BLAIRSVILLE, Pa., — Jeremy Feldbusch joined the Army to travel the world. Now the only place he can go by himself is the 40 steps from his bed to the reclining chair in the living room.
The stucco walls guide him, past the bathroom, kitchen and closet, past the photographs of him in football jacket and wrestling singlet, past the coffee table, where he sometimes stubs his toe. At last, he finds his chair.
"Mom!" he yelled on a recent day. "I want a drink of some drinky stuff!"
"I thought there's no way this is happening to me, there's no way I'm going to go through life as a blind man," Sergeant Feldbusch said. (NYT Photo/Ozier Muhammad)
"How about water?" his mother said back.
"No! Mountain Dew!"
"O.K., Jeremy, O.K."
Sgt. Jeremy Feldbusch, a fit, driven, highly capable Army Ranger, left home in February knowing the risks of combat. Two months later, he came home blind.
A growing number of young men and women are returning from Iraq and trying to resume lives that were interrupted by war and then minced by injury. Sergeant Feldbusch, a moody 24-year-old, is one of them, back in a little town in western Pennsylvania, in a little house overlooking trees and snow-blanketed hills he cannot see.
"What happened to my plans to become an officer? Gone," Sergeant Feldbusch said. "Can I ever jump in my truck again and just take off? No. Do I always have to be with my mom or dad now? Yep."
Since the war started, more than 2,300 American soldiers in Iraq have been hurt in combat, many by artillery shells and homemade bombs that spray shrapnel. Bulletproof vests and helmets protect vital organs. But as the insurgency continues, doctors say that severe facial injuries, along with wounds to the arms and legs, are becoming a hallmark of this war.
"There's that little area between where the helmet ends and the body armor starts," said Dr. Jeffrey Poffenbarger, an Army neurosurgeon. "And we're seeing a lot of guys getting hit right there, right in the face."
Back home, one little piece of metal can turn an entire household upside down. Charlene Feldbusch stopped working to take care of her son. She rubs cream on his face in the morning, helps him pick out his clothes, fixes him meals and gives him pills at night so he does not shake.
His father, Brace, started writing a book about him. "He's been such an inspiration to me, accomplishing more at 24 than I have my entire life," said Brace Feldbusch, a former coal miner who lost two fingers to a coal cart before he lost his job. He ticked off the chapters, his son's greatest moments: winning the state freestyle wrestling championship; bench-pressing 405 pounds; graduating from the University of Pittsburgh, a biology major, the only member of the family to finish college; becoming an Army Ranger.
His two brothers, Shaun, 25, and Brian, 17, sometimes feel left out.
"But they understand our entire world has changed," Ms. Feldbusch said. "Somebody has to be with Jeremy all the time. But that's O.K. I'm his mom. And that's what moms do."
During the two months Jeremy Feldbusch spent recovering at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, his parents lived at his bedside. Charlene Feldbusch remembers one day seeing a young female soldier crawling past her in the corridor with no legs and her 3-year-old son trailing behind.
Ms. Feldbusch started to cry. But not for the woman.
"Do you know how many times I walked up and down those hallways and saw those people without arms or legs and thought, Why couldn't this be my son? Why his eyes?"
Artillery shells make a certain sound when they are coming right at you. Not a looping whistle, but a short shriek.
Sergeant Feldbusch in his bedroom in Pennsylvania as his mother, Charlene, put in eyedrops and applied lotion to his face. (NYT Photo/Ozier Muhammad)
On April 3, Sergeant Feldbusch, a 6-foot-2-inch, thickly built mortar man, heard the shriek. He and his platoon of Rangers were guarding the Haditha Dam, a strategic point northwest of Baghdad along the Euphrates River, when a shell burst 100 feet away and a piece of red hot shrapnel hit him in the face. The last thing he remembers was eating a pouch of chicken teriyaki.
The inchlong piece of steel, part of the artillery shell's casing, sliced through his right eye, tumbled through his sinuses and lodged in the left side of his brain, severely damaging the optic nerve of his left eye and spraying bone splinters throughout his brain.
Two weeks later, at the Brooke Army Medical Center, doctors removed the shrapnel and reconstructed his face with titanium mesh and a lump of fat from his stomach in place of his missing eye, so the hole would not cave in.
For five weeks, Sergeant Feldbusch remained in a coma. When he came out, it was still black.
"I could hear my parents' voices," he said. "And I thought, What are they doing here? Am I dreaming? What the hell is going on?"
His mother knelt by his bedside and sang softly into his ear, "When I wish upon a star."
Then she asked him, "Jeremy? Who do you love?"
True to form, he whispered, "Brace." He was joking.
Two weeks after he came out of the coma, his parents broke the news. He was being awarded a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star. But there was very little chance he would see again.
"I thought there's no way this is happening to me, there's no way I'm going to go through life as a blind man," Sergeant Feldbusch said.
One day, as he lay in bed with tubes and wires and needles sticking out of him like he was some sort of science project, his father looked at him and said, "Maybe God thought you had seen enough killing."
