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ONE-YEAR ANNIVERSARY SPECIAL REPORT

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Monday, June 14

Wounded Vt. guardsman anxious to get home

By Erin Kelly | GNS

WASHINGTON - As Tom Brooks lay bleeding in Iraq from a mortar attack, the young Vermont soldier could hear the medics frantically working to save his life.

``They were saying, `He's losing a lot of blood, he might be going into shock,''' the Vermont National Guardsman recalled from his hospital bed at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. ``I could hardly breathe. I didn't think I was going to make it.''

The mortar had ripped open Brooks' left leg and blown away part of his foot. Nearby lay the bodies of two fellow Vermonters, Sgt. Kevin Sheehan, 36, of Milton, and Spc. Alan Bean Jr., 22, of Bridport. Bean had become Brooks' best buddy during his two and a half months in Iraq.

Brooks, 20, from St. Albans, had been escorting a military intelligence detail when the group was ambushed on the coalition base of Camp Kalsu about 25 miles south of Baghdad on May 25.

``We were sitting in Humvees, waiting for the team we escorted to finish interrogating four suspects when mortar rounds started coming in,'' Brooks said. ``The first one stunned everybody. It was like, what the hell was that?''

Everyone ran toward concrete bunkers to take cover.

``We were all in there, and we could hear them getting closer,'' Brooks said. ``One round hit on the left side of the bunker, but it didn't hurt anyone. A few seconds later, one hit on the right side and got into the bunker. It killed my team leader, Sergeant Sheehan, and Al Bean, my best friend, and it hit my leg. It was the worst pain you could ever believe.''

``When I got hit, everything went black for a second because of all the dust in the air,'' Brooks said. ``I heard a ringing. I saw Sergeant (Gary) Jackson (of Colchester), and Sergeant Sheehan and Al Bean. I could see the blood and everything. I heard Sergeant Jackson scream, and I reached out and grabbed hold of his hand.''

Brooks said he was wearing an antique silver ring that his mother, Lynda, had given him. Jackson, who previously had admonished Brooks for wearing the ring against regulations, now felt the metal on Brooks' hand and felt comforted.

``He told me later it was the greatest feeling in the world because he knew from the ring that it was me and that I was still alive,'' Brooks said. Jackson was seriously wounded and is recovering in a hospital room near Brooks.

Brooks lost the top third of his left foot and is expected to undergo several months of physical therapy and be fitted with a prosthesis before going home to Vermont. The femur in his left leg was replaced with a metal rod. The mortar round also broke his tibia and fibula .

The young soldier is proud of the fact that he has already exceeded expectations for his recovery.

His physical therapist said her goal was for Brooks to be able to walk 300 feet and negotiate a flight of stairs by the end of June. Brooks surpassed that goal on just his second day of therapy, walking 700 feet and climbing stairs with the aid of walkers and crutches.

``I just think it's my motivation to get home,'' Brooks said. ``I just want to ski again.''

An avid skier, Brooks said he hopes to ski his favorite runs at ``Smuggs'' - Smugglers Notch Resort near Burlington - this winter.

``That's all I live for - skiing and swimming,'' Brooks said. ``It's like I'm at peace with the world when I'm skiing through all that powder. Nothing will stop me.''

Brooks said he would still go to Iraq if he had it to do all over again. He volunteered to go even though his unit of the Vermont National Guard had not been called up. He decided to join another unit that had open slots and needed his services as a nuclear, biological, and chemical specialist.

``I didn't have anything holding me to Vermont,'' said Brooks, who worked on a loading dock for Dowlings/Burlington Drug in Milton before going on active duty. ``I didn't have a girlfriend at the time. I thought it was a good opportunity to see parts of the world I wouldn't get to see otherwise. And it was a chance to serve my country.''

He said he also found a true friend there in Bean.

``We both looked at things in a real positive way,'' he said. ``Each day that went by we figured we were a day closer to going home. So we woke up each day with a smile on our face. We wouldn't let anything get to us, we just kept on.''

Brooks said he found most Iraqi people to be friendly and warm - and overjoyed that Saddam Hussein is no longer in power.

``They're always waving and giving you the thumbs up,'' he said. ``Kids would come running up to you like seeing you was the best thing in their day.''

Despite how his tour of duty ended, Brooks said his overall experience was good.

``I learned a lot about another culture, another religion, another way of life,'' he said. ``I enjoyed every day I was there, I really did. I liked that we were helping people. The only thing I hated was the heat. We had days where it would be 113 degrees at 8:45 a.m.''

He knows he'll never have to face those temperatures back home in Vermont, where he is anxious to return as soon as he is well enough. He's been told he'll likely be in the hospital another two weeks or so and then be moved to the Mologne House Hotel on the medical center grounds to continue physical therapy for about three months.

``I'm going to push myself,'' Brooks said. ``I want to see those Green Mountains again.''

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Vermonters who want to write to Brooks should send mail to: Army Specialist Thomas Brooks (patient), c/o Walter Reed Army Medical Center, 6900 Georgia Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C., 20307-5001.