CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. - The challenge is there for every war veteran. There were months of living in the field in a distant, mud-colored land with a thousand other men, with danger and discomfort and violence. Twenty thousand Marines are now coming home to a huge military base in coastal North Carolina, emerald green with spring rains, to wives and girlfriends and children, domestic chores and cooked meals, muscle cars and trucks instead of Abrams tanks and amphibious tracked vehicles.
The 2nd Tank Battalion made it back May 30, and last week they had a homecoming party beneath picnic pavilions in a soft rain. For most of the Marines, this was the end of the journey back from the war with Iraq.
Capt. Jeffrey Houston returned to Camp Lejeune a month ahead of the battalion. But after taking a bullet through his jaw and neck on April 4, he's still not completely home. The bullet broke the left side of his jaw. It pulverized the bone on the right side. His jugular vein was severed. His carotid artery was cut open. Capt. Houston lay on his side watching his blood pulse in jets onto the highway as the smoke and fire of battle boiled around him.
"I was conscious the whole time," he said. "I was losing blood, but I had a warm sensation all over."
Last week he stood with his former tank crew, laughing and reminiscing. There is a fiery scar that runs the length of his throat and slight swelling on the right side of his jaw. His voice is pitched so high as a result of the injury that it's as if he had inhaled helium. Otherwise, he seems remarkably the same as the lanky 28-year-old Carolinian descendant of Sam Houston who led his company of tanks in the race to Baghdad.
"People don't understand why I'm still alive," Capt. Houston said. And then to explain, he quickly added: "Peixotto." "Peixotto" is Cpl. Billy Peixotto of McKinney, who pulled the captain behind their tank, put a compress on his neck and held off the Iraqis, firing more than 100 rounds.
When the ambulance arrived, Navy Lt. Bruce Webb, battalion surgeon, took over and tightened the compress with a wraparound head bandage. While the battalion was still fighting its way out of an ambush, a Marine helicopter set down and took Capt. Houston and other wounded Marines to a field hospital in southern Iraq. When the shock wore off, the pain came. Capt. Houston tried to scream for morphine. He was conscious until the operating team put him under.
It might have ended there on the operating table. The damage to his blood vessels was extensive. So was the loss of blood. As it happened, however, a vascular surgeon was on hand to bring Capt. Houston back from the precipice. The blood vessels on the other side of his neck kept his brain flush while a blood transfusion began replacing what was lost. His right carotid artery was mended. The surgeon fashioned a ligature to replace the jugular vein.
Capt. Houston was transferred to a U.S. military hospital in Germany, where he had a new ID card made. In the photo, his eyes are half open; a black scar obscures his chin. Beard stubble covers the swollen jowls of his face. At the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., outside Washington, surgeons fashioned a lower jaw for the captain out of titanium. He was able to keep all of his teeth. His jaw was wired shut for more than a month. That meant a liquid diet, and he lost 30 pounds. It also meant communicating with a chalkboard, pen and paper.
President Bush presented the Purple Heart to Capt. Houston on April 11. The captain's parents and sister were there, along with first lady Laura Bush and a contingent of Washington media. Mr. Bush waved the press away, shut the door and sat and talked for 30 minutes to a man who couldn't talk back.
Capt. Houston gave the president an article that described the battle and how he was wounded. The president thanked him for his sacrifice. "I wrote down that my Marines and I were with him 100 percent," the captain recalled. Capt. Houston saw a Marine at Bethesda who was wounded in the same ambush. He had also been shot through the neck, but the bullet traveled from his back out through his cheek.
"He'll be paying the price for the rest of his life," Capt. Houston said.
Tank crew reunion
After Capt. Houston was wounded, command of Charlie Company went to Capt. Ron Storer of Idaho Falls, Idaho. He kept Capt. Houston's tank crew together - Cpl. Peixotto as driver, Cpl. Michael Ackerman of Riverside, Calif., as loader and Cpl. Alfredo Ramirez of Oceanside, Calif., as gunner. When the crew returned to Camp Lejeune, Capt. Houston met them on the runway.
"It was a tearful moment," he said. "Lots of hugs."
Cpl. Ackerman's father, a former Marine and Vietnam War veteran, told his son four years ago to join the Army because the Marines would be too tough. Now that father and son are both war veterans, Cpl. Ackerman said his dad told him he was proud of him. Cpl. Peixotto's family is bursting with pride as well. He has been recommended for a medal, and Capt. Houston said he wants to add his own letter of recommendation to the file.
Capt. Houston is back at work at battalion headquarters. His voice therapy continues, and he has up to three more surgeries in his future. But he's expected to make a full recovery, and his fellow Marines are already joking with him about his injuries.
One wag, chiding the captain for the high pitch of his voice, wondered whether he'd been shot somewhere besides the neck. "Once they know you're OK, there's no mercy among Marines," said Lt. Col. Mike Oehl, commanding officer of the battalion at At Tuwayhah.