Springfield State Journal Register

January 10, 2004

233rd suffers first serious injury
Alton man hurt by roadside bomb

By DORI MEINERT
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - Two days after Christmas, 23-year-old 2nd Lt. Stephen Rice was rushing to help other injured soldiers in central Baghdad when a hidden roadside bomb blew up, seriously injuring his leg and burning his face and hands.

His first reaction was amazement.

Until then, his Illinois National Guard unit, the 233rd Military Police Company based in Springfield, had escaped serious injuries even though they have been patrolling Baghdad and living on the banks of the Tigris River since April.

"It just blew my mind that it was happening," Rice said in a telephone interview from his hospital bed in Germany.

Rice, an Alton native and 2002 graduate of Illinois State University, is scheduled to be flown to Walter Reed Army Medical Center today to continue what is likely to be a long convalescence. His parents are meeting him there.

Roadside bombs, which soldiers call improvised explosive devices, are one of the most frightening things about serving in Iraq, he and his colleagues say. The homemade bombs can be hidden anywhere and discharged by remote control.

"It's really tough because you do your best to look out for them. But for those buried that you just can't see, it's kind of a crapshoot," Rice said. "You can be the best soldier in the world, but ... when you can't see or identify the threat, that's when things are the scariest."

On Dec. 27, Rice and five others were sent to help a patrol with casualties caused by an earlier roadside bomb.

"Once I got on the scene, I could see a soldier laying in the street. I radioed in the necessary information and I took off running toward him to try to pull him out of there and a secondary device blew up on my left side," Rice recalled.

He was wearing body armor that he believes saved him from more serious injury.

Rice said he remained conscious as soldiers stabilized him and drove him in their Humvee to the 28th Combat Support Hospital in Baghdad. Doctors there operated on his leg. He talked to his mother after the surgery.

"She was pretty upset," Rice said. "Everybody's pretty upset."

Two days later, he was flown to a military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, where he has undergone two more surgeries. He'll need more. His big toe is pinned together. Pins and rods hold his leg together. His left lower tibia is fractured.

On top of that, he's recovering from a lung infection, its cause unknown. The burn marks on his face have disappeared. There will be no massive scarring, he said.

Doctors aren't sure, but they think he'll regain most of the movement in his leg. Infection is always a danger.

Rice is satisfied with his medical care.

"They've been doing a really good job, waiting on me hand and foot, getting me recuperated so I can get out of here. I'm very impressed," he said.

Some people, when faced with such serious injuries, might ask themselves why it happened to them. Why were they there at that particular place, at that particular time?

"I haven't really thought about it like that. I'm glad it was me and not one of my soldiers under me. That would have killed me if one of them had got hurt. In that manner, I'm glad that they didn't have to go through any of this," Rice said.

Rice is expected to receive a Purple Heart for being wounded in combat, and his senior officers are recommending him for a Bronze Star for meritorious performance.

"He's highly respected, a very good combat officer," said Sgt. 1st Class John Gillette. "He's done a lot in one year that some officers don't achieve in a lifetime."

Rice isn't sure what to think about the medals expected to come his way.

"It's a bad way to get it, I guess," Rice said.

He has no regrets in the career choice he made. After graduating from college in 2002, he went straight into officer's training. From there, he was sent to Iraq, where he has spent the last year with the 233rd.

"I made a promise a long time ago that this was what I was going to do," Rice said. "I'm glad that I had the opportunity to lead soldiers in this kind of environment. We're pretty much done with our job. Now, we just need to make sure that everyone gets home safe."