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Gary Younge
US towns gather in their wounded

His left hand is still not functional since he bailed out of his Humvee in Mosul, Iraq, and landed on it, breaking his wrist. Every now and then he would stop saluting locals holding "Welcome Home Derick" posters and tap the spot where his lower leg used to be, to ease the throbbing.

Behind him, local dignitaries, church groups, and the kings and queens of the high school threw sweets to children from the boats and floats on which they were towed. Ahead of him was a lifetime of disability as an amputee, with a body flecked with shrapnel.

"It's a big thing for me," said Mr Hurt, 26, of the reception he has received in the week since he arrived home. In a town of around 1,500 nestled in the rural midwest, an area of big skies and small creeks, his injury and homecoming have been a big event. Local people raised thousands of dollars to help his family travel to see him at the Walter Reed military hospital in Virginia. Cameras from the local networks met him when he arrived at the airport in Springfield. When he got to Greenfield, the town was waiting in the square.

Around 2,657 soldiers have been injured in Iraq, according to the Pentagon. But while the death toll influences political debate and prompts public discomfort, the swelling legions of the wounded - around 10 a day - have failed to make any impact on a national level.

With the exception of Jessica Lynch, whose capture, rescue and return has already produced two books, one film and a national myth, little has been heard until recently about those who came back to start a new life in wheelchairs and on crutches.

And little that has been heard has been good. There were the wounded who had to wait for weeks for medical treatment in Fort Stewart Georgia, where they complained of filthy conditions. There was Shoshana Johnson, a black woman who was shot in both legs and held prisoner for 22 days, who says racism is the only explanation for why she receives $700 (£500) less each month than Ms Lynch. Then came was the scandal of wounded soldiers being forced to pay $8.10 a day for their hospital meals, until the rule was repealed by Congress.

When Mr Hurt was at Walter Reed hospital, a cast of stars visited to boost morale, including Bruce Willis, Shania Twain and Cher.

After Cher's visit, in late October, she called a television phone-in program to ask: "Why aren't Cheney, Wolfowitz, Bremer, the president - why aren't they taking pictures with these guys? I don't understand why these guys are so hidden, why there are no pictures of them."

To some, this is more evidence that George Bush - who has yet to attend the funeral of any soldier killed in the war and refers to the casualties only in general terms - is trying to distance himself.

But last week, Mr Bush was to be seen on television visiting the Walter Reed hospital.

"We put a lot of fine troops in harm's way to make this country more secure and the world more free and the world more peaceful," he said.

"We ask them to face great dangers to meet a national need."

When Mr Hurt joined the army in 2000, he had little sense of great danger. "It was peaceful at the time," he said. "I never imagined I would fight."

Then came September 11. Mr Hurt was sent to Jordan. It was his first time abroad.

The second was when he went to Kuwait in February, in preparation for the invasion of Iraq. On September 13, he drove a Humvee through the city's empty streets. The night before, he had written to his father saying all was quiet in town.

Suddenly there was a flash, and then another one. "I was in shock," he said. "The engine had died and I knew I had to get out of the car. I used my bodyweight to lever myself out of the window, which is probably when I broke my wrist."

He lay face-down on the kerb amid the smoke and the gunfire. "I thought, this is it. I'm going to die right here, just like a vegetable on the ground."

Then he heard one of his fellow soldiers shout his name as his comrades came to his aid. He screamed in pain as one tied a tourniquet around one of his injured legs.

"One of them was just hanging on by a thread and the other one was all battered up," he said.

His father received a phone call at 1.30 the next morning. "I knew it was the military, and I knew that since they called me he must still be alive, because they come around in person if they're dead," he said. "So I thought, 'So long as he's still alive I can deal with the rest.'"

Mr Hurt was in hospital in Germany for five days before he was flown to Walter Reed, where he stayed for three months. "I was thinking, 'This is it. It's not going to get any better. What kind of job can I get now?'"

Still, he does not regret joining the army - "These things happen for a reason," he says.

Mr Hurt cannot fault the veterans' administration, which is advising him on benefits. He misses sport, but is driving already, and living with his father until he returns to Walter Reed for treatment next month. After that, he is thinking of going back to his former job as a machinist, where the workshops are wheelchair friendly.

"I've been very impressed," said his father. "It took me six months to get a job when I got back from Vietnam, and they gave me nothing."

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