube in his
neck to allow some air to be released up his throat.
After Amy walked into the room and heard her husband answering "Yes" to a
therapist's question, she burst into tears. "What's wrong?" Lathan asked,
the first spoken words to his wife since the attack.
Lathan also is re-learning to eat, having advanced in just over two weeks
from drinking clear liquids to taking in some pureed food.
Then last Tuesday, two nurses for the first time lifted him out of bed into
a wheelchair. For now, he's learning to sit. Eventually, he'll learn to work
the mouth-operated controls, helping him negotiate the turns his life takes
The focus in Boston is not only on recovering soldiers' bodies but also
Full of youthful bravado, some have trouble coping with the thought of life
in a wheelchair, said Sigmund Hough, neuropsychologist with the VA. Lathan
appears to be one of those with the inner strength to get through.
"He's really pulled things together for his family," Hough said.
Lathan's family has pulled together for him as well.
Amy reads to him by his bedside. She talks to him and strokes his hand, even
knowing he cannot feel her touch.
Little James clowns around with a towel on his head, greets each of the many
doctors and nurses who come calling and climbs in bed with his dad. His
artwork on the walls and mere presence brighten an otherwise dreary place.
Spending the rest of his life with his son is part of what gives Lathan the
strength to face each day.
"Things happen, you know. It's not a perfect world," he said. "I'm lucky.
I'll get to see my kid grow up."
Contact the Omaha World-Herald newsroom
Post by G.K. Konnig
Or was Adolf Hitler a better boxer?
Or was Adolf Hitler a better boxer?