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An Unforgettable Reunion

CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. - For 10 weeks, ever since Cpl. Raymond D. Hennagir was blown up, he had longed for this moment, this homecoming, when the rest of his platoon would return from Iraq.

Marine Cpl. Raymond D. Hennagir is greeted by (from left) his aunt Donna English; cousins Sherri English, Mia English and Nadia Pinzuti; and fiancee Sherri Baskerville as he returns to Deptford in a Mustang convertible. More than a thousand people lined the roads to Hennagir's house Friday to welcome him home for the first time from the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, three months after he was wounded. Rehab will keep him at Walter Reed for the next year.
Marine Cpl. Raymond D. Hennagir is greeted by (from left) his aunt Donna English; cousins Sherri English, Mia English and Nadia Pinzuti; and fiancee Sherri Baskerville as he returns to Deptford in a Mustang convertible. More than a thousand people lined the roads to Hennagir's house Friday to welcome him home for the first time from the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, three months after he was wounded. Rehab will keep him at Walter Reed for the next year.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Inquirer Staff Photographer

CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. - For 10 weeks, ever since Cpl. Raymond D. Hennagir was blown up, he had longed for this moment, this homecoming, when the rest of his platoon would return from Iraq.

He missed them, his brothers. Hennagir, a 21-year-old Marine from Deptford, N.J., felt he had let them down by stepping on an improvised explosive device (IED), blowing off both legs and four fingers on his left hand - now, he said, in his darkest Marine humor, just "a pink mist and a memory."

Hennagir desperately wanted to mend enough so that the Marine Corps would let him travel to Camp Lejeune for this day, Aug 26.

That wish motivated him, maybe even kept him alive, through the summer's 16 surgeries and three skin grafts. The pain was so intense that he was sure his screams were heard all through the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.

"There were times when I wondered if the kid was ever going to get a break," said his uncle Jim English, a 20-year Navy veteran, who would stare helplessly out the hospital window.

And now here Hennagir was. The late-August sun was blazing. He sat in his wheelchair, his baggy new jeans from American Eagle tucked up under his lost legs.

Still taking strong doses of methadone, a narcotic used for chronic pain, with newly grafted skin on his left arm in danger from the menacing sun, the corporal waited for the busload of Marines to pull up at the barracks.

His fiancee, Sherri Baskerville, was beside him, wiping sweat off his face with a tissue. They had gotten engaged three weeks before he shipped out, and his first thought, once he realized his legs were gone, was that Sherri would soon be gone, too.

She was still with him, though. His aunt and uncle, Donna and Jim English, who had raised him since he was 9, were there, too.

Through two tours in Iraq, Hennagir's platoon had been his family. He had this profound need to see these Marines home safely, to be with them, to find out - was he still one of them?

Finding a family

Cpl. Hennagir had wanted to enlist since he first heard about the Marines as a boy. They were the toughest of the tough, who pushed themselves the hardest. This, he said, was what he needed.

"I wanted to prove to myself that I'm better than my father," he said.

The first five years of Hennagir's life were chaotic, to say the least, and he has only harsh words about his biological parents.

When he was 5, New Mexico placed Hennagir and his two sisters in foster care. Hennagir's two aunts in Pennsylvania and New Jersey tried to get custody of the children, but New Mexico wanted to keep them close, hoping they could return to their mother.

When Hennagir was 9, in his third foster home, a social worker called one of the aunts and asked if she wanted to adopt them.

Of course she did.

That aunt, Debbie Mano of Ashton, Pa., took the two girls. The other, Donna English, raised Hennagir with her husband in their Deptford home.

The Englishes already had children from their first marriages and a daughter together.

"I wanted to have a boy," Donna said, "and Jim didn't want to have any more kids. Of course, God answers prayers in his own way. And he gave us Raymond. Raymond was our son."

But Hennagir was a mess. He was taking a lot of Ritalin, which Donna and Jim immediately stopped. He had lacked discipline in his life, and limits, and love. Donna spent 15 years in the Navy. That was where she met Jim. They knew all about discipline and imposed tough love. It was painful for them at first, but Ray responded, got himself under control, became a wonderful addition to the family, polite and respectful.

Jim and Donna became his legal guardians - in reality, his parents, just as surely as the moon orbits the Earth.

"They're not my mother and father," Hennagir explained, "but they're my mom and dad."

At Deptford High School, Hennagir wrestled for three years and never won a match. He always thought that embarrassed his "dad." But Jim English could not have been prouder.

"Do you know what kind of character a kid has to have to lose for three years and still stick with it, never quit?" Jim said.