Jeremy responded, "But Dad, why did he have to take my eyes?"
The inch-long piece of shrapnel not only took his sight and dulled his sense of taste and smell, but it took some of his brain, too. It left him quick to lose his temper and acutely sensitive to pain. When he got out of the hospital, it hurt his skin when the wind blew.
It also left him prone to seizures. Right before Christmas, he had his third.
"We're just holding on," said his father. "It's like we're living in a bubble."
His moods flash like the bits of color that sometimes glitter in the mine shaft he lives in. Sometimes he sees red, blue, a bright yellow. Sometimes he is angry, then sad, then suddenly playful.
On a recent night, Brace, 49, asked: "In your mind, Jeremy, if there's an image, if there's a picture in there, buddy, what do you see?"
His son growled back: "I see you getting off your butt and going to the store and getting me some icy-pops. I'm hungry."
Lately, his parents say, he has been more sarcastic.
This month, he was invited to speak to a sixth-grade class. His mother told him the children would like to see his uniform. Instead, he wore sweat pants.
One boy asked about the weather in Iraq. Another asked Sergeant Feldbusch if he had made any new Iraqi friends.
"I didn't make any Iraqi friends," he said.
And at the end of the talk, the school principal asked, "Jeremy, can you say something in Iraqi?"
Sergeant Feldbusch replied, "Something in Iraqi."
Sgt. Jeremy Feldbusch, blinded in Iraq, and his mother with sixth graders recently in Blairsville, Pa. (NYT Photo/Ozier Muhammad)
The children looked at the principal, who stared at Sergeant Feldbusch who grinned back at her.
"That's just how I've always been, a wisecracker," he explained later.
But then he said, rubbing his finger on the pink splotch by his right eye: "When you look at me, you see this little scar. But people forget that I had this piece of metal go through my eye and bounce up and down in my face and get stuck in my brain."
Dr. Poffenbarger, who operated on Sergeant Feldbusch, explained that his personality may have been affected by damage to the brain's frontal lobe, which controls social skills and behavior.
"When you get a frontal lobe injury, you tend to be more emotionally aggressive," Dr. Poffenbarger said. "A lot of young men with these injuries seem to be angry."
Charlene Feldbusch, 47, said she was concerned about "what's going to come out in Jeremy."
"I know he's a big-hearted person," she said. "But it's just that now he's, he's," she searched for a word she could live with. "Different."
Sergeant Feldbusch said his attitude was evolving. "I'm fine with it now," he said. "I'm going to learn Braille. I'm going to get a cane. I'll survive. There's more to life than seeing. "
Even in his dreams, he no longer sees. And he has stopped trying to picture faces.
"When I was first in the hospital, I tried to think of what the doctors and nurses all looked like," he said. "But then I stopped. I'm blind. I figured why am I doing this? I'm never going to see them."
He went on: "It's not that I don't allow myself to get upset. I don't think about it. I had a job. I got hurt. Now I'm blind. My day is my day now."
He spends most of his time in bed or slouched in the reclining chair in the corner of the living room, absorbing his favorite television shows like "Sanford and Son" and the news. At first, he had a lot of visitors and friends. Blairsville, an old coal-mining town of 3,600 people, even had a parade for him this summer and the mayor proclaimed Sept. 20 Jeremy Feldbusch day.
He talks about going back to school and getting a master's degree. And hitting the weights again. He used to be really into that.
But the antiseizure medications make him sleepy. He naps a lot.
"Yeah, I get bored. And I miss the guys," he said. "Ever since I was 5, I was part of some team. Now I'm alone."
Sometimes that gets him into trouble. This summer he slipped off the deck. He also slammed his face into a door frame one night, nearly knocking himself out.
But he had no problem sawing down the family's Christmas tree last week, after his father got it started for him. And when the first snow of the season came, he stood on the lawn with his mother and held out his hand.
Once he retires and receives his medical discharge, Sergeant Feldbusch will be eligible for veterans' benefits that will most likely exceed his current $1,800-a-month paycheck.
On a recent night, his family took him to a wrestling meet. He sat at the edge of the mat with his father, who described each twist, turn and body slam. The gym was alive with the squeak of shoes and the hot press of a full crowd.
"Dad, what's going on now?" Sergeant Feldbusch asked.
"Well, Jerm, the kid with the tattoo is on top and got this boy in a figure four or something," Brace said. "The other kid's nose is bleeding."
"I'm rooting for the bleeder, then," Sergeant Feldbusch announced.
A minute later the bleeder was on his back. Some girls in the crowd screamed for him to get up.
"What's going on, Dad, what's he doing?" Sergeant Feldbusch asked.
Before he could answer, the referee smacked his hand flat like a pancake on the mat. The bleeder had been pinned.
The boy ran out of the gym crying. Brace shook his head.
"See, you got to take winning well and you got to take losing well," Brace said. "Look at Jeremy. He's got every reason to sit in a corner and be depressed. But he's not."
"Whatever, Dad," Sergeant Feldbusch said. "Who's next?"
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company