War-torn soldier boasts simple dreams

By Mike Hixenbaugh
Rocky Mount Telegram
Sunday, June 15, 2008

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Michael Beck doesn’t believe in regret. Or at least he does his best to ignore it. Lying in a motorized hospital bed more than 230 miles from home, the Rocky Mount native explained recently that he has too much ahead of him to spend hours thinking, “What if?”

But it’s hard not to wonder.

What if Beck hadn’t enlisted in the N.C. National Guard as an overly enthusiastic 17-year-old in the spring of 2005, hoping then to help in disaster relief? What if he hadn’t been deployed to Iraq a couple years later? How would his life – and future – be different?

“That’s what my mom asked the other day,” Beck said, sitting in a wheelchair as he puffed on a cigarette outside Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. “She asked if I regretted enlisting, but I don’t think like that. What’s the point?”

Besides, the Army has been good to Beck, an admitted adventurer. It was in basic training, after all, where he met his fiancee, Meschelle Rowe. Plus, the way Beck sees it from his never-say-die, it’ll-all-work-out view of the world, the Army has been loyal.

When a mortar shell exploded on April 6 at Forward Operating Base Rustamiyah in Baghdad, who else would have tended to Beck’s shattered body? Who else would have fought so hard to save his life?

Now, as he tries coming to terms with the potential of losing both his legs – as he faces the prospects of countless surgeries and 100 percent disability – Beck will rely on the Army’s best doctors to help him achieve his new dream.

“I’m going to go back to Rocky Mount,” said Beck, a 2006 graduate of Northern Nash High School. “And I’m gonna get me a house and a car. Actually, I’m looking at a truck. I’m looking at a Honda Ridgeline so me and my fiancee can get around and get us an apartment.

“I wanna settle down and have a good life.”

No matter what it takes – be it with or without his legs – Beck said he just wants to go home.

A Changed Man

Telegram photo / Joel HodgesStruggling to push himself out of a wheelchair, Beck’s skinny frame trembled at the shoulders and his face reddened as he slid his 20-year-old body onto a physical therapy bed at Walter Reed. A lot has changed since the days when Beck would spend hours fishing off the banks of the Tar River at Battle Park.

He doesn’t look the same. His mother, Lynn Beck, says she can sense maturity in her son – a sometimes-distant look in his eyes – that wasn’t there before.

Beck, too, is acutely aware of it.

It has been more than two months since Beck heard the ring of a mortar alert. But even now, about 6,200 miles from Baghdad, he still can sometimes hear the shrieking sound of the alarm – the screams that came immediately after.

Beck and Staff Sgt. Emanuel Pickett were among a group of N.C. National Guardsmen with the Rocky Mount-based 1132nd N.C. National Guard Military Police Company who ran into a concrete bunker on April 6 as that alarm sounded.

Beck and Pickett turned toward the entrance of the shelter to close a Kevlar blanket designed to block shrapnel. They hadn’t even begun to secure the entry when the mortar shell exploded near the doorway.

Beck doesn’t remember much after that. Pickett, a well-respected staff sergeant whom Beck called “Dad,” was killed in the blast, and Beck was mere inches from joining him.

“It all happened so fast,” Beck said, struggling to piece together scattered memories. “It was done and over in a flash.”

But that’s all in the past. Beck doesn’t like dwelling on that, either.

Waging A New Battle

Looking toward Chris Winn, a physical therapy assistant at Walter Reed who works closely with amputees, Beck shook his head at the thought of completing his daily workout.

“It hurts,” Beck said, his boyish smile showing slightly. “It hurts a lot.”

To hear Beck explain it, he’s “all messed up.”

It’s difficult for his mother and him to name his complete list of injuries, but they’ll try if asked. At hospital stops in Iraq, Germany and eventually Washington, doctors have worked to repair a catalogue of wounds – a handful of broken limbs and damaged organs.

Doctors removed the front half of Beck’s left foot. With the hopes of avoiding future amputations, they stabilized each of his legs in external fixiators – a framework of pins and rods intended to support damaged limbs.

Beck took pleasure in counting each of the 19 pins that have been drilled into bones to hold his right leg together. Four other pins were inserted to stabilize the lower portion of his left leg.

More than 20 specialists have worked in the last two months to repair, among other things, Beck’s spleen, colon, kidney, liver and left eye. They performed three days’ worth of surgery to close the stomach gash that extended from his rib cage to his pubic bone. They reattached his shrapnel-damaged left eye to the retina, saving his vision. They reconnected blood flow to his right foot with artificial arteries. They took muscle from his thigh and used it to rebuild his right calf.

Lynn Beck estimates there are more than 100 wounds, burns, scars and gashes on her son’s body. Surgeries came every other day at first. That pace has slowed, but it’s unclear for how long.

For the time being, Beck will work with the Walter Reed medical staff to strengthen both his legs and – as his mother explains it – “put meat back on his bones.” Beck, already slender by nature, dropped between 20 and 30 pounds in the first few weeks after the mortar blast.

Things already have begun improving, though. Each day he completes simple leg lifts and stretches to accelerate the healing process and prevent atrophy.

“A lot of times, he doesn’t think he can do it,” said Winn, the physical therapist. Beck agonized behind her while another physical therapist lifted Beck’s right leg, attempting to rebuild strength in the mangled limb. “But he’s a lot stronger than he thinks he is.”

Doctors hope to stabilize the leg – borrowing skin grafts from other parts of his body and performing surgeries to lengthen what’s left of his fibula – so they can at least save it from the knee up, allowing Beck a more comfortable prosthetic.

