Sgt. Briggs's War

Bob Briggs got a head full of shrapnel in Iraq. Then he came home to more wars: to regain the use of his half-paralyzed body, and to get the U.S. government to pay for his medical care.

"My leg has come back a lot," he offers when it's over, studying his brace-trussed left leg. "I'm actually starting to get some movement in my upper arm, too." He smiles, showing off a baby face accentuated by fleshy cheeks that belie his age.

On top of dealing with the brain injury and the physical and emotional issues that come with it—he says his moods are sometimes a mystery to him now, and that sadness overtakes him without warning—there is another issue compounding Bob and Michelle Briggs's troubles: Like many families of Iraq vets, they're not sure how, or even if, all the medical and travel expenses they are bound to incur will be covered. The Army to which Bob dedicated almost 14 years as a reservist has abandoned them, they say. Three months after his injury, the Army medically retired Bob and shifted his benefits to the VA, leaving unclear how his future care will be paid for.

"They shoved me out quick," Bob says. "It's pretty bad when you're knocking on heaven's gate and you darn near die for your country and the Army doesn't want to take care of you."

Fred Petters

BOB BRIGGS grew up in Keokuk, Iowa, a Mississippi River town of 11,000 located at the southeast corner of the state, just north of the Missouri state line. After graduating from high school, he went to work at Keokuk Steel Castings. "It was a dirty, awful place to work," remembers his sister, Brenda Best. "Just a dead-end job. You work at a factory and that's where you end up the rest of your life. And he wanted to do something better with his life." He joined up as a National Guard reservist not long after the first Gulf War ended, she recalls, hoping in part to learn skills that could catapult him into a better job.

Briggs re-upped his Guard enlistment in August 2004, almost a year and a half after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. He had almost 13 years of Guard service under his belt at that point, and he was hoping to get to 20 years so that he could earn an early retirement pension from the military. With a wife, a four-year-old daughter, and a three-month-old son at home, he hoped his unit would not get the call-up to Iraq. "Nobody really wants to go," he says now. "But I knew what I had to do. I could never allow my company to go and me not go. I could never live with that." Two months later, on October 14, Briggs's unit was on its way to Fort Sill in Oklahoma for training. They later celebrated the coming of the New Year—twice—in the air en route to Iraq, where they landed on January 1, 2005.

During the long days in the Sunni Triangle, the group of 500 or so soldiers from southeastern Iowa was responsible for route-clearing patrol missions, which involved traveling either on foot or in vehicles searching for improved explosive devices (IEDs) planted by Iraqi insurgent fighters. They'd scour the landscape and rifle through dirt in search of anything suspicious-looking: ground that appeared freshly dug up, piles that seemed out of place, wires, packages—anything that could camouflage a makeshift explosive. Sometimes they'd use a "Buffalo," a heavily armored vehicle outfitted with an articulated arm capable of digging around to find IEDs and detonate them.

On April 16, Briggs and his fellow soldiers in the 224th Engineer Battalion were setting up their barracks at Camp Ramadi west of Baghdad. They had moved from Habbinaya the day before, where the group had put up in an old Air Force base when they weren't running security missions for the second Marine division. That night, at around 8:00, the soldiers had just finished erecting walls to partition the various offices and facilities of their new base. Some of the soldiers were assembling beds, while others were putting pictures up on the walls of their new sleeping quarters.

Briggs and some friends were out back in the gazebo-like smoking shack, waiting to go to a late dinner. They decided to play a quick game of horseshoes to pass the time. Dusk was turning into nighttime. "We were just waiting to eat," Briggs says. "We didn't hear anything. No warnings. Usually there are sirens. They got closer than normal."

He has no memory of what happened next. He only knows what other soldiers and his staff sergeant later told him. Without warning, insurgents began launching rocket-propelled grenades into the barely established camp. Three soldiers from another unit were killed. Briggs and two other Iowa National Guardsmen were injured. One man in his battalion was an emergency medical technician in civilian life, and Briggs believes the EMT's fast action made the difference. "I tell you, he saved my life," Briggs says, choking up. (He hasn't been able to speak to the man since. And given the fragile state of Briggs's mind and emotions, no one is anxious to press for the encounter too soon. Right now it's one more thing than he can't deal with. "It will be a long time before [Bob] can talk to him," says Michelle Briggs. "Maybe when he comes home.")

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