Jim believed Ray had issues of inferiority and insecurity while growing up, another reason the young man found the Marines so appealing, with their motto, Semper Fidelis - Always Faithful.

Donna and Jim tried to push Ray toward the Navy or the Air Force, precisely to avoid what happened, to keep him out of harm's way. "We couldn't change his mind," Jim said.

A week after graduating from high school, in June 2004, Hennagir joined the Marines. "It changed his whole demeanor," Jim said. "He was no longer the insecure kid."

His first tattoo was USMC in Old English letters inside his right forearm.

"Every Marine I know, when they're on leave, their uniform goes into the closet," Donna said. "That's how it was with me when I was in the Navy. But not Ray. . . . He'd go to schools on his leave and try to recruit people. I'd say, 'Ray, are you kidding me? Take off that uniform.' "

Danger underfoot

Hennagir became a combat engineer, trained in making obstacles - bunkers or sandbag walls - and in demolishing enemy obstacles. He learned to use explosives, and carried them with him on patrol.

In Iraq, his primary job became sweeping the ground for caches - artillery shells and weapons that insurgents buried rather than hide in their homes, where Marines might find them.

With metal detector and shovel, Hennagir looked like a guy combing the Jersey beaches. Only he wore full body armor, surrounded by a security detail, and he wasn't searching for spare change.

In two tours in Iraq, Hennagir had rarely fired his weapon. He had been in one firefight, when sniper bullets whizzed by his ear, between his legs, and he had returned fire. Donna remembers him calling home that night, so shaken, so happy to hear a loving voice.

Fighting was the job primarily of Marine "grunts," as Hennagir calls them. "They learn to kill and keep from getting killed," he said. "They're the warriors."

Hennagir was assigned to a platoon of 30 combat engineers - his band of brothers.

On June 15, he and Pfc. Scott "Chuck" Norris, a 20-year-old combat engineer from Florida, were supporting a platoon of grunts in Zaidon, southeast of Fallujah.

Their mission, Hennagir said, was to "reestablish a presence" - sweep for weapons, kill or apprehend insurgents, and build relations with friendly Iraqis. Hennagir liked that last part. On previous missions, he had played soccer with local boys.

Since the last American sweep through Zaidon, however, insurgents had planted many IEDs. There are estimated to be millions of these booby traps in Iraq. According to the Department of Defense, IEDs were responsible for 52 percent of the 3,734 deaths and 68 percent of the 27,767 injuries among American servicemen and servicewomen in Iraq as of Sept. 1.

The concept is simple. Walking along, a Marine steps on a string of little cardboard balls lying unseen in the dirt. The pressure of the footstep connects two wires and ignites a buried explosive - maiming or killing.

According to Hennagir, IEDs can lie harmless until Marines arrive. Then they can be remotely activated, as easily as with the press of a button on a cell phone.

As Hennagir and the platoon of grunts were out on patrol on the evening of June 16, one of the grunts stepped on an IED, but only the blasting cap blew, not the explosive attached to it. Nobody was hurt.

Hennagir and Norris found the explosive - a 155mm artillery shell. They called for a demolition team.

Maybe an hour later, as Hennagir and Norris walked along a path to meet the demolition crew - a path they had already walked four times that evening - an IED exploded beneath Hennagir's feet.

'I'm still alive'

"I never heard the explosion," Hennagir recalled. "I felt like I got pushed back, and then my body actually went back.

"It was like deja vu in one second."

He flew through the air, spinning and somersaulting, blacking out and waking up, still in the air.

"I was upside down. And I could feel my body flipping. It didn't hurt to hit the ground. I didn't even feel it. My body stopped moving. That's all I felt.

"The first thing . . . that went through my head when I noticed I wasn't moving anymore was, 'Oh, my God, I'm going to die.' I couldn't move my body at all, but I could lift my head. I looked down, and saw the meat hanging out of my leg. All I knew was that leg was done. I put my head back down and acted like what I saw I never did. It wasn't worth it.

"I started screaming for a corpsman. I asked, first thing, not about myself but, 'Where's the other engineer?' "

(Norris was badly burned and is recovering at the Brooke Army Medical Center, a burn center in Texas.)

"I was feeling that I wasn't going to make it through this," Hennagir recalled. "I felt tingly all over, like the inside was trying to push itself to the outside of my body. That's the best that I can explain it. I just started thinking to myself, 'Wait. I can actually make it through this. I'm still alive. I made it through the blast. I might actually make it through this.'

"Then I started thinking about the pain. It was an intense feeling that was really hard to handle. . . . I kind of slapped myself and said, 'Shut up. It won't last forever. When you look back you can say you had self-control.' "

Evacuated by helicopter, Hennagir found it harder and harder to breathe.

