Craig soldier is home for holidays |

Craig soldier is home for holidays

Nick Foster

Caught in an ambush that killed one Routt County soldier in Iraq, Army Spc. Tyler McWilliams was wounded by more than a dozen pieces of shrapnel.

On Christmas Eve, McWilliams returned home to Craig on medical leave. He is grateful to be home and largely healthy, particularly given his experiences half a world away.

On Aug. 29, McWilliams and a partner were in the last vehicle in a four-truck convoy hauling heavy equipment to build a small base north of As Suaydat, Iraq, about 40 miles northeast of Baghdad. Hayden soldier Staff Sgt. Mark Lawton was in a Humvee leading the convoy. When the convoy was ambushed by Sunni militants firing machine guns, mortars and rocket-powered grenades, drivers stepped on the gas while soliders, including McWilliams, returned fire, he said.

The ambush killed Lawton, a father of two, cost McWilliams’ partner his leg, and left McWilliams riddled with shrapnel.

It’s a day he can’t erase from his memory, but it’s not a day that earned him a ticket home. He returned to duty before that day was done.

“Their cure for everything is, ‘Drink water and you’ll be OK,'” said McWilliams, 21. “The Army doctors are crazy. I get a kick out of them.”

He was sent back into the field with shrapnel wounds from a rocket-powered grenade; he was only allowed to return home after nearly losing his right ring finger in a comparatively mundane, noncombat-related accident — his finger was crushed when a dump truck’s industrial-strength tailgate closed on it. It’s an irony that is not lost on him.

McWilliams was sent to a makeshift field hospital where Army doctors performed simple surgery and cleaned the wound. During the procedure, he felt virtually nothing — the nerves in his finger had been destroyed, too, when trapped between metal and metal, McWilliams said. Doctors thought his finger would have to be amputated, so he was flown to a hospital in Landstuhl, Germany.

Soon after, the phone rang at the McWilliams home in Craig. McWilliams’ father, Harry, answered it while his mother, Debbie, stood nearby and listened to the half of the conversation she could hear.

“You don’t want to hear that he’s in Germany, because it could mean it’s something serious,” Debbie said. She got sick to her stomach when she heard Harry ask, “Are you going to lose it?”

“I thought it was going to be an arm or a leg,” Debbie said. “I was relieved when I heard it was just his finger.”

She was even more relieved when she learned her son still had feeling in the tip of his finger, and it would not require amputation. German surgeons worked for about three hours planting permanent titanium screws in the finger and inserting three metal wires through the bone. The wires will be taken out in three weeks.

McWilliams can now laugh at the sight of his swollen, bionic-looking finger. He acknowledges he was very fortunate not to suffer more serious injuries during his seven months in the war-torn country and is even more privileged to be home for the holidays.

In Iraq, McWilliams saw close friends in his squad lose more than just fingers.

McWilliams spoke highly of Lawton.

“He was the epitomy of perfection. He expected the best out of his soldiers, and he wouldn’t accept anything less.”

McWilliams’ family has lived in Routt and Moffat counties for six generations. His relatives first settled near Egeria Creek south of Toponas more than a century ago, and his great-great-great-grandfather lived in Hahn’s Peak when it was the county seat. McWilliams has family scattered throughout Yampa Valley.

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