For U.S. soldier injured by friendly
fire, the wounds run deep
USA - SNOHOMISH -- Though he was wounded in Iraq last fall, Sgt.
1st Class Rick White gets no Purple Heart. White, 43, a 26-year career
soldier and member of the Washington Army National Guard's 81st Brigade
Combat Team, nearly lost his right leg Oct. 19. The shooter was not the
enemy, but another U.S. soldier mishandling a machine gun.
By MIKE BARBER
The Seattle Post Intelligencer
It was friendly fire, a military euphemism that left White with
a wound for which no medals are awarded but with a life-altering injury
as crippling as any delivered by an enemy.
As the Seattle-based 181st Support Battalion, of which White was
a part, returns home this week, White continues to face a long fight,
having endured 10 surgeries so far in hopes of one day walking on his
White, however, is recuperating not at home with his wife and
3-year-old daughter, but with his sister, Teresa Alldredge, in
Snohomish. His two-year marriage -- his second -- also became a
casualty while he was away.
"If not for my sister, I don't know where I'd live, what I'd
come home to," he said. "I have my good days and my down days. The down
days are the ones when I can start crying at the drop of a hat."
The Army paid to furnish the 12-by-12-foot room in which he
sleeps with a hospital bed, a physical therapy machine, a wheelchair
and, in the bathroom, a boost for the toilet. A laptop computer is a
main link to the outside world, its clock set to remind him to change
his pain patch every three days. It's among the seven painkillers he
takes. White's sister, a professional quilter, decorated the room with
hand-hewn quilts donated by well-wishing Americans from around the
country, photos of White's daughter and get-well notes from family,
friends and strangers.
White is still in the Army, allowed to remain at home while
assigned to a medical holding company at Fort Lewis, where he goes
every three weeks to refill prescriptions. An avowed "four-wheeled Jeep
nut" whose e-mail handle is "wildman," White only in the past month has
been able to drive himself, even though his fragile leg can't bear
"As long as I can stand up one day to play with my daughter and
to go four-wheeling with my (19-year-old) son, I'll be happy," he says.
"I want to get together with people in my company when they get back. I
can't party in a wheelchair. My hope is I'll be walking again without
Bullet tore into leg
Physical therapy twice a week at the Summit Rehabilitation
Center is a half-hour down the road from the Alldredge's house. Today's
treatment, under the caring hands and watchful eyes of physical
therapist Kevin Graham, begins with a cocoa butter massage to loosen
soft tissue for flexing exercises later on.
White's eyes close as Graham goes to work. "Hurts a little today
but pretty good," White responds when asked. "It was change-pain-patch
A single 7.62 mm bullet, "small-arms fire" in military parlance,
tore into his leg on Oct. 19. A small scar the size of a dime on his
hamstring was the entry wound. The other side of his leg is a spider
web of scars.
The exit wound measures 5 inches across. The bullet blasted away
2 inches of his thigh bone and shredded an artery, nearly killing him.
The exit wound's deep, thick scar tissue, like a black hole, sucks more
tissue inward, tightening White's leg, requiring massage.
Foot-long scars left by the efforts to save White's life snake
down the inside of his right thigh and right calf. A similar scar
stretches down the inner thigh of his left leg, where surgeons removed
a "spare" vein to replace his severed right artery. Bone for a graft to
fill the 2-inch gap left in his right thigh was taken from his hip.
Smaller, round marks dot his skin where pins were screwed to keep him
"I've gotten a whole medical education since this happened. In
my first treatment in Iraq, the wounds weren't sewn but let open
because I was operated on in a tent, and they had to make sure all the
dirt was cleaned out," he said. "I was told that if this was the
Vietnam War, I probably would have died."
A long scar down the length of his calf is from the fasciotomy.
"They do it so when your muscles swell, they don't rip. They put
something like a rubber band around them to hold the meat together. The
reason I know is because I watched them do the cleaning one day. I
wanted to know."
Another scar on his right leg is from a surgery to relieve a
nerve, the deep perennial nerve responsible for his curling toes and
sensations that alternate between deadness and hypersensitivity.
"Mostly my leg feels nothing from the knee down," White said.
But "at Christmas it hurt so much I was crying."
Adds his sister, Teresa:
"If you walked past him, just the breeze would send him into
'Still barking orders'
"I can tell you what it sounds like when a bullet hits your
body," White says. "It's a pretty good 'thwack.' If you ever hunted,
it's about the same as if you hit a deer when you get close."
He did not know at the time it came from a "friendly."
"I was still barking orders when I was hit. I wanted to protect
my soldiers and to make sure they were down. Then I yelled for a medic.
I had no idea where the fire had come from. The most vivid picture in
my mind is of a medic working on me. She was covered in blood up to her
Because it happened inside an Army camp near Baghdad, a medical
tent was nearby.
"In the emergency room, I cussed out the crew because they
wanted to cut off my armored vest," he says. "These vests are hard to
come by. I told them to take it off, not cut it, because somebody else
will need it. That's about all I remember before they started doping me
White said he was forming a patrol to send "outside the wire,"
beyond the gate and protective walls of concrete jersey barriers, when
he was shot. He later learned the bullet came from the top of a
building 15 meters away, where a team of soldiers to cover the crew was
positioned. One of those soldiers, a spotter for a designated marksman,
was not qualified to use the M-240 machine gun but "for some reason,
she decided to try to load it," he said.
A report of the investigation doesn't say why the soldier tried
to load the weapon, only that she did so and the weapon misfired,
sending nine bullets White's way.
An investigation ensued, National Guard officials confirmed. The
incident was deemed an accident. The soldier who caused the misfire
received an undisclosed punishment.
"Our brigade commander said she has real remorse," White said.
"I don't know how I'd feel if I saw her. She didn't do it on purpose,
but I can be bitter about it."
An uncertain future
An Army evaluation board will determine White's future when his
treatment is considered complete.
The Army could make any number of decisions, including discharging him
or letting him stay in, perhaps by giving him temporary retirement
until he is recovered.
White appreciates that there are troops more seriously injured
than he who will never walk or be independent again. He shares with
them a sense of life-altering limitations and expectations.
"I went from being a person who was active 20 hours a day to
being able to do nothing," White said "If I can't work on cars anymore,
I think I'd like to be retrained to work on computers. I read technical
manuals like novels."
White acknowledges his life has sometimes been a battle with
himself. In 1978, White dropped out of Snohomish High School in 10th
grade and joined the Army. It gave him structure and focus. He earned
his high school diploma, some college credits and vehicle mechanic
certifications. In 1992, he left the Army to work as a mechanic but
later joined the Oregon National Guard, then moved to Yakima and
transferred to the Washington National Guard. White's immediate goal is
to be cleared to walk on his leg by April.
The biggest frustration, however, has been "a foot drop." Nerve
damage caused White's toes to involuntarily curl. Results of a recent
surgery to relocate the nerve won't be known for months.
White grows glum. "One reason I'm so open about myself is
because it's good therapy," he says.
At home, White's sister tells him that a Vashon Island woman who
has been making and donating quilts to wounded soldiers was herself
feeling low recently, wondering if they really made a difference.
"Oh," White says, eyes brightening as he reviews those hanging
in his room. "They make a difference, a big difference."
P-I reporter Mike Barber can be reached at 206-448-8018 or