Paul Volpe: 'What Did They Sew You Up With?'

Marine Pvt. Paul Volpe was "bleeding out," the combat term for bleeding to death. Hit three times--in the arm, calf and thigh--with AK-47 rounds in an ambush, he was barely conscious as a corpsman pumped him with morphine to kill the pain. (Volpe had heard stories that wounded men didn't feel the pain at first, but "when people tell you it doesn't hurt, it hurts," he recalled.) The morphine made him drowsier still. A corpsman warned him, "If you go to sleep, you'll never wake up." He had passed out anyway by the time he reached Cmdr. Richard Jadick's tent on the outskirts of Fallujah.

Volpe spent only 20 minutes under Jadick's care, but it was the difference between life and death. By stabilizing Volpe, Jadick ensured that Volpe would get to a hospital, where his wounds were opened, cleaned and doused with water. Theflaps of his muscle and skin wherehe had been badly hit made his thigh look like a gutted animal. "It was all filleted open," Volpe recalled. A tat-too in Chinese characters that had been on the upper part of his outer thigh now hung inches lower.

Then began the long, painful march to recovery. Airlifted to Germany, Volpe tried not to cry out as the orderlies stripped away gauze that had stuck to the open muscle in his leg. Back in the States, at Bethesda Naval Hospital, doctors used heavy sutures to stitch his wounds back together. Seeing the points still pocking his skin, his friends ask, "What did they sew you up with, barbed wire?" But there was a bedside visit from President George W. Bush, who asked Volpe where he was from. "New Jersey," said Volpe. "Joisey!" exclaimed the president, in a Texan approximation of a New Jersey accent. Awarded the Purple Heart, Volpe was discharged from Bethesda in early December, three weeks after he was shot. But the doctors had missed a tiny shard of steel in his thigh, which caused blinding pain when it hit his sciatic nerve. He went back to Bethesda, then finally home to "Joisey."

He was at Camp Lejeune when his buddies returned from Iraq that February. They were shocked to see that the 160-pound Volpe now weighed 115 pounds. At a memorial service for the men killed in Iraq, Volpe saw Jadick and walked over. "Hello, Commander. Do you remember me?" "Yes. Volpe, of course," said Jadick. "I just wanted to say thank you, sir." "No, that's not necessary," said Jadick, who mumbled something about doing his job. Volpe left the corps last fall with a permanent disability. But he has bought a Suzuki 600cc motorcycle, and he's waiting to hear if he got into San Diego State University for the fall.