"That's when I realized my lungs collapsed. . . . Going into shock and stuff. 'Oh, my God.' I tried to bring myself back around. 'Calm down. Control your breathing. You'll be fine.' "

The last thing he remembers is yelling, "I can't breathe! I can't breathe!"

At the new American field hospital in Balad, in central Iraq, doctors did their best to stabilize him. Within 24 hours, he was on his way to the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, an American military hospital.

"When I woke up," Hennagir recalled, "I was on a big plane, a C-class, and I was in a bed, three tubes shoved down my throat, hooked up to all these lines, and there was a nurse standing beside me.

"When I tried to talk, I realized I couldn't because my mouth was too dry from these tubes, and I couldn't move my tongue. And no sound would come out. She read my lips, and I mouthed the words really slowly. I asked her if I had any legs. She looked at me and said, 'No.'

"I thought she was kidding me. I asked her again, and she said, 'You don't have any legs.' I still thought it was a joke. Kind of in the back of my mind, I knew I was just denying it.

"I mouthed the words again, to another nurse, 'Can you tell me if I have legs?' That's when I knew. I started getting teary. She said, 'Don't worry. It's not a bad thing. Your life will be OK.' "

Hennagir's first thought was of his fiancee.

"Sherri's going to leave me because of what I look like now," he told himself.

And then he thought of Donna. "My mom won't be able to look at me."

Holding up at home

Hennagir had called Jim on Thursday, June 14, to wish him a happy Father's Day. He had told his dad that he'd be on patrol Sunday and didn't know if he'd get to a satellite phone.

On Sunday, as Jim and Donna returned from buying his present, a gas grill at Home Depot (which he has yet to use), they saw a police cruiser in front of their house.

Jim thought, "Have the dogs gotten out?" They have a Shetland sheepdog and a miniature pinscher.

The officer said the Marine Corps was trying to reach him. He should call Camp Lejeune, where Hennagir's unit was based.

All Jim can remember of the phone call is that he stopped listening when the Marine sergeant major told him that "both legs were amputated above the knee."

Within the hour, Donna was on the prayer line of their church, the Gloucester County Community Church, and that afternoon their house filled with friends, who quickly began running the household.

That day, and for the next 10 weeks, Donna wrote every important number for doctors and Marine contacts in her Bible. That way she knew she wouldn't lose them.

The next day, two high school girls who live across the street wrote a letter and delivered it throughout the neighborhood.

The letter told how Hennagir had been gravely injured in Iraq. It said that regardless of how you felt about the war, please show your support for the family by flying an American flag outside your house.

On Tuesday, Jim drove Donna and their daughter Nadia to Philadelphia International Airport to fly to Germany. On the way home, as Jim and another daughter drove into their neighborhood, what they saw brought them to tears - a sea of American flags. On every house on their block, and on many houses in other blocks.

Arriving at Landstuhl, Donna prayed for help. "Please, Lord, give me strength so I can be strong for Ray."

She walked into his room, held back her tears. His face was massive with bruises and swelling. Even his good hand, she said, was four times normal size. His arms were all still bloody.

Donna will never forget his first words. Ray doesn't remember them, because he was so juiced on painkillers.

"Hey, Mom," he said. "I'm immortal."

Among the eight tattoos Hennagir got after joining the Marines is one with the Chinese characters for immortality. Since he had survived, he figured maybe he was.

Hennagir's next sentence was to his sister, who is to be married in November. "Nadia," he said, "do you mind if I go to your wedding in a wheelchair?"

That was when Donna and Nadia lost it.

Hennagir cried, too.

Devoted without vows

Jim and Donna spent most of the summer at the naval hospital. So did Hennagir's fiancee.

Hennagir and Sherri Baskerville had been friends throughout high school, but were always involved with somebody else.

Last September, between Hennagir's tours in Iraq, he found Baskerville on MySpace and contacted her. Then he started calling every night from Camp Lejeune. The relationship took off so fast, Hennagir said, because it was as if something pent up had been set free. In October, after a month on the telephone, they became an item, long distance.

They spent Thanksgiving and a few weeks in December together, before Hennagir deployed to Iraq. They decided to wed over Christmas in a civil ceremony.

Baskerville already had a baby, Kelsey, then 9 months old. Hennagir was ready to love this child. They got a marriage license.

Hearing about this, Jim and Donna sat the young couple down.

"If love is real, it will wait," Jim told them.

Hennagir respected them and their judgment so much that he and Baskerville agreed to wait.

