The Army told Fernando Gonzalez he was through, too badly injured to continue serving after the artery in his left leg was severed in a shootout early in the Iraq war in 2003.
President Bush personally decorated the Rubidoux man, then 18, with the Purple Heart for life-threatening combat wounds, congratulating him for a job well done. Uncle Sam declared Spc. Gonzalez unfit for duty and authorized $1,100- a-month in disability pay plus free mental and physical health care for life. Annual cost-of-living raises, too.
Gonzalez's response: Thanks but no thanks.
The cavalry scout spent much of the past year fighting the Army's decision and prodding military and civilian doctors, psychologists and rehabilitation specialists to return him to active duty. He completed a battery of tests to prove his injured left leg, rebuilt with a vein from his other leg, possessed the strength, endurance and range of motion to let him resume duty. Four times he traveled to Fort Lewis, Wash., where the military handles medical-related matters, to plead his case.
In a highly unusual move, the Army relented last week.
Gonzalez, now 22, returns to service today, beginning a journey that will take him from Riverside County to Germany and, most likely, back to Iraq.
"As long as my brothers-in-arms are fighting this war, I just can't watch it on TV," Gonzalez said. "I want to see it finished. I don't support this war. I think it's a political mess not worth the life of one American. But as long as there's something that needs to be done, I want to be the one doing it."
His injuries, inflicted by an AK-47 round on March 24, 2003, just four days after the war began, required five major operations and left both legs with deep purple gashes. The Army declared him 90 percent disabled. For months his left foot was paralyzed. Even now, pain courses through that limb.
Despite that, Gonzalez said he felt guilty receiving disability payments.
"It didn't feel right," he said. "Not when I could be doing more."
Army officials say cases like that of Gonzalez, who was medically retired from the service and successfully fought to come back on active duty, are extremely rare. Most soldiers, even those who want to return after being seriously wounded, eventually accept their fate and move on, said Catherine Caruso, a spokeswoman for the Army Southern California Recruiting Battalion. The unit oversees enlistments for most of the western United States.
Caruso said forced retirement usually is final. She said she's never heard of anyone successfully reversing that type of ruling.
"I'm awed," she said. "Here's someone who could have taken it easy after giving up so much to protect our freedoms, and yet he chooses to go back."
Staff Sgt. Robert Sammon, an Army recruiter who helped Gonzalez with his physical tests and paperwork during his months bucking the military bureaucracy, called him "the kind of person you never forget."
"It was an uphill battle for him to get back into the service, but I'm not surprised," Sammon said. "You could see it in his eyes."
What Motivates This Kind of Heroism?
Glenn Teague, a Vietnam veteran who flew more than 400 combat missions with the air cavalry, became a confidant and believes he understands what motivates Gonzalez.
"He feels he owes it to the younger soldiers," said Teague, 56, who served as a crew chief on a Huey gunship from 1969 to 1971 and earned 22 air medals. "He doesn't want them to come back wounded like he did."
[more at Press Enterprise.