A Heavy Purple Heart
May 6, 2003
By Alex Tizon
JEFFERSON CITY, Montana – Sgt. Charles Horgan noticed immediately that real war happened without a soundtrack. Of course he knew this on some level but he didn’t realize how quiet it could be in the desert of southern Iraq. He couldn’t even hear the wind, standing in the turret of a Humvee with his fingers wrapped around the grips of a .50-caliber machine gun.
He was so ready to fight. He’d trained 3 1/2 years for this moment. He’d watched his favorite war movies over and over, memorizing scenes of heroism played out to the sounds of an epic score. He was prepared to be brave. But before he had the chance, the enemy got to him first. Horgan was among the first American casualties in Iraq. His whole experience in combat lasted about seven minutes. Today, he’s back home in this one-tavern town in southwestern Montana, a 21-year-old disabled veteran with a shiny new medal, a stirring story and a disappointed heart.
“I wish I did more. I wish I had more time,” he says. “One measly firefight, and I was done.” He has a lot of time to think these days, recovering at his parents’ rustic home in the hills above town. As he goes through the motions of preparing for the rest of his life, his mind constantly brings him back to the scene in the desert outside the city of Nasiriyah six weeks ago.
The Humvee was crossing a bridge when Horgan saw the missile coming. It slammed into the front of the vehicle, tearing through the engine and spraying shrapnel in all directions. Horgan was blown out of the turret and fell flat on the roof. His right boot simmered with blood, smoke rising from where the heel used to be. He crawled to the ground, and for the next several minutes, watched a firefight unlike any he’d seen in the movies: slow, almost lazy, with long stretches of silence, then deadly bursts of pop-pop-pop.
Soldiers from another vehicle scooped him up and took him to a field ambulance. He was brought to Kuwait and then Germany, where he told anybody who would listen that he wanted to return to Iraq and fight side by side with his buddies. “That’s all I think about. I play it over and over in my mind,” he says. “I beat myself up. It’s like you train all season to play football and then sprain your ankle running onto the field. I had my opportunity and I blew it. I didn’t get a single shot off.”
The disappointment, he says, is balanced by the fact that he’s alive and home and applying to college, just as he’d always planned. But it’s an uneasy balance. The soldier in him is preoccupied with what should have been: a scene brave and dramatic, like in the movies. Instead, it was sudden, brutal and weirdly undramatic. Then it was over.
Horgan doesn’t seem to mind the term “permanently disabled.”
It’s Thursday afternoon, and he has just returned from physical therapy at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Helena, half an hour north. He hobbles through the living room, sinking his lanky 6-foot frame into a leather couch, and props his right foot on a table. It’s in a cast. Doctors took out one piece of shrapnel, a ragged metal shard the shape of a shark’s tooth. He keeps it in a small see-through container and sometimes stares at it, like a boy studying a bug he’s just caught.
His face, wide-eyed and disarmingly friendly, belongs on a boy. His feet, though, are size 11, man-sized. The foot still holds a dozen small pieces of shrapnel that might remain for the rest of his life. The flesh covering the heel bone is gone. He’ll probably walk with a slight limp or wear a lift in his right shoe.
Spread out on the couch are pencil sketches he has drawn of the attack on the bridge. They portray different angles of the scene: what it looked like from the ground, what it may have looked like from a distance, what he probably looked like as he stared at the remains of his foot. Two sketches are on a rumpled brown napkin. The others are on white drawing paper. They are his way, he says, of trying to reconstruct what happened.
If he’d had his 35-millimeter camera, he says, he would have snapped some pictures. Even as bullets whizzed past, Horgan instinctively wanted to record what happened. It was the movie buff in him, the novice filmmaker who wanted to document the scene. But all he has is memory, and every day he searches it for more details.
In Horgan’s mind, the scene on the bridge was a culmination of many other scenes going back to his graduation from Helena High School in 1999. Six months after graduation, he enlisted in the Army out of a sense of patriotic duty. Soon he was stationed at Ft. Benning, Ga., as part of the 1st Battalion, 30th Infantry Regiment. He was good at shooting, and he became a gunner for a scout platoon. In 2001, the platoon was sent to Kosovo to conduct security patrols. The fighting had long been over, and Horgan saw no combat during the six-month assignment.
In January, the platoon was sent to Kuwait. As the United States debated whether to go to war, Horgan and his buddies basked in the desert, writing homesick letters and watching war movies. “Band of Brothers” and “Black Hawk Down” were the favorites. Horgan doubted war would actually happen. Then on March 20, the first American bombs dropped on Baghdad. On March 21, Horgan’s platoon joined a caravan into Iraq toward Nasiriyah. They drove all day and most of the night. The following day, March 22, the platoon spent much of the morning and early afternoon at a roadblock. “This war is so boring,” Horgan recalls telling one of his compatriots. “We’re going to have to make up stories.”
