'Why should I be angry?'
RICHMOND, Va. — He thought they did everything right.
Staff Sgt. Eugene Simpson and his fellow soldiers varied their routines and routes through Tikrit, Iraq, knowing it’s best to never establish a pattern.
Diligently, they’d scan the roadsides for improvised explosive devices. In spite of all this, one day it wasn’t enough.
The moment Simpson saw the tunic-clad man hold up a car alarm remote, he knew.
And before the Army tank commander from Alpha Company, 177th Armored Brigade, out of Schweinfurt, Germany, could fire his M-4, nicknamed “Alicia Keys” after the R&B singer, his instincts had proved right.
He braced for the blast.
“There was one broken-down car in the alley, and I knew it didn’t need an alarm. Before I could shoot him, he hit the button. Everything after that just went in slow motion. But I knew I’d been hit.”
In his dreams, Simpson doesn’t see the man’s face, which was concealed by a scarf except for the eyes. Instead, he sees the hand, poised to push the remote control that detonated a suspected IED partially hidden in the rocks.
That blast sent shrapnel into his stomach and shoulder, shattered bones in both legs and feet, and partially severed his spinal cord, paralyzing him from the waist down.
The 27-year-old husband and father of four sons was one of 14 U.S. soldiers making the evening dinner run.
“We did everything right,” he said Saturday between plays of dominoes with his parents in a courtyard of the Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center in Richmond, which specializes in treating veterans with spinal injuries.
“It wasn’t enough.”
‘Why should I be angry?’
Sixty-seven days and seven surgeries after the April 7 attack, he’s adjusting quickly to life in a wheelchair, he said Saturday. He has managed to adapt and overcome “like a good soldier,” he quips.
But he gets testy when people ask if he’s angry, bitter or depressed.
“Are you angry?” he snaps. “Why should I be angry?”
“I have a wife, four beautiful kids, a family, my brother, and everyone loves me. I’m loved. And I’m happy.
“I might have been bitter when I first left Iraq, from the time the injury occurred to the time I got to Landstuhl [Regional Medical Center]. Those first few days, I might have been bitter.”
His wife of four years, Shirley Simpson, called his parents in Virginia. The trans-Atlantic flight to see their son at Landstuhl in Germany “was the longest 10 hours of my life. I didn’t know if my son was dead or alive,” Pearl Simpson said.
On April 9, they saw him for the first time since the blast.
“He saw me as they took him from recovery [after surgery] and he said ‘Hi, Mom,’ like nothing had happened,” Pearl Simpson said, chuckling at the memory.
Pearl Simpson has plunged into researching various treatments that one day might enable her elder son to walk. She’s keenly interested in a treatment using hyberbaric medicine and compression chambers used by divers to stimulate a possible recovery. It’s all so foreign, so new.
Their immediate concerns are converting the first floor living areas and bathroom of their Dale City, Va., home for the soldier for when returns in mid-July.
The tank commander credits Sgt. 1st Class Jackson with saving his life. “I don’t remember his first name. In the Army, we don’t call people by their first names,” he said.
Though injured himself with a concussion, Jackson, who had been driving, managed to pop off rounds at the suspected assailant as he rounded the front of the Humvee, shoved Simpson’s bloodied legs into the still-operational vehicle, and got back in to drive the mile or so to base camp.
“I would say he saved my life.”
Simpson’s doctors have told him he’ll likely never walk again.
“I’ve talked to guys here who said they were told they’d never walk again, and 20 years later, they’re up and walking around. And vice versa, when something went wrong. I’m young. I’m strong,” said the former high school athlete.
He has no aspirations of thinking he’ll return to active duty, but that doesn’t mean he can’t help in other ways. Saturday, he joined the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1503, which adopted the spinal cord injury wing at McGuire.
If he can’t stay Army, he’ll help some other way, Simpson said.
“I hope to return the favor.”