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S. Dade Marine injured in Iraq

Patrick Howard was determined to become a Marine as a teenager in South Miami-Dade. After being seriously injured in Iraq last month, he hasn't lost his will to fight.

Patrick Howard heard his blood dripping onto the floor. He was on a mesh stretcher, a doctor leaning over him. His right arm was motionless, and he struggled to speak. Only a year out of high school, the 20-year-old Marine from South Miami-Dade faced his mortality last month on the battlefield in Iraq.


Miami Herald Writer
August 27, 2006

''Am I going to die or what?'' he asked.

Doctors tore off his bloodied uniform and rushed him to a hospital in Ramadi. The last thing he remembers is screaming in pain.

Across the world in Orlando, Wallace Howard got a call on his way to work. He recognized the number and thought he knew what was coming. A voice on the other end stiffly asked him: Is this the father of Lance Cpl. Patrick Howard?

''I really contained myself,'' he said. ``I was getting ready to lose it.''

But instead of hearing about the death of his son, Wallace Howard was told that Patrick was seriously injured. He had been hit by two 82 mm mortar rounds while on one-man guard duty. It was July 18.

Thirteen hours passed before Howard and his wife, Bertha, found out that their son was in stable condition. Of course, ''stable condition'' could mean anything.

''The important thing was that we understood that he was alive, and that's all that mattered,'' Howard said. Patrick was quickly sent back to the United States and woke up from a drug-induced coma four days after the attack to see his parents by his side.

A young man who many describe as brave and determined, Howard made his own decision to join the Marine Corps. His friends and family are supporters of the military but were apprehensive about his choice. His parents were frightened for his safety, and his fiancée thought too many young men were risking their lives in a war ``blown out of proportion.''

But throughout his teenage years in Miami, Howard knew he wanted to serve. He signed up for duty in November 2004, during his senior year at Archbishop Coleman F. Carroll High School in West Kendall and entered boot camp two days after graduation in May 2005.

''I wanted the experience of going over there and doing something,'' he said by telephone from his hospital bed at the Bethesda National Naval Medical Center in Maryland. ``It was something that I thought was cool.''

Howard was deployed to Iraq in March, spending four months there before he was injured. Now, he has a laundry list of injuries: one lost kidney, lacerated liver, bruised lung, broken arm and leg, broken ribs. At one point he thought he might lose his right arm. He already has had 12 surgeries -- another is scheduled for Tuesday -- and months of rehab are ahead.

Despite his frustration at being temporarily confined to a hospital bed and a wheelchair, he sticks by his decision to become a Marine. He is proud to serve his country.

''I wouldn't change it for anything, to be honest,'' he said.

He's optimistic about his recovery, and his family is just glad he's home. On Aug. 1, President Bush visited Bethesda and personally placed the Purple Heart on his chest. Miss America, Miss Virginia, Ozzy Osbourne and an aide to U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen all came to visit.

He was especially honored when Gen. Michael Hagee, the Marine commandant, came by; As only one out of 180,000 Marines under Hagee's command, Howard was amazed that he warranted a visit.

JoAnna Rodriguez, his fiancée, said she was actually relieved when she first saw him in the hospital days after he was injured, even though his body was covered in tubes and he couldn't move his arm.

''You expect the worst when someone tells you he was basically blown up,'' Rodriguez, 18, said. ``Honestly, I was relieved to see he was in one piece.''

The couple met at Carroll High School during Howard's senior year. His teachers describe him as a gentleman who is shy but enthusiastic and focused. Rodriguez had to introduce herself. The two got more serious throughout the school year. Howard talked constantly about becoming a Marine.

''It was something I saw that really motivated him,'' said teacher Nikki Gantz, who taught both students British literature. Although she didn't want him to go, she encouraged him to do what he wanted.

Carroll High is a small Catholic school. Howard's graduating class numbered 123. Like at many Miami high schools, the military comes to career fairs and encourages students to join. But most Carroll High students opt for college.

So when Howard told his history teacher, Lissette Hernandez, that he was going to become a Marine, she was furious. He was like many of her students, she said, bright but not excited about his schoolwork. She knew he was capable of doing anything but the only thing he was passionate about was being a Marine, she said.

''He's very brave, very headstrong, and he was very determined to go in,'' she said.

Since hearing about his injuries, students and teachers at the school have sent him cards and kept up on his progress.

Howard also received letters from people he doesn't know. His father wrote about his son's injuries on www.MarineParents.com, a website where parents of Marines can get information and support. Soon, dozens of parents from all over the nation posted that they were praying for Howard's recovery and sent letters to the hospital. The website's founder, Tracy Della Vecchia, constantly talked to Wallace Howard and posted updates on Patrick's condition.

''It actually feels pretty good,'' Patrick Howard said. ``A lot of times out there in Iraq, sometimes you wonder if people forgot about you. Sometimes you feel so lonely and wonder if people really care.''

He faces a long road ahead. Within the next two weeks, he will be airlifted to the VA Hospital in Tampa to begin intensive rehab. For a while, he'll have to travel back to Bethesda for more surgery. Eventually, he will live with his parents outside Orlando and commute to Tampa while Rodriguez attends Miami Dade College.

As Rodriguez describes the future she and Howard are planning -- living in Miami, having children, going to college -- she gets a call. It's him. He got the homemade cookies she sent.

The two constantly talk, and she has stayed as confident as him throughout the ordeal.

''You know what?'' she said. ``Sometimes in life you get things that are unexpected, and you have to deal with it in the moment.''