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Injured Marine hopes to return to Iraqi battlefield

Huguenot resident Capt. Raymond Lopes was lucky to get out with his life, but wants to finish the job

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Sunday, August 21, 2005
By STEPHANIE SLEPIAN
ADVANCE STAFF WRITER
Marine Capt. Raymond Lopes spends three grueling days a week in physical therapy recovering from a bullet wound that nearly killed him when his company came under heavy insurgent fire in a small Iraqi town.

He stretches and exercises his right leg so he can walk without crutches. So he can drive long distances. So he can run again.

And there is one more reason.

Lopes, 43, a native son who grew up in Dongan Hills before moving with his family to Huguenot in 1976, wants to return to Iraq despite an injury that earned him a Purple Heart and may end his military career.

"I'll go back to Iraq again," he said with the conviction Marines are known for.

Sitting at his dining room table, his crutches leaning against the wall, Lopes launched into dramatic detail of his ordeal in Iraq.

At once excited and emotional, he spoke in a rapid-fire breathlessness, much like the way the bullets whizzed by on the morning of May 25. He described constant barrages of mortar fire, of rooting rebels from their homes and of almost leaving his body as he fell to the ground with a grave wound to his leg.

Around him at the table, his family sat speechless and still, listening to a story that seems new every time and realizing how close they came and how lucky they really are.

An inch lower, he could have lost his leg. An inch to the left, he could have bled to death.

"It's a bad injury, but I consider myself a gold medal winner," Lopes says. "I am walking and I will run again. Whether I will be able to stay in the Marine Corps is questionable. It's too early to tell, but the reality of that has set in."

Lopes, a Moore Catholic High School graduate, joined the Marine Corps after earning a marketing degree in 1985 from St. John's University, Grymes Hill.

His reason for enlisting was simple: "I wanted to be a pilot."

He saw a world few could only imagine from the cockpit of Marine aircraft. He was in the Soviet Union, he participated in the tail-end of Operation Desert Storm, he's been to Africa and Asia.

ASKED TO RE-ENLIST

After 13 years of flying, he turned in his wings to travel, but just after Sept. 11, 2001, the Marines asked him to re-enlist. He agreed, only if it meant going to Iraq.

He served seven months in 2003 with his parent command, the 2nd Battalion, 25th Marines, based in Garden City, L.I. When he returned in May, he was on temporary orders with the 3rd Battalion, 25th Marines, out of Cleveland, Ohio -- the same unit that lost 14 men in a deadly roadside bomb attack earlier this month.

Lopes' company was constantly under enemy fire at the Hadithah Dam along the Euphrates River, 150 miles northwest of Baghdad. Marine commanders decided it was time to head into town and take control.

A 17-vehichle convoy of about 120 Marines set out on May 25 at 3 a.m. They arrived two hours later into what Lopes described as a European-style town square, minus the fountains.

"Because we didn't want to lose 20 guys in one shot, we decided to walk in," said Lopes, who remained on the ground to provide radio communication to the F-18s circling above. "The desert trails we had been on turned into narrow streets. We entered the town. It was very, very quiet. Then we heard someone take an RPG (rocket propelled grenade) shot. We knew the fighting had started.

"I could hear the whistle go past my head. If this guy was shooting straight," Lopes continued, his voice trailing off. "We dove behind the walls and then all the houses exploded with fire. The Marines were in an ambush. It was a no-holds-barred fight.

"The company commander got up and told us to move forward. I started to run and I fell to the ground. I fell on top of the lance corporal in front of me. I knew I was hit. I didn't even hear the gunshot but my whole body shut down."

Despite his injuries, Lopes held fast to his 9-millimeter -- the only weapon he had left -- and fired until he was moved to the porch of a nearby home where morphine was finally administered.

"It did nothing to take the pain away," he said.
The battle raged for over an hour while Lopes and two other injured Marines waited to be shuttled to an aid station.

"They put me on a stretcher and I still had my 9-mil," he said. "The shooting gets intense. They had to lift us on the stretchers over the walls in the yards. They would put us down, shoot back at the insurgents and pick us back up again.

"I told them nobody better got shot while rescuing me," Lopes continued. "At that point I was the most scared because I couldn't do anything. All I had was my 9-mil. I was laying on my back. The insurgents were shooting and I was popping rounds off. I don't know if I hit anyone."

OTHERS NOT SO LUCKY

Finally, the three Marines were evacuated. It was then that Lopes witnessed something that will stay with him forever. A young Marine with a bullet wound to his chest slumped over.

"He looked like he fell asleep," Lopes said. "I kept telling him, 'You gotta wake up, you gotta wake up.' He was completely limp."

Sgt. David N. Wimberg, a volunteer firefighter from Kentucky who was no match for his nieces and nephews when it came to wrestling, was dead at 24.

"He died right in front of me," Lopes said.

Lopes was eventually put into a medically induced coma and woke up nine days later in the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.

The neck and head of his femur were shattered by an insurgent's AK-47. Screws now hold his leg together and a total hip replacement may await him as he gets older. His body blew up from the medication. He suffered a blood clot and other infections. He lost 30 pounds.

But he was alive.

"I was fighting my way out of Hadithah on a stretcher," he said. "I woke up nine days later from a medical coma and my mom was holding my hand. It was the same hand that held my 9-millimeter. I thought it was three hours later."

As Lopes told his story, his mother, Diane, left the dining room every few minutes in search of tissues. His grandfather, Michael Bonisisio, clutched a battered red Marine cap, and his grandmother, Frances, looked away remembering a brother lost in a long-ago war and a grandson almost taken too soon.

"It was bad," Mrs. Bonisisio said, referring to waiting for news of her grandson and of learning how her brother, Army Pvt. Leon Stasiak, died at 21 with 1,015 soldiers on the HMT Rohna off North Africa in 1943.

Mrs. Lopes spoke in a whisper when recalling the phone call that told her something had happened to her son. Some Marines were wounded, she was told. Her son's condition couldn't be confirmed. The next day, while driving, she heard that one of the injured Marines died. She broke down, not knowing.

"I thought they would be at the front door when I got home," she said.

It wasn't her son. He was already on his way to Maryland.

Mrs. Lopes and another son, Kevin, who lives in Oregon and took vacation time to be at his brother's side, were there when Lopes woke up.

"Hey, how you doing?" mom asked as her son opened his eyes for the first time.

Three weeks later, Lopes went home to Huguenot. His days are now filled with physical therapy at Staten Island University Hospital. He is writing stories about his wartime experiences, he is studying to go to law school.

He's been to a Boston Red Sox game where his role as a Marine was heralded despite his New York roots. He fulfilled his cravings -- several times over -- for Denino's pizza, which as any true Staten Islander knows, goes best before Ralph's Ices.

And he is waiting for word about his future as a Marine. He wants to go back to the men he left behind. He wants to go back because he believes there is hope for Iraq. The hope, he said, rests with the Iraqi children.

"The biggest thing is my friends are still over there fighting this war," he said, calling them the greatest Americans he has ever met. "Marines have been going to places with strange names for 200 years. We have casualties. People get killed, but we don't retreat. We win. We become Marines for places like Hadithah."

Stephanie Slepian is a news reporter for the Advance. She may be reached by slepian@siadvance.com.

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