A Star Athlete, a Soldier, and a Challenge

by Ira Berkow

WASHINGTON, June 2The phone rang on May 25 at precisely five minutes to noon Chicago time .p. “I want you to be strong,” Willie Byrd recalled hearing from his wife, Specialist Danielle Green, in Baghdad with the 571st Military Police Company.

“What’s wrong?” he said. “I know something’s wrong.”

“I’m all right,” she said, “but I lost my left hand.”

The following day, The New York Times and other newspapers published a dramatic photograph of an unidentified female soldier being transported on the hood of a Humvee to a hospital after being wounded. She was flanked by nervous American soldiers, their weapons pointed warily.

Specialist Green was that wounded soldier. She had been a standout for the University of Notre Dame basketball team in the late 1990’s. Her nickname there was D. Smooth, for the graceful way she used her solid 5-foot-7 body on the court. After college she became Mr. Byrd’s assistant coach at Washington High School in Chicago for two years.

They married two months ago, about a year and a half after she enlisted, when she returned to the United States for three weeks, he said. Then she was shipped back to her unit, and her job as a gunner for the commanding officer.

Mr. Byrd is 58, a retired girls high school basketball coach. She is 27. Some people said it would not work.

“Actually, I was shocked,” said Ericka Haney, a teammate of Specialist Green’s at Notre Dame who has remained her friend. "He was a lot older than her. She said: `We have a lot in common. And he treats me nice.’ "

Mr. Byrd and Specialist Green thought it was a match made in heaven.

“Nothing’s changedon that score,” he said.

But something has changed, of course.

It was intensely hot when she went up on the roof of the Sadoon Police Station the afternoon of May 25 in Baghdad, Specialist Green recalled Wednesday from her hospital bed on the fifth floor of Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Her left arm, which now ends just below the elbow, was swathed in bandages from surgery the day before for the insertion of a plate. It was her sixth operation, she estimated, since being wounded.

She had a more vivid memory of the attack: “I didn’t like being alone, but I thought I’d let some of the others cool down below, and then they’d relieve me. It was like I was a sitting duck. But that’s the way it is a lot of the time over there. You want to trust the Iraqissome are such nice peoplebut you know you’d better not, even the children. You just never know. And they just don’t want us there.”

“We have so much time in which we do nothing,” Specialist Green said, “and you stand outside, or, for me, sometimes sitting in the turret of a tank with your head exposed, and you’re just waiting for something bad to happen.”

Then she heard a burst of fire. Then there was a second blast, and a rocket from a homemade missile launcher in an apartment building next to the police station hit a water tank on the roof where she was standing guard. The explosion ripped into her.

She screamed in pain. Her left arm had been hit and shrapnel tore at her left leg and her face.

Within minutes, soldiers from her unit were up on the roof and covering her. She was quickly taken down to the Humvee. She never lost consciousness.

“This is all part of war,” she said, “and you have to be brave. Good people get hurt. I was one of those people. I knew I was taking a risk in joining the Army. I felt certain I’d be sent to Iraq. It’s hard to imagine it’s going to be you.”

When she got to the hospital, Specialist Green said, she asked her sergeant, “Is my hand gone?”

“Yes,” said the sergeant, whose last name, Harrelson, was all she could recall.

“And then I broke down,” she said. “And I didn’t cry again until yesterday, when Sergeant Pearce called and asked how I was doing. He was one of those who got me off the roof and onto the vehicle.”

She thinks it was Sergeant Pearce who had recovered her wedding ring, which had been found on her left hand on the roof. Specialist Green, who was left-handed, was flown first to a hospital in Germany, then to Walter Reed on Saturday. Her husband was flown by the military from Chicago to Washington to be with her.

Specialist Green seemed stoic, if not even accepting, of her disability. The scars on her left cheek will diminish, she said, and her leg wounds are healing.

“And I’m already learning to write with my right hand,” she said. “It’s not so pretty, but it’ll get better. And worse things could have happened. It’s happened to others over there. I’m just happy to be alive.”

Mr. Byrd said: “I’ve never known anyone like her, so strong-willed. You know, I had no intention of marrying anybody. And she told me: `You need a good wife. I’m going to make you my husband, and make you happy.’ And she did, and she has.”

Why did she enlist?

“That’s a good question,” Mr. Byrd said. "When I heard she was going to do itwe weren’t married then and were just datingI said, `Don’t do it.’ "

Specialist Green said she was inspired not by patriotism, but by the honor and pride of being a uniformed American soldier.

“I decided that I was getting along in years and if I didn’t join the military now, I wouldn’t get another chance,” she said. “I grew up very poor on the South and West Sides of Chicago,” she added. "And my father wasn’t around at all, and my mother got messed up with drugs. And I remember as a small child loving G.I. Joe. I thought, `Oh, man, that’s cool.’ "

Specialist Green said she had grown up with an aunt, who also became a drug addict, then lived with her grandmother. There was, she said, “a lot of chaos” in her early life, and perhaps the military way seemed to offer order.

“In high school, I joined the R.O.T.C., and by my senior year I was a lieutenant colonel,” Specialist Green said. “I loved it.” She decided that if she did not get a college scholarshipshe dreamed of going to Notre Dameshe would join the Army.

“I thought I could develop greater discipline and organization if I did,” she said.

Specialist Green became an all-state high school basketball player, her husband said, and received a scholarship to Notre Dame. Playing guard, she had career averages of 9.5 points and 4.5 rebounds and was Notre Dame’s third-leading scorer in her final two seasons.

Specialist Green said she had been disappointed in her tour of duty in Iraq.

“I thought we were going for humanitarian reasons, like building things up and cleaning the neighborhoods upit’s filthy over there,” she said. “But we hardly did any of it. We spent a lot of time just doing nothing.”

“Looking back, I personally don’t think we should have gone into Iraq,” she added. “Not the way things have turned out. A lot more people are going to get hurt, and for what?”

As for her future, Specialist Green said she might go to graduate school. She was a psychology major in college, and said she might even teach R.O.T.C. or coach basketball. “There are opportunities out there for me,” she said.

She hopes to have a child. "When she called me to tell me she’d been wounded, she said, `It’s only my left hand that’s gone,’ " Mr. Byrd said. " `I’m O.K. otherwise, and we can still have a Little Smoothie.’ She wants a boy."

Specialist Green, her dark hair spread on her white pillow, smiled.

“And if it’s a girl, that’ll be fine,” she said. “We’ll call her Little Smoothie, too.”

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