MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. -- Using a cane for assistance and staggering up two flights of stairs, a strong-willed, 20-year-old Marine makes his way to his new room. It is spacious, fully furnished and unusually quiet, something many lance corporals, especially infantrymen, in the Marine Corps are not accustomed to. These luxuries, however, were paid by his brave sacrifice and physical pain.
Lance Cpl. Kenneth R. Ward a wounded warrior with II Marine Expeditionary Force Injured Support Unit, sits quietly putting together a 3-D puzzle of the White House.
“The doctors said I should do things that help my hand, eye coordination,” said Ward. “This (puzzle) is really hard, but I like a challenge.”
Ward was injured June 29 while on a night patrol in Iraq.
It was late in the evening and dark outside. The mission was to make an abandoned bank into a Marine observation post. That is nearly all Ward remembers.
Less than 10 minutes inside the bank, Marines from Company I, 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, were fired upon from insurgents across the street. Ward was hit by several pieces of shrapnel from a rocket-propelled grenade and immediately lost consciousness. Shrapnel sliced through the back of Ward’s neck, slightly penetrating his skull.
“I remember waking up in a hospital,” Ward said. “I didn’t understand why I was there. I couldn’t remember anything. I just knew what the mission was.”
Ward would later learn that six other Marines were wounded in combat, but none were as seriously injured as him. His comrades also informed him they fired more than 1,000 rounds and leveled the building the insurgents were using.
“They didn’t go see how many (insurgents) there were, but no one was going to live through that,” said Ward.
Ward is recovering from head injuries and shrapnel damage to his left leg and arm at Camp Lejeune’s Wounded Warrior Barracks, a place designed for injured Marines to recover and heal with others who have similar experiences.
“I like being here, you’re around guys who understand,” he said. “They have seen what I have seen.”
Ward has been a member of the barracks family for three weeks and said his physical and mental recovery is getting better by the day. He started therapy a week ago and he is steadily regaining his long-term memory. Ward’s morale is continuing to grow as well. He recently proposed to his high school sweetheart. They are planning on marrying this December.
Ward’s recollections of his five months at war have brought back strong feelings. He spent his first two months with the Iraqi Army guarding Camp Blue Diamond, Ramadi, and described his time with the Iraqi Army as friendly and felt he became “one of them.”
“They even gave me a Ramadi name,” Ward said, recalling a name given to him by Iraqi soldiers that signified their native territory. “I can only say it, I can’t spell it. I gained much respect from the other Iraqis, which made it a lot easier for me. They trusted me.”
Out of all the days and all the missions Ward participated in, the memory of a girl stands out in his mind. It also stands as his justification for the presence of Marines in a country halfway across the world.
While inside a secured house, fellow Marines attempted to relax while Ward took watch over an upstairs door. He took a knee and positioned his rifle in a way that allowed him to engage insurgents if they entered through the door. He was not alone. A small girl, maybe 6 years old, curiously walked circles around him, occasionally touching his uniform, helmet and flak jacket.
“She seemed really fascinated and wanted to touch all my gear,” Ward said. “Her eyes were intense. She was a beautiful, little girl.”
Then, with no warning, the Iraqi girl quickly approached him and sat on his knee.
“I couldn’t believe she wasn’t scared,” he said. “She seemed happy I was there.”
Almost immediately, a firefight broke out on the roof. The little girl found protection in the safest place in the room, and clung to Ward’s body like another piece of gear.
“She got scared and I think she felt that I would protect her,” said Ward. “It made me feel like her big brother. I wasn’t going to let anything happen to her.”
Nothing happened to the child that day. She remained safe and never left Ward’s side. Ward admitted he fears for her safety. He knows insurgents kill those who help U.S. troops, and this is why he is passionate about getting rid of the terrorists and winning the war in Iraq. This event would later push Ward to realize he was a part of something big, part of helping a nation of people regain their country.