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Decorated U.S. veterans cope with Iraq war

On the second anniversary of the war to topple Saddam, more than 11,000 have been injured during combat.
/ Source: TODAY

More than 11,000 soldiers have been injured in the past two years in Iraq. As we mark the second anniversary of the war, "Today" takes a look at what the experience has been like for some of the troops who have been wounded. “Today” national correspondent Jamie Gangel talks to decorated veterans with three very different stories.

For each soldier, it was the first time in combat.

All say they went to war proud to serve. “I was honored that I was able to be part of this giant operation with hundreds of thousands of men and women that would risk their life,” says 24-year-old Boatswain’s Mate 3rd Class Joe Ruggiero. Ruggiero is serving in the U.S. Coast Guard and is based out of Florida. His job was to patrol the Persian Gulf.

“I was willing to die because I thought I would be protecting my family back home and I’d be serving my country,” says 22-year-old U.S. Army Specialist Darrell Anderson of Lexington, Ky.

“I think what we’re doing over there is great. Hopefully, someday, we'll see Iraq prevail and they'll be a very grateful nation to us,” says 31-year-old U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Juanita Wilson of Minnesota. Wilson is a wife and mother who served on the frontlines as a supply and logistics officer.

But with the pride and service also came the reality of war.

Ruggiero was injured when his patrol boat was attacked and blown up by a suicide bomber. He was hit with shrapnel and thrown in the water.

“As soon as I broke the surface [the] first thing I wanted to figure out was where are my guys,” he says.

Despite his wounds, Ruggiero swam out to rescue two of his boat mates, including his best friend Nate Bruckenthal. Tragically, neither one survived.  But Ruggiero was awarded the bronze star for acts beyond the call of duty. “I think about, you know, why did this guy die? Luckily [I] am still alive. And it's hard to get over that. I don't think I’ll ever get over that,” he says.

Darrell Anderson was wounded guarding a safety perimeter. Like so many of the injured, he was hit by shrapnel when a homemade bomb blew up just 10 feet away. “It's like being in the eye of a tornado, and then it cleared. I felt a burning in my side [and] I pulled a piece of metal out and it was hot. I dropped it and I felt and there was blood,” says Anderson.

Luckily his wounds were not life threatening and he recuperated fully, but facing death and what he saw in Iraq dramatically changed how he viewed the war.

His most memorable moment was when he almost shot a young Iraqi. “I looked and it was just a young kid running for his life. Scared just like me and my fellow soldiers, and you know, I started to question these procedures and protocols of what we were doing over there in Iraq,” he says.

Anderson was awarded the Purple Heart, but when he returned home he took a dramatic step. He became a deserter, one of the few in this war. “People say how could you desert your country? It's [more like] how could my country put these young kids in these situations? Something has to be done to stop it,” he says.

Staff Sgt. Juanita Wilson says she will never forget the children of Iraq.

“I'd see a lot of Iraqi kids that [were] hungry. Whatever meals I had left over, I’d always give them to the children because they were hungry and it made me feel good,” she says.

But last August, on her way to pick up supplies, Wilson’s humvee was blown up by a roadside bomb. “The next thing I know there’s this huge ball of white smoke. Then [it] got quiet for a moment and I start feeling a really bad burn on my arm. I looked down and there lay my hand. [It] was pretty much blown up,” she says.

Wilson lost her left arm. Usually stoic, in a rare moment she talked about how it's affected her life. “I prided myself with being an outstanding mother [and] an outstanding soldier. Now I have my six-year-old who asks me to do things for her that I can't do. It takes me back. My husband does the best he can do, which is often not what I prefer. But, I've learned that, it's like you say, you can get used to anything.”

Today each soldier has a medal and, on this second anniversary, a message to the American people about the war.

Joe Ruggiero is back in Miami, training others to perform the job he did. “I would go back to the Gulf — I've actually asked. I think we are doing a great cause. Things aren't working out the way we expected but we're there for a purpose and I think we need to be there,” he says.

Darrell Anderson is living in Canada and makes speeches against the war. He faces a court martial if he comes back, but says he has no regrets. “When I was over there I was proud, but I’m 10 times more proud of what I am doing now,” he says.

Juanita Wilson has another six months of rehabilitation, but hopes to go back on active duty, become a nurse, and help other soldiers with their injuries.

Wilson says, “I'm proud of what we are doing there. The troops that are there need your support, they need your love and they need the American people's commitment to sticking by their side.”