June 04, 2007
'04 UMLS Alum Survives Humvee Explosion
U-M grad survives Humvee explosion
Army captain credits her survival to fellow soldier who died in Iraq
Friday, June 01, 2007
BY JO COLLINS MATHIS
News Staff Reporter
At the end of another long, busy, 115-degree day in Iraq, Capt. Sarah Rykowski is grateful that sleep comes quickly. And is free of nightmares.
Two weeks ago, the Ann Arbor resident was riding in a Humvee in Iraq when a roadside bombed exploded, killing three fellow soldiers, including the good friend riding beside her.
"He put me in that seat,'' Rykowski recalled during a phone conversation from Iraq, referring to Cpl. Coty Phelps, the 20-year-old paralegal who worked for her. "He said, 'Ma'am, you sit here. And I'll sit here.' He cared very deeply about taking care of me, and protecting me, his officer. And I have replayed that in my head a million times.''
Rykowski, a 1999 graduate of Pioneer High School and 2004 graduate of the University of Michigan Law School, is back at work in her law office south of Baghdad, where she helps Iraqis who have filed claims against the U.S. military.
Rykowski received the Purple Heart for being wounded in battle. She will fully recover from her relatively minor injuries and says she's doing well emotionally.
"Some people said, 'If I'd been through that, I'd be hiding under a table, and you're back out doing your job,''' said Rykowski, 26, the claims attorney and trial counsel (prosecutor) for the 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division. "The truth is that there is no one way to grieve, there is no one way to restart your life. In the Army, we say, continue mission. No matter what, continue mission, until it is done.''
Rick and Jenny Rykowski of Ann Arbor were surprised but proud when their daughter said she wanted to join the Army. The military, after all, is not the typical path for a law school graduate.
Now they say they're praying harder than ever for their daughter, as well as for the families of those killed May 17.
"Sarah believes they're doing a good thing over there, helping the Iraqi people,'' said Jenny Rykowski. "We miss her terribly, but we know she's in God's hands, and she's doing what she's been called to do.''
"She wanted to be a prosecutor, but it's not a good time to get a county job in Michigan,'' said her father. "Her natural gift is to be a lawyer, not a soldier, so we're proud that she stepped up and embraced it.''
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Deployed to Iraq in December for a one-year tour, she'll be reassigned when she returns to the U.S. at the end of the year. She'd been in Iraq only a month when her Humvee was bombed.
"I was nervous as all get-out, going there,'' Rykowski said, referring to the convoy that was to travel the few miles to another town to handle claims from Iraqis there.
She and Phelps were passing a water bottle back and forth. And then there was an explosion.
In an e-mail, she wrote:
"I had ear and eye protection on, which is probably why I can still hear - I heard a very loud bang and a bunch of stuff sprayed up. Right off the bat I was pretty sure I was going to be fine - I felt no pain. Then I tasted blood, and realized it was dripping out of my mouth. I ran my tongue across my teeth and reached up with my right hand to see if my lips were still there. Everything was still there, so I figured something I couldn't see was hurt. I suddenly felt pain in my arm and burning on my face and legs - but I could only see blood on my arm, nowhere else. I got out of the vehicle - I'm not sure how. I was pretty awake the whole time, but particular things are fuzzy and other things are not.''
Rykowski said Phelps looked as if he were simply unconscious, or even asleep. Meanwhile, she thought her arm might be broken, and everything else stung. But all she could think about was Phelps, and how she had let him come on the convoy because he wanted to visit his buddy.
When she finally learned that Phelps and two others had been killed in that Humvee, she was filled with survivor's guilt. "Why them and not me?'' she asked.
She said so many of the soldiers in Iraq seem so young to her.
"They put on a uniform and pick up a weapon and come over here and serve their country,'' she said. "Whether you like the war or not, you have to support the people. Whether it's the right thing, or the wrong thing, we're there right now and we have a job to do.''
Once, she had to tell two Iraqi women that she found no evidence the U.S. military was responsible for their husbands' deaths, and could offer no compensation. "What do we do?'' they asked. "We're widows.''
She said everyone was near tears when Phelps took out his wallet and gave them each a $50 bill.
"I didn't expect that of him, and it warmed my heart,'' she said. "He was an amazing kid.''
She said her office is sending Phelps' family in Arizona a packet of letters, including a long one from her praising his generosity, wit and dedication.
Asked what she would tell her future children about her experience in Iraq 20 years from now, she wrote in an e-mail:
"I'd tell them what I think they ought to know - that we came here for a purpose, a good purpose, and when we leave, it will be for a good reason. I read a great Iraqi fairy tale as a child, where one character says that - 'I came for a purpose and I left for a reason.' I will tell them that, but for a wonderful soldier and his suggestion I sit in a particular place, I might not be here. And they might not. To consider how lucky they are to live in a place like the U.S. - where people die every day from car accidents, shootings, and other injuries - but where people can believe what they want and go about their lives without wearing body armor. To be thankful for a system of government, that, for the most part, allows them to live the way they want to live. To be grateful for that opportunity.''
Jo Mathis can be reached at 734-994-6849 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Posted by hafeezt at June 4, 2007 10:21 AM