A printout of X-ray film from last year showing a nail lodged in his left foot and a certificate noting his Bronze Star sit a few feet away from Army Spc. David Conway II, as he leans back in a recliner at his grandparents’ house in east Lawrence.
The 2005 Lawrence High School graduate has the nail that surgeons removed in one of the several procedures he’s undergone in 10 months. He plans to make it part of a necklace or another piece of jewelry.
Conway, 23, talks a lot about moving forward with his life these days since an improvised explosive device injured him and eight other people on July 12, 2009, as they left a meeting with district government officials outside al-Sharqat in northern Iraq.
“There’s been hard times, but I think definitely I’ve matured over it because of being in the military,” Conway said this week as he visited Lawrence. “I’ve experienced a lot more than I think the average 23-year-old would experience. It’s kind of opened my eyes to the world outside of Lawrence.”
“It was a mortar. We don’t really know too much on it. It was set behind a Hesco barrier, a big barrier full of dirt. It was hidden behind there. We walked passed it, and that’s the way it happened.”
On that afternoon last July, Conway was 22 years old serving his second deployment in Iraq with the 25th Infantry Division. His duty was to provide security to Army officers and other officials as they helped local Iraqi governments develop their police and military.
Things had improved dramatically compared with his first deployment. American troops had withdrawn from urban centers in Iraq about two weeks earlier.
Conway had noticed how calm things had become 11 months into his second tour. “We were in the same area my first deployment, and my first one, we got hit all the time. It was quite a dramatic improvement as far as Iraq goes,” he said.
But on this day, at a meeting in al-Sharqat, in Salahuddin province, between American officials and district government officials about improving the police system, the calm was shattered.
Conway was with five other troops, an interpreter and two civilians. They were inside an Iraqi police checkpoint walking back to their vehicles.
Then suddenly on the walk back “we got hit,” and the blast itself broke Conway’s tibia and threw him for five feet.
Shrapnel ripped into his calf.
The nail shot through his foot, cut his peroneal tendon and broke his heel. He also suffered a torn right shoulder muscle and a concussion.
Conway said four others also had major injuries, and four were able to return to duty. He was eventually taken to a military hospital in Iraq, then to Germany and back to Hawaii.
Other than the hospital, his last memories of Iraq are the chaos of the explosion. Given the situation, he said he felt his unit and the Army did make strides with the Iraqis. He says the country is moving in the right direction as far democracy and women’s rights.
“I think we did a pretty good job of instilling a solid government over there,” he said.
Road to recovery
“It sucks. ... I’m confident that in the next couple of years I’m going to be back to almost the way it was before.”
Conway sat last week in the east Lawrence living room of his grandparents, Jerry and Betty Conway. He’s had several surgeries in the last 10 months and has spent most of his recovery time stationed at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii.
More surgeries are on the horizon after he returns from his two-week visit to Kansas. His father, David, and stepmother, Kristie Conway, also live in Lawrence.
Conway has started the process for a medical discharge. He walks pretty well — not too fast — but in the infantry you need to be able to do about 12 miles a day.
“I can’t do that any more,” Conway said.
But he has received a fresh start. He’s taking psychology classes at Chaminade University in Hawaii. Once his discharge is finalized, he’s hoping to return to Lawrence and attend Kansas University. He hopes to study criminal justice and use his military background in law enforcement, possibly as a U.S. marshal.
His grandfather says the family is thankful that David has rebounded and they see his future plans coming together.
“I can see that he’s got a new start in life with the opportunities that he has now,” Jerry Conway said.
As he manages his start, David Conway still has reminders, both good and bad, about the past.
He received the Purple Heart and Bronze Star.
“I just did my job out there, and I think a lot of other people did their jobs out there who probably should have got the same recognition as I did.”
He also has the injuries, more surgeries and even treatment for traumatic brain injury.
“You can’t go through the rest of your life without thinking about what you could have done differently or what you could have done better,” he said. “I think about that all the time. I think about my first deployment more than I think about the incident because we experienced a lot in our first deployment.
“I look at it as a learning experience.”