Sunday, May 24, 2009

A Copper Fist...and One Proud Uncle

from James Grippando

It’s the kind of news that appears at the end of yet another daily newspaper round-up on the war in Iraq. Half a column about a car bombing that kills 41 civilians in Baghdad. And then, almost, parenthetically, USA Today reports at the bottom of the page:

“Also Wednesday, three U.S. soldiers were wounded in north Baghdad in a blast from a type of weapon which the U.S. military believes is manufactured in Iran and smuggled from Iran. The U.S. military confirmed the attack and said the bomb was an explosively formed projectile, which hurls a fist-sized piece of copper through armored vehicles. Iran has denied providing such weapons.”

Hmm, you say. And then you flip to Section C to check out the basketball scores.

Unless one of the three soldiers wounded is your nephew.

James Nixon Hall is on his second tour of duty in Iraq. He is my older sister’s youngest child, Roberta's only son. His father served in the Vietnam War. His grandfathers fought in World War II, and his grandmother (my mother) was a Navy nurse in the Korean War. His wife Anna raises their children while he’s away, with an able assist from my sister, who I still can't believe is a grandmother several times over. His son was born while he was three thousand miles away on his first tour of duty.

PFC Hall was a gunner on a tank on his first tour in Iraq. He’s a twenty-eight-year old sergeant now, responsible for the lives of greener troops, many of them teenagers. The quiet and deliberate sergeant doesn’t share many details with us civilians about what he does over there. My sister thinks he’s running more night missions this time around. That worries us.

Last Wednesday, those worries went off the charts.

Roberta had been visiting our mother in Ft. Lauderdale, and her return flight left on Wednesday morning. She called me from O’Hare Airport in Chicago, halfway home to Washington State. She was surprisingly calm.

“Anna got a phone call,” Roberta said. “Jimmy was injured in Iraq today.”

I was driving on I-95, returning from a book signing in Naples, the cell phone plastered to my ear.
“How bad?” I asked.
“I don’t know.”
“How did it happen?"
“Don’t know that either.”
“Where is he?”
“A hospital. Baghdad, I think.”

Roberta asked me to call our mother, tell her the news, and try not to scare her to death. My sister had to get on the plane from Chicago to Seattle. She would have no cell phone, no text messaging, no e mail—no way of scratching and clawing for more information about her son for the next five hours.

I can only imagine what Roberta was thinking as she sped west at 30,000 feet—toward home, but farther and farther away from her injured son. My own mind was racing. I was thinking about three-year-old Jimmy, the mischievous little monkey who almost electrocuted himself by sticking a house key in an electrical outlet. I remembered a five-year-old boy fighting to keep his eyes open past midnight to watch The Empire Strikes Back and talk like Yoda with his Uncle Jimmy from Miami. I remembered crossing the Puget Sound on a ferry and lifting him up on my shoulders so that he could feel the wind on his seven-year-old face. I thought of him all grown up, six-foot-three-inches tall, sitting on my deck last June, calm but contemplative, just a few weeks before he was scheduled to ship off to Iraq—again.

I passed the hours by doing computer research, doing the things I figured my sister would be doing if she weren't stuck on an airplane. I was desperate to figure out how to get more information on my nephew. I was surprised how little I was able to find. I took a little diversion and dug up a photo of Corporal John Crawford and six other marines in Iraq. Last year, Corporal Crawford sent me an e mail telling me that he and his men were fans of James Grippando novels. They were part of the security force in Al Tequadem, and after finding only three of my novels in the PX, he very humbly wrote "to ask if you would give us the privilege of sending some of the other books for us to read." We sent a box with everything I had ever written, and they sent me a thank-you photo, each of them holding a copy of their favorite Grippando novel.

"On long days standing post or trying to find ways to keep occupied on your time off, a GOOD books does wonders," he wrote. Soldiers talk freely about the boredom, the need to make time pass. They don't talk about the parts of their day that worry us folks back home. My nephew is just like them. I wondered if all of those young men had made it home.

I went back to the internet research and came across something called “Our Hero Handbook,” a Department of Defense "Guide for Families of Wounded Soldiers." It was dated June 2006, and I had no idea if it was still current, but this is what it said:

"The process begins for the family with notification. Families are notified of the injury to their soldier in a number of ways. Some families receive phone calls from their soldier who then tells them of their injury. Often another military member present may speak to the family to provide additional information…”

I stopped right there. Why hadn't my nephew placed the call himself to tell Anna or his mom or his dad of the injury? He was in the hospital. Surely they have telephones. Was he not conscious? Was he in surgery?