An hour later, the unit received an order to check out some activity at a bridge spanning a tributary of the Euphrates River. It was a short detour, and three vehicles went to the site. Horgan’s Humvee led the way, with Horgan at the turret manning his “fifty-cal.” It was a small bridge, maybe 50 feet across, with no aesthetic frills. It was made purely to be driven on, and that’s what the Humvee did. There was a crowd of Iraqis up ahead. Horgan said they appeared nervous. The group started to run away, and it was then that Horgan saw the missile heading toward him.
Horgan has left the couch to get something from the bedroom. His mother, Leila Horgan, is chatting on the phone in the kitchen, telling the person on the other end how happy everyone is that Charles is home. There were a few tense hours back on March 22 when the family was told Charles may have been killed. Then came news he was wounded. The details trickled in, coming like gifts from heaven as it became clearer to the family that their only son, the middle child of three, soon would be home.
One of Horgan’s crutches squeaks slightly as he reenters the living room, holding something in his left hand. He presents it shyly. It’s the medal he was awarded for being wounded in combat, the Purple Heart. It’s made in the shape of a heart, painted purple and bordered with gold. In the center is an image of George Washington. The medal hangs from a wide ribbon of purple cloth.
“It’s heavier than I thought it would be,” he says, weighing it in his hand. He never says it, but he seems embarrassed by the medal and by anyone calling him a “hero,” as some townspeople have. He doesn’t feel like a hero. The medal is a combat medal and he never fired a weapon. When he thinks about those seven minutes on the ground, his mind tends to focus on what he didn’t do. “I know, I’m just what-iffing it to death. What if? What if? What if I had gone back and got my weapon?”
He recalls that as he crawled on the ground, inching his way toward the second vehicle 40 yards down the road, he went back and forth in his mind on whether to retrieve his M-16, which was inside the Humvee. The sound of AK-47s — the enemy’s choice of rifle — dissuaded him, but not without a lot of angry gut-wrenching.
“I had nothing. It was pathetic. I couldn’t walk, I had no weapon,” he says. “It was the most helpless feeling. If I had thrown a grenade in the trench, or got off one shot….”
Another soldier in the same Humvee, Staff Sgt. Jamie Villafane, of Brentwood, N.Y., was blown off to the side of the vehicle, his left arm and hand shredded. But he managed to hold on to his weapon, somehow captured four Iraqis and led them at gunpoint back onto the bridge, where Horgan was. Horgan saw the Iraqis approaching, but he didn’t see Villafane behind them. For a split-second Horgan considered ordering the driver of his Humvee, a private who also was crawling on the ground, to shoot the men before they shot him. What a colossal mistake that would have been, he now says. As it is, he has enough regret to deal with.
What happened next was a sequence of small journeys that spanned half the globe, from ambulance to Black Hawk, from Kuwait to Germany to Washington, D.C., to Helena, and finally, to Jefferson City, an old mining town whittled down to a hamlet of 200 residents. Horgan was on heavy painkilling drugs for much of it. While being treated in Landstuhl, Germany, he talked long-distance with his parents. He doesn’t remember what he told his mother, but Leila Horgan does.
“He wanted to go back [to Iraq]. He wanted to be with his friends, he was just so determined,” Leila Horgan says. She says she tried hard to talk him out of trying to return to battle. She pleaded with him to think about the rest of the family. “We were just happy he was alive. We wanted him home.”
A former high school classmate and fellow film buff, Aaron Donaldson, 22, of Helena, says Horgan didn’t want to return “to blow people away. It was a bigger thing. He wanted to back up his friends out there.” He wanted to be with his fellow GIs who were in the midst of battle.
Horgan’s homecoming at Helena Airport was intimate, with family and members of his church there to greet him. The local media were not there. His return was as quiet as a Cessna gliding onto the runway in the middle of the night. Doctors say he’ll be in rehabilitation for about six months, which is about the length of time Horgan has left in his tour of duty. He’s applying to film school at Montana State University in Bozeman, where he hopes to enroll in the fall of 2004.
Meanwhile, he’ll sit on this old leather couch and ponder the events of the last few months, the minutes on the bridge. He can’t help it; it’s where his mind takes him. He’ll draw more sketches. He’ll rattle the shrapnel in the bottle. He’ll feel the weight of the Purple Heart, and the voices in his head that no one else hears will debate whether he truly deserves it.