In his book Blood Brothers, TIME senior correspondent Michael Weisskopf weaves his own tale of losing a hand in Iraq with the stories of three soldiers who also spent time at Amputee Alley, Ward 57 of Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. In this excerpt, the action begins on Dec. 10, 2003, as Weisskopf, 57 at the time, is on assignment in Baghdad, riding in the back of an open humvee along with TIME photographer James Nachtwey and two young soldiers, Private Orion Jenks and Private First Class Jim Beverly.
The army convoy rattled through Al-Adhamiya like a carnival roller coaster, each turn as blind as the next. Not that the soldiers could see much anyway. Night had fallen on the old Baghdad quarter, a byzantine maze lit only by kerosene lamps flickering from rugged stone houses. We moved warily in the darkness, patrolling for insurgents in blind alleys custom-made for ambushes and narrow passages perfect for concealing roadside bombs. It was anyone's bet who faced a more dire risk, the hunted in terrorist cells or the hunters in humvees, along with whom I was riding under a half-moon. I was in Iraq to profile the American soldier as "Person of the Year" for TIME magazine. It was a dream assignment, a chance to escape Washington and work in exotic environs on a big story.
We emerged into Al-Adhamiya's main marketplace, a large treeless square that was host to what looked like a block party in full swing. Old men, rocking back and forth on tiny stools, shuffled dominoes. Boys volleyed soccer balls. Women veiled in black fed their children from stalls of roasted chickens and shashlik. No one seemed to notice the foreign invaders passing by.
At first I thought it was a rock, the specialty of street urchins--a harmless shot against an armored humvee. I gazed down and spotted an object on the wooden bench 2 ft. away. The dark oval was as shiny and smooth as a tortoiseshell, roughly 6 in. long and 4 in. wide. None of my fellow passengers seemed to notice. I confronted the intruder alone, a journalist caught in a military moment. Something told me there was no time to consult the soldiers.
I rose halfway, leaned to the right, and cupped the object. I might as well have plucked volcanic lava from a crater. I could feel the flesh of my palm liquefying. Pain bolted up my arm like an electric current. In one fluid motion, I raised my right arm and started to throw the mass over the side of the vehicle, a short backhand toss. Then everything went dark.
The humvee bed was cold and hard, an inhospitable place to awaken. I struggled to sit up and fell back. My right leg burned from knee to hip. Blood was oozing from it; my right arm felt heavy and numb. Was I having a nightmare? The hollow, faraway sound of voices was dreamlike. I shook my right arm, trying to wake it up. Still no response. I elevated it to see why.
My wrist looked like the neck of a decapitated chicken. The wound was jagged, the blood glistening in the light. My mouth was dry, my brow soaked in sweat; my heart beat quickly and weakly, little dings in my chest.
All sound and sight dimmed, as my thoughts turned inward. This is not how I pictured my life ending: futilely and unglamorously, on the frigid floor of a truck, thousands of miles away from anyone I loved.