Coming home from war

Matt Penland has trouble remembering dates. Always has. He can’t recall when he started as an intern in Rep. Brian Baird’s (D-Wash.) office. The 25-year-old Army sergeant guesses September, though he later recalls being on Capitol Hill when House Republicans stormed the floor during the August recess to protest high gas prices.

One date, however, is seared into Penland’s mind: Oct. 6, 2006. It was then that Penland, stationed in Iraq at the time, got into a Humvee that subsequently drove over a roadside bomb.

A month later, he awoke in a hospital bed at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Though blankets covered his body, he quickly realized that he had lost his left leg above the knee, badly injured his right foot, fractured his vertebrae at the pelvis and broken his elbow. Doctors initially attempted to recover his right leg but ended up having to amputate below his knee.

“Most people don’t forget their date of injury,” says Penland in a recent interview on a quiet winter morning in the Rayburn cafeteria. “It’s like another birthday.”

More than two years removed, Penland navigates a different landscape. He has become known for giving memorable tours of the Capitol and answering calls from fired-up constituents with a saint-like patience.

A Washington state native, Penland grew up in Baird’s district and has nurtured interests in politics and the military since he was a child. In 1995 his mother took him to see President Bill Clinton make a local appearance campaigning for a second term. In school, history was “one of the few subjects I really, really loved,” he says, noting that it “goes hand in hand” with politics.”

War, in particular, intrigued Penland.

“When I was a kid, I always wanted to be a soldier,” he says, explaining that the idea of “people fighting for something that’s bigger, something that they believe in” always appealed to him.

Penland did not join the Army with a romanticized vision of what service would be like. At 19, after recognizing that his heart wasn’t in his studies at Washington’s Centralia College, he and a friend enlisted. The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks had already occurred, and the U.S. invaded Iraq while Penland was in basic training.

He knew he was going to war.

He completed his first Iraq tour on guard duty. On his second tour, he patrolled for insurgents and enemy weapons. Penland was a week away from leaving Iraq when the Humvee detonated the roadside bomb.

Penland met Baird at Walter Reed, after he emerged from a monthlong coma.

“When I came out of a coma, I just remember looking over and I saw my mom and my two sisters, and I remember thinking, ‘What the heck are they doing here?’ ” he says. “And then I panned over, since I couldn’t really move, I looked over with my eyes and I saw nurses and doctors, white coats.

“I knew right away,” he says. “I was like, ‘Oh, man, I’ve been hit.’ ”

It was a while before he could speak. Doctors came in every morning to ask Penland the same questions: Do you know where you are? Do you know your mom’s name? Do you know why you’re here? What’s the date?

“I’d get so mad, because in my head, I thought I was answering them,” he says.

It took a visit from Penland’s squad leader, who was also recovering from an injury, to elicit his first response.

“I remember he was tearing up, he was kind of crying, and he was saying my name. He was like, ‘C’mon, just blink if you know who I am,’ ” Penland recalls. “And then I blinked, and that was the first reaction that they saw.”

He made quick gains after that, though Penland still had trouble remembering the date. So his mom put a calendar by his bed.

Baird began visiting Penland during that time, bringing him “applets and cotlets” (candies from Washington state) and Seattle Seahawks and Mariners memorabilia.

As he began rehabilitation, Penland told one of the Walter Reed officials that he wanted to intern for Baird.

The patience he honed during two years of physical therapy has come in handy when he answers phones in the congressman’s office.

One day a constituent called and began ranting. The caller “was really, really mad because he blamed everything on the Democrats,” he recalls. He told Penland if the Democrats maintain power, Penland would be drafted into the Army.

“I’m already in the Army,” Penland politely replied.

The man shot back that Penland would be going to Iraq soon, then.

“I’ve already been to Iraq,” Penland offered.

Penland sees the angry constituent calls as part of the Capitol Hill experience and considers his work in Baird’s office as “one of the highlights” of his day.

Baird says he is awed by Penland’s commitment to serving his country and values the unique perspective the Iraq war veteran brings to Capitol Hill.

“I think many young people on Capitol Hill have not been exposed to men and women in [the armed] services,” Baird says. “[Matt has] had a tremendous impact on me and the rest of our staff.”

Other lawmakers, too, have thanked Penland for his service.

Reps. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) and Norm Dicks (D-Wash.) have acknowledged Penland. But the one he remembers most is Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.).

“He came up, he was talking to me,” Penland says, “and I just remember he slapped me on the back of the head a few times pretty hard.” (Penland has a big scar on the back of his head, but he explains that it was from his head rubbing back and forth against the plane when he was unconscious and being transported after his injury.)

He also was kissed by a congresswoman, though he can’t remember who.

“Maybe a Republican — they’re really affectionate,” he says.

Come February, Penland’s long journey to recovery will be tested when he has a medical examination that could clear him for a wider range of civilian activity — he’s not planning to re-enlist.

Penland has crafted a clear vision for his future. Having fulfilled his childhood wish of becoming a soldier, he plans to pursue a career in politics. He hopes to attend Georgetown University to study political science. One day he would like to be governor of Washington.

“I’m just excited to move on,” Penland says, “ and I feel that what I’ve learned in the military kind of opened up my eyes.”

In the meantime, physical therapy is a constant. Among his major tasks has been learning to walk with prosthetics.

“I’m starting to do pretty well with walking,” he says.