They bought a ring, and on Jan. 4, the night before he returned to Camp Lejeune, Hennagir took Baskerville to the Victor Cafe in Philadelphia, where they officially got engaged. He wore his Marine dress blues. She wore a new red dress.

She went down to Camp Lejeune three weeks later and kissed him goodbye when he shipped out.

She promised she'd be waiting for him when he got back - whatever happened.

Six days after the explosion, Hennagir arrived at the naval hospital in Bethesda, and Baskerville was waiting. What startled her were not his injuries, but his hair (long for a Marine) and his nine- or 10-day beard.

"That's what surprised me the most," she recalled. "I had already prepared for everything else."

His greeting was so ordinary it was remarkable.

"Hi, babe," he said. "Where's Kelsey?"

Hennagir, heavily drugged with painkillers, mostly slept, but he would wake up and have lucid conversations. Late that first night, after 11 p.m., he asked Baskerville, "Don't you have to leave?"

"No, I'm staying here," she replied. "You're stuck with me."

"No, I'm not," he said.

"What do you mean?" she asked.

"If I didn't want to be with you, I'd be stuck with you," he said. "But I want to be with you."

He then confessed to her, "I really thought you'd leave me."

Baskerville, 21, knows some people might expect that. But she replied to Hennagir that first night in the hospital this way:

"I said when you gave me that ring, I'm not going anywhere. When you got on that bus, and left for Iraq, I told you I'd be there waiting for you when you got back, no matter what."

That very first night, and many nights after, she sat beside his bed, in a metal folding chair, and watched over him. Her daughter was back in New Jersey, with Grandma.

"Not the end of the world," Baskerville said of Cpl. Hennagir's injuries. "We'll get through it."

Their road ahead will be difficult, for sure. He will spend the next year at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, getting prosthetic legs and a hand, and learning how to use them. Baskerville will live in the small apartment with him and her daughter, caring for the two of them.

A turn for the better

Those 10 weeks at Bethesda for Hennagir were largely a blur of painkillers and sedatives, as doctors trimmed his bones, repaired his flesh.

His family agonized as he underwent surgery after surgery.

He was positive most of the time, and the family followed his lead.

"Ray feels this is a challenge but he can endure it," Donna said. "I always tell him 'Jeremiah 29:11.' "

She then quoted the Bible verse from memory:

"For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future."

A few times Hennagir broke down in tears, which Donna felt was important.

"If he was holding it in," she said, "it would be another IED."

Jim had many overwhelming reactions sitting at Ray's bedside. Up and down the hallways were so many men like Hennagir, each with families.

He also marveled at the medical care, on the battlefield and every step along the way. He is determined to track down the Navy corpsman who kept Ray from bleeding to death and shake his hand.

Hennagir kept telling his family that he wanted to get to North Carolina, to see his platoon safely home.

It seemed hopeless. His wounds were so severe, the surgeries so many.

"In all reality, I didn't think he was going to make it," his fiancee said.

Then, around Aug. 10, doctors took him off a powerful drug; he seemed to wake up overnight.

Immediately, Baskerville said, "I saw the difference, and I thought he was going to make it."

It probably didn't hurt that his battalion's sergeant major, Steve Brown, traveled up from Camp Lejeune and in his most respectful and intimidating Marine Corps tone told a doctor:

"Now, we can do this the easy way or the hard way. You can give Cpl. Hennagir clearance to go, or we can just come up here and get him. One way or another, he's going to be there."

Hennagir had been outside the hospital just a few times, once for a 20-minute spin around a courtyard on his 21st birthday.

But on Aug. 24, Hennagir, his fiancee, Jim and Donna and their daughter (also named Sherri) headed south in a wheelchair-accessible van provided by the Semper Fi Fund, a charity supported by Marine Corps families.

At dinner that night in Jacksonville, just outside Camp Lejeune, they stopped at Applebee's.

A stranger paid their bill.

Help for the future

As a wounded veteran, Hennagir will receive a pension of $3,500 a month and $800 a month in Social Security.

He collected $100,000 in military disability insurance, and the government will give him, when he is ready, a one-time grant of $50,000 to buy or modify a home.

And Hennagir's platoon leader, First Lt. Patrick Cleary, a University of Pennsylvania graduate, sent a letter off to the platoon, their families, and almost everyone he knows. His goal is to create an annuity for Hennagir so he will receive an additional $30,000 a year for life, donated by individuals pledging $100 to $300 every year.

"The increased costs associated with virtually every aspect of Cpl. Hennagir's life present a formidable obstacle to this warrior's future," Cleary wrote in the letter.

