ARLINGTON, Va. — Staff Sgt. Joe Bowser had a lot on his mind after surviving a mortar attack while heading to chow at Camp Anaconda, near Balad, Iraq.

The Army reservist’s right foot was shredded and badly infected; doctors wanted to remove it. Bowser also was struggling with feelings of guilt for “abandoning” his squad, the “Renegades.”

But despite the confusion and his intense pain, Bowser wanted to be sure the military owner of a lost wallet, which he was carrying when he was hit, got it back. Someone was surely missing the contents: $162 in cash, a military ID card, a driver’s license and a debit card.

At Bowser’s request, his brother, a former Army medic, took up the mission for his fallen sibling. After some Internet sleuthing and a few phone calls, it was returned to the grateful spouse the wallet’s owner, another reservist who had narrowly escaped two convoy attacks about the same time Bowser was hit.

“I am amazed that somebody who was injured like that would even think about this,” said Melinda Febus, 29, wife of Staff Sgt. Victor Febus, a gunner with the Army Reserve’s 724th Transportation Company, Bartonville, Ill.

Bowser, a mail carrier with the U.S. Postal Service and divorced father of four, arrived in Iraq in late February with his unit, the 283rd Transportation Co. out of Fairfield, Conn.

It was the third leg of an Army career that began with three years’ active duty as a truck driver from 1980 to 1983, and later, a stint with the Army Reserve as a cavalry scout and drill sergeant.

Bowser left the reserves about 1998, but after a six-year hiatus he decided in October 2003 to re-enlist, he said in a May 13 interview from his room in Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.

Bowser’s unit, the 283rd TC’s 4th Squad, 2nd Platoon — the Renegades — was assigned to Anaconda, about 50 miles north of Baghdad.

Their mission was to help contractors deliver fuel to more remote U.S. base camps.

It was a dangerous job.

“Every time you went out the gates, it was like Russian roulette,” Bowser said. “You’re going to get hit. It’s just [a question of] where and when.”

Life “inside the wire,” on the base, was almost as tense, “getting mortared every single night,” Bowser’s brother Bill said in a May 12 telephone interview from his office at Owens State Community College, Ill.

Bowser found Febus’ wallet on the base around April 2, and sent an e-mail to his fellow soldier to arrange a meeting. Bowser tucked the wallet into the cargo pocket of his BDU trousers every morning when he got dressed, just in case he ran into its owner.

But before the two could make contact, Bowser was injured when a mortar hit near him on April 12, as he was stepping out of the PX.

Shrapnel peppered his legs and his armored vest, which medics said saved his life.

Worst of all was Bowser’s right foot. Shrapnel hit the arch and went out the back, shattering his heel bone and tearing most of the essential veins and arteries.

As Bowser was rushed through the military medical system, he kept the wallet with him.

He was airlifted to Landstuhl Medical Center, and finally to Walter Reed, where he surrendered the wallet to Bill.

Before sending it back to Melinda Febus, Bill took the wallet home.

“I got out the bleach and dish soap and sterilized it piece by piece,” Bill said. “I felt it needed to be taken care of decently.”

Meanwhile, despite their best efforts, Joe Bowser’s surgeons could not save his foot.

“It was the worst foot injury [the doctors] at Walter Reed had ever seen,” Bowser said. “I had the option of keeping a foot I couldn’t use and being in pain all the time; or having an amputation below the knee.”

The surgery was a success, and Bowser is now undergoing physical therapy at Walter Reed, preparing for his prosthesis.

Bowser said he’s looking forward to getting his artificial foot and getting back to his mail delivery route.

“I don’t have any regrets. I’m still alive, still kicking. This is just a little bump in the road,” Bowser said.

But he still misses his platoon back in Iraq.

“I feel kind of guilty,” Bowser said. “I’m here and safe, while the rest of my guys are getting fired at, by mortars [fired] by those idiots.”

He enjoys the visits from the brass and celebrities who often come through, but one thing bothers him — “when I keep on hearing that I’m a hero. I’m just a guy doing his job who got hurt.”

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