Stop it. Don't freak.

The answer came at 9:03 p.m. (4:03 a.m. Thursday in Baghdad). Roberta forwarded me a text message she received from her son upon landing in Seattle:

“i am fine. who called and said that i was hurt?”
Roberta's first thought was that the army had notified the wrong family. “Hall,” after all, is a pretty common name. But the army had not made a mistake. It was indeed his vehicle that had been struck by the Iranian-made explosive device. All three soldiers aboard had been taken to the hospital.

Fortunately, my nephew really is fine. The army sent him to the brain trauma unit to make sure of that. I can only presume that he didn’t call his family—and he didn’t want anyone to call on his behalf—because he knew that we would all worry ourselves sick if we heard he was in the brain trauma unit. He was probably right. He was definitely courageous.

And on this Memorial Day, he is one of many heroes. One of the lucky ones.

Patty will return next week in her regular slot.


  1. As the daughter-in-law of a WWII vet, and the daughter of a vet who served in the 1950s, it's the perfect time to say Happy Memorial Day, and thank all of those, like your courageous nephew, who serve to protect us.

    Thank you for the moving story you shared about your family.

  2. Oh, James, I am so glad your nephew is just fine. What a story for Memorial Day. My godson - he's the son of my oldest friends, and we are very close - recently returned from his second (or is it his third?) tour of duty in Afghanistan, and just before he came home was in an armored car that hit a roadside bomb. How he and his fellow soldiers were not killed is a miracle - just a few days in hospital for observation. His wife gave birth to their first child in October last year - and we are so glad the family are together again.

    God bless your family, and may your nephew be home, safe, soon.

  3. James, I'm so glad that your nephew is safe, and hopefully those of his team that were also in the attack.

    This is something to be so thankful for this Memorial Day.

    Two of my cousins have done tours of duty in Iraq and both came home safe, but we have several friends who have kids over there as well and they worry as much as any family does in this situation. We help where we can.

    One young friend went over to Iraq several years ago (God, have we been there that long, now?) as a paramedic for the army. He was full of youthful enthusiasm and arrogance and determined to go over and 'whup bad guy's ass'. I humbly aver that I've never been in combat, but some of my family over all the wars last century and some of the men I served with in the airforce had done so. His uncle and I tried to talk to him, to make him slow down a little and take a real look at what he was walking in to. We did not try and stop him from going, it was his choice after all.

    Our young friend lasted 18 months in Iraq, serving his country. At least two photos of him came home: of him in scrubs and covered in blood from head to toe. At the end of this time, he was discharged as damaged goods. We see him from time to time and give as much love as we can. But he now drifts from job to job and for the moment remains haunted by his experiences. His family hopes that with time and therapy, the nightmares will fade and that his life will find a natural balance. I don't think he will ever forget. No combat vet ever does.

    My hopes and prayers are with him, those still in the middle east, and their families waiting at home.

    Many hugs, all.

  4. Thank you for the post.

  5. Glad your nephew is okay-it's awful you all went through so many hours of agony though. Hope his friends and fellow soldiers are as fortunate over there...

  6. God bless everyone out there all over the world who is defending their country and let them return in good health!
    Happy Memorial Day.

  7. I was holding my breath all through your column.

    So glad to read the conclusion.

    The Iraq war seems to have fallen off the front page, despite the continuing casualties. Since the start of the war, 4292 Americans have been killed and 679 in Afghanistan.

    I try to read every Los Angeles Times obit of our soldiers and many of the posts by friends and families at

    Wonderful post, Jim.

  8. Oh James, what a terrifying situation!

    All I could think was that if he ended up in the medical facility where my brother-in-law is doing his third tour, I know for a fact he'd get the most phenomenal care. Those guys are good and "dedicated" doesn't even begin to cover their attitude.

    Oh, but what a relief, to know he's okay!

  9. James, you made me misty eyed with concern. Thank the powers that be that all is well.

  10. So glad to know that your nephew is OK.

    Here's to all those who serve - the ones who run in when everyone else is running out.....

  11. James O. Born5/25/2009 2:35 PM

    Whew. Thank God.

    sorry I missed you at Murder on the beach last week.