IRAQ: A girl, a soldier, a dream
For months, Staff Sgt. Luis Falcon patrolled the downtrodden neighborhoods of Baqubah, where Sunni Muslim extremists had tried to create an Islamic caliphate. One day, he came upon a young girl sitting in an old, oversize wheelchair, blood crusting on the stumps where her legs had been.
Her name was Shahad Abbas Aziz, and on Friday, she sat patiently in a clinic in Baghdad's Green Zone while doctors measured what remains of her legs. Later, they would make prosthetic limbs to replace the ones blown off seven months ago by a bomb.
As she perched on the edge of the examination table, wearing a denim jumper and lime-green earrings, Falcon stood behind her and related the extraordinary events that brought them to this point and that have changed both of their lives.
It began seven months ago, when Shahad was on her way home from school with her 10-year-old brother, Ali Abbas Aziz. A roadside bomb meant for U.S. forces exploded beneath them. "The Iraqi doctors thought that she was going to die and he was going to live, but what happened was the opposite," said Shahad's mother, Waheda Jabbar Mohammed.
Shahad was left with both legs amputated below the knee.
A few weeks later, Falcon was on a routine patrol when he came upon Shahad. "All I want is legs to walk to school," she told him.
Thus began a Herculean effort to bring Shahad to Baghdad to be fitted with proper prostheses, an effort hampered by everything from military bureaucracy to dust storms but finally achieved just three weeks before Falcon was to end his Iraq tour.
Late Friday, doctors finished work on Shahad's new legs and she was able to briefly walk on them using a set of parallel bars. She'll be returning Sunday for physical therapy, but "she is doing really well," said Lt. Col. Frederick Wellman.
Falcon's biggest fear is that the unit that replaces his won't follow up with the family, which has five children in addition to Shahad. The father earns money by using a donkey cart to haul goods.
"I can't order them to do what I've done. It has to come out their heart," Falcon said. "They might say I don't want to waste time here."
For months after first meeting Shahad, Falcon would make sure to visit her family at its humble home in Baqubah. Soldiers brought them food, water, a heater in the winter, and a new wheelchair for Shahad.
Each time he visited, Falcon, 38, of New York, found that while other children clamored for soccer balls, PlayStations or money, Shahad never asked for anything except legs. But time was running out for Falcon, who arrived in Iraq early last year and whose 15-month deployment was nearing its end.
He began pushing her case up the chain of command. He went to his platoon leader, who went to the battalion commander, who went to the brigade leader. As Falcon's departure date neared, he lost hope, until one day a man named Jerry Gardner approached him and said, "I'm here to help you."
Gardner is a public health advisor working in Iraq on one of the U.S. State Department's Provincial Reconstruction Teams. He apparently provided the final push needed to get Shahad the treatment she needed.
Getting Shahad to Baghdad proved a challenge. Baqubah, the capital of Diyala province, is only 50 miles north of Baghdad, but Falcon worried about roadside bombs along the road. They arranged a military helicopter flight for Shahad and her mother on Thursday to ensure they could make it to the Green Zone on Friday morning, in time for the fitting.
The work was done by Iraqi doctors and specialists in the Ministry of Defense Prosthetics Clinic, which currently is attached to the U.S.-run Ibn Sina Hospital. One of those advising the Iraqi staff was Chris Cummings, a prosthetics expert who said the method used with Shahad was as advanced as it gets and is used at VA centers. It involved using a wand to scan her limbs into a computer so that perfectly fitted, comfortable sockets could be constructed. Shahad's upper legs fit into the plastic sockets, and limbs and feet were attached below.
"This was what I needed," Falcon said of his encounter with Shahad. Until then, he had wondered about his mission in Iraq. "Doing this right now, I'll do as many tours as I need," he said.
—Tina Susman and Said Rifai in Baghdad
Photos, from top: Limbs wait to be paired with their owners at the Ministry of Defense Prosthetics Clinic in Baghdad's Green Zone; A doctor measures Shahad Abbas Aziz's legs for prosthetics (Tina Susman); U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Luis Falcon helps Shahad take her first steps. (Airman 1st Class Andrew Davis)