WASHINGTON - President Bush came and sat by the side of Sergeant Brian Fountaine, a 24-year-old tank commander from Dorchester, a gung-ho soldier who had lobbied to be deployed a second time. Now Fountaine was among the wounded at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, his legs amputated below the knees after an explosion June 8 ripped apart the Humvee in which he was riding.
The president chatted about the sergeant's beloved Red Sox, but made no reference to the war, the soldier said.
Sergeant Brian Fountaine, 24, at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington this week, was injured in June while on patrol near Baghdad. (Jay Premack for the Boston Globe)
If the topic had come up, the president might not have liked what Fountaine had on his mind. In a dramatic change of heart, Fountaine now considers the war a military quagmire in which American soldiers are caught in a deadly vise between irreconcilable enemies.
In his view, troop morale has plummeted, suicide has increased, and the sacrifices being made in American blood and treasure suddenly seem questionable.
The war began with the justifiable goal of toppling a reckless, dangerous dictator in Saddam Hussein, the soldier said. But as the country slides toward civil war, Fountaine added, the goal of a democratic Iraq seems more distant by the day.
``You have to wonder, what exactly are we doing?" Fountaine said. ``In my opinion, [Iraq] is a country that has been at war with itself and with other enemies for thousands of years. And we're supposed to make them happy? I don't think so. I don't see it happening."
When asked if history will justify the life-altering sacrifice he has made, Fountaine paused for several seconds, lowered his head, and slowly replied: ``If in 10 or 20 years, if Iraq is in the same spot and America is still losing boys over there, then, no, I think my sacrifice will be as futile as anyone else's."
That sacrifice has been profound, excruciatingly exacted from Fountaine's body by two large bombs on a dusty road a dozen miles north of Baghdad.
The pain has been both physical and psychic. On June 30, while visiting the Marine Corps War Memorial in a wheelchair he was still learning to use, Fountaine lost control and fell over. Nothing he experienced in the explosion outside Taji -- not the searing burn, not the loss of blood, not the experience of binding his own mangled legs with tourniquets -- equaled the humiliation of that moment.
``It was like a hammer to the face," Fountaine said this week as he sat on his hospital bed. ``I just sat there for about 5 minutes, and I said, `How does one go from being a combat-hardened tank commander to being a poor wretch on the ground?' "
That journey began in April 2001 when Fountaine enlisted in the Army, fulfilling a childhood dream to follow his father, a Marine Corps veteran of the Vietnam era, into military service.
``I was patriotic before Sept. 11 happened," said Fountaine, a 2000 graduate of Whitman-Hanson Regional High School. ``It doesn't take a tragedy to make me realize I'm proud to be an American."
His father and mother, Paul Fountaine and Roberta Quimby, are separated and take turns visiting their son in a convalescent home on the Walter Reed grounds, each staying for 10 days at a time.
The rotation, clearly, is a boon for the sergeant, whose room contains several Red Sox caps, loaves of bread, cans of Spam, get-well messages, and a carefully arranged display of medals. One of those medals, the Purple Heart, was not discovered until Paul Fountaine rummaged inside his son's travel bag at a hospital at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, where Brian Fountaine woke after several days of unconsciousness. Until that discovery, Brian did not know he already had received the Purple Heart, which is awarded to combat-wounded veterans.
The elder Fountaine listened quietly as his son spoke to a reporter about the US mission in Iraq. But he said he would gladly serve in Brian's place and that, as a soldier, ``all you can do is do what your country tells you."
When he enlisted, Brian's plan was to serve two years and then join the Boston Fire Department, where his father, a 26-year firefighter, is assigned to Rescue 2 in Egleston Square. But a zest for military life and steady promotions drove the younger Fountaine to reenlist during his first tour in Iraq, where he served from mid-2003 to mid-2004 with the Fourth Infantry Division.
During his first deployment, Fountaine said, his unit routinely came under attack from mortars and rifle fire. But he volunteered for mission after dangerous mission, he said. Although the potential for death or injury was everywhere, he added: ``I accepted the fact that I was a soldier. And I expected this to happen, either a loss of limb or a loss of life."
During his next tour, when the two bombs detonated under the Humvee carrying Fountaine, it was the fifth time that the soldier had survived an improvised explosive device, the military's name for the makeshift bombs used by insurgents. Fountaine knew, as soon as he found himself face-first in the dirt beside the truck, that he had been hurt badly. The sight of his mangled feet and fractured legs, spewing blood as his wounded driver screamed in agony nearby, gave Fountaine a gory glimpse of his future.
``I knew I would become some sort of an amputee," said Fountaine, massaging the stumps of his legs, amputated 10 inches below the knees. ``I won't be able to feel the grass between my feet or the sand under my toes, but the important thing is I still have my life."
He said he expects to receive prosthetic legs this week, and to continue arduous daily therapy to ease the transition to life outside the Army. He still has nightmares, Fountaine said, and he occasionally forgets that he does not have all of his legs.
``When you swing your legs over the side of the bed, you wonder why your feet don't hit the floor," Fountaine said. ``And then you remember: It's because you don't have feet, stupid."
A whitewater-rafting trip to the Grand Canyon is on Fountaine's schedule for late this month, courtesy of the Wounded Warrior Project, which provides services for seriously wounded military personnel and their families. Fountaine said he hopes to be leaving Walter Reed within months and to live with his father in Dorchester for a short while.
Despite his reservations about the course of the war, Fountaine said he would return, if he could, to serve the remainder of his tour with the First Brigade Combat Team of the Fourth Infantry Division. The bonds forged in war between soldiers, he said, are reason enough to sacrifice one's life and limbs for the good of the unit.
``Those guys over there are my family just as much as that guy over there is my father," Fountaine said. ``I wish I could have stayed there, and I wish I could come home with them."
Despite the incessant drumbeat of bad news, Fountaine said there are small positives that occur every day in Iraq, whether soccer games between soldiers and children or offers of water to thirsty farmers.
``Regardless of everything that's going on and the anger you may have," Fountaine said of the war, ``. . . just know it's a lot of regular guys, just like you, who have volunteered to serve their country."
© 2006 Boston Globe