July 2, 2010

Double duty: Soldier, activist

Chris Rushlau protested the Iraq war, but served and was wounded. Two from Maine died that day - five others, like Sgt. Rushlau, were wounded in the attack.

By KEVIN WACK Staff Writer

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click image to enlarge

Chris Rushlau, of Portland, holds up newspaper pages as he discusses his conflicting emotions about serving in Iraq as a sergeant with the Maine Army National Guard, 133rd Engineer Battalion.

Increasingly, there was a conflict between Rushlau's sense of adventure, which had been a factor in his decision to join the National Guard in 1979, and his intellectual side, which deplored the Iraq war as an unprovoked attack.

By the time the 133rd arrived in northern Iraq, Rushlau's anti-war views were well-known within his battalion. And they annoyed some of his fellow soldiers, said Charlie Amborn, who was Rushlau's roommate in Iraq.

''A lot of guys would say, 'Chris got a lot of college, but he ain't got no common sense, ''' Amborn said.

Sgt. Wayne King, Rushlau's commander for the last 15 years, said some soldiers didn't appreciate that Rushlau had attended an anti-war rally in Portland in 2002. But he added that Rushlau is entitled to his views.

''Yeah, we have our moments, '' King said, ''but he's a good soldier.''

'THAT GUY'S DEAD'

Salad dressing was on Rushlau's mind as he ate lunch in the military base's dining hall on Dec. 21, 2004. Rushlau is a cook in the National Guard, and before sitting down to eat he had delivered 20 hot lunches to soldiers who were working at the base's security gates. He'd forgotten to bring salad dressing, and the oversight was bothering him.

After finishing his meal, Rushlau reached down to pick up his rifle. Then the horror began.

A suicide bomber who had managed to sneak inside the dining tent detonated his explosives.

Seconds of unconsciousness followed, and when Rushlau came to his senses, he was kneeling on the floor. Dust hung in the air. Tables were strewn. A grayish light shone through a massive hole in the fabric tent that housed the dining hall.

Earlier in his Guard career, Rushlau had trained as a paramedic. Those instincts took over. He got to his feet and began assessing the victims, who included Sgt. Lynn Poulin Sr. and Spc. Thomas Dostie, both of Maine.

To this day, stomach-turning memories of the carnage are frozen in Rushlau's mind. One man's head was split open. Another's was twisted off.

''I didn't recognize any of these people, '' he recalled, ''but a second before they had been living people.''

Soon, a medic arrived. Rushlau saw an officer leaning over a fallen body, saying, ''You're not going to quit on me.''

''I said, 'Well, major, that guy's dead, ' '' he said.

Rushlau was luckier. He had a collapsed lung, a partially torn eardrum and many shrapnel wounds, but he had survived.

Later that day, Rushlau was receiving care at the 67th Combat Support Hospital in Mosul when Gregory Rec, a Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram photographer who was embedded with the troops, captured his image.

In the published photograph, Rushlau's side is heavily bandaged but his face appears to be full of good cheer. In reality, Rushlau said, he felt like punching someone.

He was flown to Germany for more medical care, then taken back to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

A few months later he was part of a group of wounded soldiers invited to a star-studded concert at the Kennedy Center for the Arts. While Aretha Franklin and Dwight Yoakam performed on stage, Rushlau sat fourth-row center. Suddenly, he was a hero in a war that he opposed.

A SENSE OF DUTY

The bombing stays with Rushlau - in vivid detail. But its impact on his life is not obvious. He is not disabled. He opposes the war now, just as he did before. And he plans to spend the bombing's third anniversary just like any other day.

''Not a bit different, '' he said his week.

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