A group of South Jersey veterans has planned a benefit Sept. 29 at American Legion Post 133 in Woodbury. The veterans have already sold more than $5,000 in raffle tickets.

Hennagir's sister Mia English works in the finance department of The Inquirer, and the newspaper's publisher has called Jim and promised to help.

The family is overwhelmed by such generosity, but Jim English knows Hennagir must also have meaningful work. To be a man, to feel like a man, he said, you have to provide for your family, to feel useful.

"I want him to have to get a job and take care of himself. I think the generosity is good, but he needs to become a full man again, even without his legs and his hand."

Hennagir said he couldn't agree more.

Resolute on war

Hennagir's favorite tattoo was on his calf. It was a map of Iraq with the words

Operation Iraqi Freedom

running through it.

Hennagir supported this war and still does: "The terrorists need to be stopped."

Jim also supports the war, and believes there has been progress. He believes that the Iraqis are rejecting the insurgents, and that there's hope for victory. "I do believe, given time, the armed forces can succeed," he said.

He also said: "I think the war was fought wrong. The politicians, the government, did not do their best job running that war. There were a lot of things screwed up, but that doesn't say you're done."

What upsets him now is the idea that America's leaders might try to "back out gracefully, ease our way out."

"My son left his legs over there," Jim said. "It would tick me off if the last three months they're looking for a way out and just offering these young men as sacrificial lambs as a way to do that."

"If that's what we have in mind," Jim added, "pack up and bring them home. Don't waste one more drop of American blood."

Ready and waiting

Hennagir powered his wheelchair into the courtyard outside the Marine barracks where families had started to gather for the homecoming. It was noon on a hot summer Sunday in the South.

He was startled to see a white bedsheet hanging over a second-floor balcony. Written in red and blue letters was "Welcome Back Hennagir."

As everyone waited for the platoon to arrive, local television stations interviewed Hennagir in the shade of an oak.

"For two years I called this place home," he told one camera. "I just wanted to see the platoon come back safely. I wanted to be here when they did."

Between interviews, Sherri wiped away his sweat.

"I've got to do makeup real quick," Cpl. Hennagir quipped to one journalist.

One reporter asked Sherri about the wedding, and she told him they're hoping for May, and she has hired a wedding planner.

"A little overwhelming?" the reporter asked.

"Little?" she replied. "I didn't know there were so many kinds of napkins."

Hennagir made small talk with a group of Marines living in these barracks, men he had come to know well though they were not in his platoon.

He said to one Marine, only 5-foot-7: "Hey, I'm shorter than you now. I used to be 5-9."

Word came that the bus was 10 minutes away. Hennagir positioned himself at the curb, right where the bus would stop, so he would be the first person the Marines saw stepping off.

The bus arrived. The men filed off, and one by one they greeted Hennagir. Some shook his hand; others hugged him.

The emotion was as choked as the words were routine:

"Hey, Ray-Ray, what's up?"

"Good to see you."

"So how long you staying?"

"Let's go drink."

"Did they fit you for your legs yet?" one asked.

"They measured me," Hennagir replied.

"You look good," the Marine said.

"I was so scared I wasn't going to make it," Hennagir told his platoon leader, Lt. Cleary. "I needed to be here so bad."

"It felt like a brother was gone," Cleary told him.

The men were called into formation.

The entire platoon, home from Iraq not 15 minutes, stood at attention while Cpl. Raymond D. Hennagir was awarded a Marine Corps Achievement medal. This was a surprise. His contributions in Iraq were recited, and a medal pinned to his chest.

And then 27 United States Marines, one by one, hugged him again and congratulated him.

He held back his tears, as they held back theirs, or tried to.

Until the last two men in line.

The first was his squad leader, Cpl. Scottie McDaniel, who couldn't help himself. He let the tears flow.

"I'm going to miss you," he whispered in Hennagir's ear.

Hennagir held McDaniel tight, hoping his squad leader would regain his composure so others wouldn't see him weeping. Hennagir couldn't hold him any longer, let him go.

Still, Hennagir held back his own tears.

Until the very last man hugged him.

Sgt. Kevin Proffitt, who looked as if he could start at linebacker for any team in the National Football League, wept in Hennagir's arms. Hennagir didn't see the sergeant's tears, but he felt the sergeant's heaving chest against his own.

The moment was as short-lived as the tears Hennagir shed, but it was also one he will remember all his days.

He was a Marine, with his unit. They were home safe.

And he was one of them.

For a video of Cpl. Raymond D. Hennagir's reunion with his platoon, and to hear an interview with the corpsman who saved his life, go to