Home for the holidays

Craig soldier served with Mark Lawton

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Caught in an ambush that killed one Routt County soldier in Iraq, Army Spc. Tyler McWilliams was wounded by more than a dozen pieces of shrapnel.

On Christmas Eve, McWilliams returned home to Craig on medical leave. He is grateful to be home and largely healthy, particularly given his experiences half a world away.

On Aug. 29, McWilliams and a partner were in the last vehicle in a four-truck convoy hauling heavy equipment to build a small base north of As Suaydat, Iraq, about 40 miles northeast of Baghdad. Hayden soldier Staff Sgt. Mark Lawton was in a Humvee leading the convoy. When the convoy was ambushed by Sunni militants firing machine guns, mortars and rocket-powered grenades, drivers stepped on the gas while soliders, including McWilliams, returned fire, he said.

The ambush killed Lawton, a father of two, cost McWilliams' partner his leg, and left McWilliams riddled with shrapnel.

It's a day he can't erase from his memory, but it's not a day that earned him a ticket home. In fact, he returned to duty before that day was done.

"Their cure for everything is, 'Drink water and you'll be OK,'" said McWilliams, 21. "The Army doctors are crazy. I get a kick out of them."

He was sent back into the field

with shrapnel wounds from a rocket-powered grenade; he was only allowed to return home after nearly losing his right ring finger in a comparatively mundane, noncombat-related accident -- having his finger crushed when a dump truck's industrial-strength tailgate closed on it. It's an irony that is not lost on him.

McWilliams was sent to a makeshift field hospital where Army doctors performed simple surgery and cleaned the wound. During the procedure, he felt virtually nothing -- the nerves in his finger had been destroyed, too, when trapped between metal and metal, McWilliams said. Doctors thought his finger would have to be amputated, so he was flown to a hospital in Landstuhl, Germany.

Soon after, the phone rang at the McWilliams home in Craig. McWilliams' father, Harry, answered it while his mother, Debbie, stood nearby and listened to the half of the conversation she could hear.

"You don't want to hear that he's in Germany, because it could mean it's something serious," Debbie said. She got sick to her stomach when she heard Harry ask, "Are you going to lose it?"

"I thought it was going to be an arm or a leg," Debbie said. "I was relieved when I heard it was just his finger."

She was even more relieved when she learned her son still had feeling in the tip of his finger, and it would not require amputation. German surgeons worked for about three hours planting permanent titanium screws in the finger and inserting through the bone three metal wires that will be taken out in three weeks.

McWilliams can now laugh at the sight of his swollen, bionic-looking finger. He acknowledges he was very fortunate not to suffer more serious injuries during his seven months in the war-torn country and is even more privileged to be home for the holidays.

In Iraq, McWilliams saw close friends in his squad lose more than just fingers.

He thought back on the rocket-powered grenade that almost claimed his life. He and his partner were riding in the back of a 2.5-ton troop-carrying truck, following Lawton's Humvee, an empty fuel truck and a heavy MD-916 truck carrying a bulldozer.

It was just after 8 a.m. when the convoy came around a corner on the asphalt road. Hidden in the brush were several Sunni hostiles who opened fire on the trucks, McWilliams said.

Under attack, the convoy followed standard procedure, driving as fast as possible and returning fire. As one of the larger soldiers at 210 pounds, McWilliams was assigned a gun called a "SAW," which shoots about 850 rounds per minute and weighs about 22 pounds, compared to conventional 8-pound M-16s.

McWilliams said he had fired about 350 rounds while spotting for his partner when he saw a man with a thick, dark mustache, wearing teardrop sunglasses and a turban, fire one of the grenades at the back of the truck. While absorbing the image of the man and missile in his mind, McWilliams simultaneously was hoping the projectile would miss.

It didn't. The grenade struck the tailgate, blasting pieces of shrapnel into McWilliams' and his partner's bodies.

The convoy drove four to five miles before stopping to assess the damage.

Lawton was the only soldier killed, shot multiple times by an AK-47. One of the drivers had pieces of shattered windshield in his eyes. McWilliams and his partner were both wounded, but their bulletproof Kevlar vests saved their lives, he said. McWilliams pulled out five large pieces of metal that had lodged in his vest. His partner, who was also a good friend, lost his leg.

McWilliams spoke highly of Lawton.

"He was the epitomy of perfection. He expected the best out of his soldiers, and he wouldn't accept anything less."

Army doctors told McWilliams that extracting the shrapnel lodged in his body would do more harm than good. He now has five coin-sized pieces in his right arm, one in his calf and one in his thigh. More tiny pieces are scattered throughout his body, some of which he manages to pick out every once in a while, he said, pointing to small holes in his hand.

As a result of the shrapnel, the soldier now has difficulty passing through airport security screening. But that is a small price to pay compared to the ultimate sacrifice others have made, he said.

McWilliams' family has lived in Routt and Moffat counties for six generations. His relatives first settled near Egeria Creek south of Toponas more than a century ago, and his great-great-great-grandfather lived in Hahn's Peak when it was the county seat. McWilliams still has family scattered throughout Yampa Valley.

McWilliams, who was raised in Glenwood Springs, moved to Craig as a freshman in high school, where he met and befriended Tyrel Miles.

The Army sent Miles to Iraq in April, where he was a mechanic on call 24 hours a day. Though he never came face to face with the enemy, he, like other soldiers, was frightened by the sound of explosions on a daily basis.

One summer day, Miles said he found himself in the area McWilliams was stationed and searched for his friend. Miles was happy to see the familiar face when he found McWilliams. The two promised they would visit each other when they were back on American soil.

That visit came Christmas Eve, after Miles was put on term relieve and McWilliams on medical leave.

"I think I was just lucky to be able to come home," McWilliams said. "I had to smash my finger to do it, but nonetheless, I made it home."

McWilliams will have to go back to Fort Sam Houston, Texas, where he soon will finish his duty, even though his enlistment is not complete until 2006. He said most of his time at the base will be spent doing physical therapy, and he guessed the Army is sympathetic to soldiers who are wounded twice in less than a year.

For the shrapnel wounds, McWilliams will receive a Purple Heart to go along with the eight Commander Coins he received from high-ranking military officials while on duty.

"I'm fortunate," McWilliams said again, "more fortunate than other soldiers, but still I wish all the other soldiers were home, too. That would be nice. My family feels really fortunate. I couldn't have written a better script, I guess."

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