In the meantime, Beck said, he’s almost certain he will ask doctors to amputate more of his left leg.

“It would be easier to have a prosthetic from the shin down than half a foot,” Beck said, pulling his left ankle to his waist to examine the shortened appendage.

Doctors estimate Beck will remain at Walter Reed, or at a nearby rehabilitation home, for at least a year. Beck said he hopes it’s closer to six months.

‘That’s My Son’

One night, early in the recovery process, Beck awoke in a panicked sweat as he heard what he thought was the sound of a mortar shell being loaded.

Hospital workers were releasing air from oxygen tanks in a nearby room.

“That was the only time I really had a flashback,” Beck said, adding that he tries not to dwell on the details of what happened to him.

When the mortar shell exploded in Baghdad, Beck was blown backward into the air. His body came to rest on top of Pickett. Although he vaguely remembers being propped on his closest friend, Beck said he didn’t know Pickett was dead.

In Rocky Mount that day around 2 p.m., Lynn Beck’s cell phone rang. She works most days at Langley’s Long Haul in the Sandy Cross community, but it was Sunday – the day reserved to assemble the care packages she sent to her son each week.

The man on the other end of the line began telling Lynn that her youngest child had been wounded. Before he could finish, Lynn handed the phone to her mother, Laura Beasley. Frazzled by the surge of emotion, unable to think clearly – Lynn stepped outside the door, trying to regain composure so she could register the information properly.

It had been more than seven months since she had seen her son, hoping at the time this day would never come. She cried then, too.

Arrangements were made quickly over the phone. Beck was en route to a hospital in Germany, but if Lynn embarked on the 230-mile trek up Interstate 95 by the following day, she would probably meet him when he arrived in Washington.

Lynn’s brother, Ray Beasley, a retired 21-year veteran of the Marine Corps who works in Maryland, picked up Lynn at the Washington hotel and drove her to the hospital, where they were greeted by a heavily sedated, heavily bandaged version of their son and nephew.

“He’s here,” Lynn said. “He’s alive. That’s all I could register.”

The rest of the family has come and gone to Walter Reed in the nine weeks that followed, trying to manage their own affairs as best they can. But Lynn, with the unquestioning support of her boss, has effectively put her life on hold.

“I’m not gonna leave his side,” Lynn said from the hospital, where she stays about 12 hours a day. “That’s my son.”

At the urging of a psychologist, Beck’s family waited several weeks to tell him the whole story. Given his weakened state, doctors weren’t sure how Beck would handle the stress.

Eventually, Beck’s 23-year-old sister Jennifer, carrying a slew of news clippings to verify the sad fate, told him Pickett was dead.

“I cried,” Beck said. “I cried really hard. He was kind of like a dad to me.”

Beck, in civilian life, hadn’t had a father since early childhood. His biological father left the family when Beck was 4, Lynn said. She was happy her son found a man to look up to, even if it was for less than a year.

Beck briefly wrestled with questions of why he survived and Pickett didn’t, but eventually chalked it up to proximity. Pickett was probably a little closer to the blast. He has left it at that.

Hope For A Future

In his two-plus months at Walter Reed, Beck said he has come to grips with the possibility of losing his legs. Each day, he’s surrounded by dozens of men and women with prosthetic limbs, many of whom spend their mornings running, jumping and stepping through physical therapy.

Men like Mike Cain, a Wisconsin solider who lost his leg from the shin down following a 2003 incident in Iraq, have served as living proof of what is possible with modern prosthetics.

Although he’s not sure how he would react to amputation, Beck said a part of him looks forward to the prospect of receiving a new leg.

“I’m the type of person, I’m not going to be ashamed,” Beck said. “Even if I only have one prosthetic, I’m still going to wear shorts. I’m not going to be ashamed of what I’ve got. It’s a badge of honor.”

Beck wants everyone to know about what he and others like him have gone through. Like many other soldiers, Beck said he’s not sure if America’s initial reasons for invading Iraq were justifiable, but now that the troops are there, “We gotta see it through.”

Part of seeing it through, he said, is caring for and remembering soldiers once they return. That includes the more than 30,000 soldiers who, like Beck, have been injured in Iraq.

“You don’t really see the in-depth stories in the news,” Beck said, his voice growing sharp. “They don’t know about the recovery process. They don’t know exactly what we go through over there. They make sure they keep up with how many deaths and wounded we have and put it in a big headline, but that’s not what it’s about. What about the soldiers who come home and make it? Or what about the soldiers still fighting? What about them?”

What about all the pain, the surgeries, the mental trauma? What about the agony families must endure? What is the real cost of war?

“I got torn up real bad over there,” Beck said, pausing briefly as he stared out toward Georgia Avenue as cars and pedestrians flashed by, rushing up and down the busy D.C. street. “I might lose my legs, but I’ll be all right. They’ve taken good care of me here for the most part.

“I’ll be excited when I get out of here, though.”

Beck said he’s looking forward to getting back on a 4-wheeler someday. He’s looking forward to being reunited with his fiancee and their future marriage. He looks forward to someday waking up and hopping out of bed as he pleases.

At 20, Beck has been forced to give up on his childhood dream of working with the Rocky Mount Police Department, but he has pondered returning to his civilian job as a security guard at Consolidated Diesel Co., he said.

Sitting in a wheelchair outside Walter Reed – blankets draped across his lap, covering his shattered legs – Beck stared straight ahead nodding slowly before sharing what he now considers his deepest desire.

“I want things to be normal again,” he said, pausing again before adjusting the sheets covering his legs. “I just want a normal life.”

This story was the first in a series. For the entire series: CLICK HERE

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