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Wounded vets band together as brothers

Eric Jordan received his Purple Heart on Feb. 4, 2005, the same day he became old enough to buy beer.

He had unknowingly joined a new family.

Its members - all war-wounded veterans - included Sgt. Maj. John Keene, 73, recipient of two Purple Hearts.

"He came to the hospital and told me he'd look out for me," Jordan said Friday, the second anniversary of his injury.

Jordan, 22, and other wounded veterans returning from Iraq are finding comfort in a 74-year-old organization that includes men old enough to be their great-grandfathers.

Keene, a career soldier and former state head of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, was 32 when a bullet grazed his arm during the Tet offensive and 34 when shrapnel from a mortar tore into his arm and shoulder. His organization offers social and financial assistance to veterans.

Only Purple Heart recipients are eligible for membership. With 30,000 members, it's the only organization made up entirely of Americans who have been in combat.

"For every one man in combat there's 10 in the rear," Keene said. "The other 90 percent are just as important, but (wounded soldiers) can identify with each other so much easier."

The Tampa chapter, which draws from throughout the bay area, has 182 registered members, according to Thomas Hughey, the current commander. Of those, about two dozen regularly attend meetings.

That number is starting to grow for the first time since the end of the Vietnam War, as wounded Iraq veterans come home. Three have joined the chapter.

Members of the group are able to discuss their experiences in ways they couldn't with anybody else.

"You'll find more joviality with wounded veterans," Hughey said, "They respect each other's injuries and have empathy because they've been there."

"We were the ones who weren't smart enough to duck," he quipped.

The level of injury among members of the order varies. Hughey, for example, suffered noncritical shrapnel wounds as a Navy medical corpsman for a Marine unit in Vietnam.

By November 2004, Jordan had spent three months as a rifleman with the Army's 506th Air Assault Regiment in Al Ramadi, near Fallujah in Iraq's Sunni Triangle.

His squad had been hit before. The eight-man unit had encountered either roadside bombs or shoulder-fired rockets "four or five times" during Jordan's three months in Iraq.

On the night of Nov. 10, 2004, Jordan rode in a truck with a scout team.

The "improvised explosive device" hit near the back. The 21/2-ton truck rolled over. Heavy equipment crushed Jordan and severed his spinal cord.

He woke up at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. He couldn't see because of the drugs, but he could hear his mother's voice.

"Hi, Eric," she said. "You're safe, you're home, and you were hurt in Iraq."

He had been paralyzed from the chest down. A month later, he was moved to the James A. Haley VA Medical Center.

Keene visited Jordan there almost every day for the next six months. They swapped stories, discovering that both had fought with the 506th Airborne Infantry Regiment, the unit featured in HBO's Band of Brothers.

"It was good for me," Jordan said. "It let me be social with somebody who knew what I was going through."

Soon after leaving the hospital, Keene invited Jordan to an Army ball. After dinner, a speaker noted there was an Iraq veteran in attendance.

"I was like, 'Who?' and they said 'Specialist Eric Jordan,' " Jordan said.

After it was over, he said, it seemed like every one of the 200 people there shook his hand.

"It was pretty crazy, but it felt good," he said.

FAST FACTS

How to join

The Tampa chapter of the Military Order of the Purple Heart is open to Purple Heart recipients from any branch of the armed forces in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. Meetings take place on the first Monday of each month. For more information, visit www.purpleheart.org or call Tom Hughey at (813) 885-1228.

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