By Betsy Rothstein - 03/14/06 12:00 AM EST
John Konya says he lucked out by being hired by House International Relations Committee Chairman Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) in 2001. Two years out of high school, he was 19 and had only a few classes worth of credentials to show for himself. College wasn’t on the radar.
Konya was brought on as an intern to help with computers. Four months later, he was given a full-time, paying position as assistant systems administrator.
But that is what he did.
In August 2004, Konya left the committee and Washington to join the Marines. At the time, he says, he knew with near certainty that he would be sent into combat in Iraq or Afghanistan.
For him, either would do.
“I felt it was important that I serve in the war that was going on,” he says, sitting in a comfortable lounging area of the International Relations Committee last week. “I felt strongly that I needed to serve my country.”
Joining the military was something that Konya had always wanted to do. At the age of 22, he says, he also felt it was something he should do.
“I had to leave a great job on the Hill to go over to the big sandbox,” he says. “Sept. 11 really made me do it. If that hadn’t happened I probably would have just stayed where I was.”
In July 2005, after three months of boot camp and several more of preparation for war, Konya was sent to Iraq with the 2nd Battalion of the 7th Marines. Six months into a seven-month deployment, a roadside bomb struck the Humvee on which he was a gunner. He was hit in the head with shrapnel that cut through his helmet and penetrated his skull.
Konya, bleeding internally, was taken to a surgical hospital in Fallujah, where he began vomiting. This is how the doctors knew that his head wound was serious. He was airlifted to Balad, where he had surgery. He was unconscious for move than 12 hours.
“When I woke up I had 43 staples,” he says. He was then flown to Landstuhl, Germany, for the final leg of his medical assistance away from home. “Honestly, I don’t remember any of it happening. I just remember waking up in excruciating pain.”
Today Konya has 2-millimeter-thick titanium plates in his head and a scar that you can’t see unless you stand above him and peer directly down. He has some hearing loss but no brain damage, and doctors say he will make a full recovery. He is still receiving care at Bethesda Naval Hospital.
When he arrived back in the United States, the former aide says, he didn’t tell many people what had happened.
“For some reason I wanted to keep it quiet,” he says. “When I first got home I didn’t want attention.”
But soon enough the word spread among his friends. In mid-January he was released from the hospital. Last week, Hyde invited him in to honor him with a plaque with a “band of brothers” quote from Shakespeare’s “Henry V.”
Hyde warmly welcomed the aide into his office. With his cane perched up against the desk, he told the young Marine, “I have the world’s worst back, so I have to sit down.”
“It’s OK,” Konya replied. “I know all about injuries now.”
Hyde presented him with a plaque, saying, “We’re proud of you. God, have you made a big sacrifice for your country. One inch one way or another and we’d be attending a memorial service.”
Typically, Hyde added some levity to the seriousness. “When the time comes and you need a job, come back here. We’ll fire Sam Stratman. [Long pause.] Poor Sam.”
The room of aides, including Stratman, burst into laughter. “We wish you a world of luck,” Hyde continued. “Believe me, you are part of the family. God bless you, John. We’re proud of you.”
The Hill heard about Konya and the ceremony only by chance. There was no media strategy; “I don’t want to make him think he’s some kind of pawn,” Stratman explained.
Once out of sight of Hyde and his aides, Konya pulled out the Purple Heart he received and brushed his fingers over the ribbon. He sees humor in the fact that the zippered scar atop his head is in the shape of a long J. He has no regrets that he chose to fight in the war and says he would do it again — even knowing the injuries he would face.
Asked if he was frightened about fighting, he says, “No, I was not. They prepared us for what was going to happen. I don’t regret anything.”
Konya, who has two and half years of active duty left in the Marines, says he has no idea what’s next; he’d like to go to college. One thing is certain: He has that job offer from Hyde to return to the committee anytime he wants.