Stepping Up

updated 06/07/2004 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/07/2004 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Injured by U.S. fire, an Iraqi girl finds hope a world away

Army physical therapist Maj. Mary Adams-Challenger was used to witnessing the human toll of battle, but something about the little girl she met Dec. 2, sharing a tented ward with POWs and wounded soldiers at a combat medical unit 50 miles north of Baghdad, struck a nerve. "I felt like I was perhaps her only hope," she says.

Ma'rwa Ahteemi, 13, had been left with a broken left femur and paralyzed from the waist down after an errant U.S. mortar struck her home in a Sunni-Triangle village, killing five relatives. Finding the girl with life-threatening bedsores, Adams-Challenger, 37, vowed to get her to better care. First, she and Sharnell Hoffer, 32, a Minnesota pediatrician in the Army National Guard, brought in a custom-made wheelchair, which enabled Ma'rwa to move independently. "That's when I saw a big turn," says Adams-Challenger. "She became more motivated."

Then, working with the National Spinal Cord Injury Association in the U.S., she and Hoffer lobbied U.S. government officials, the U.N. and the Iraqi Health Ministry to secure a medical evacuation for Ma'rwa Finally, on Feb. 28, they brought the girl and an uncle to Washington, where Ma'rwa received treatment at the National Center for Children's Rehabilitation. When she returned to Iraq May 21, she could walk with braces and crutches, dress herself and more. "Mary and Shar are my family," Ma'rwa says. As for her rescuers, Hoffer says the experience has renewed their faith: "Having hope for a child is never in vain."

Inspiration—and a treat—for the injured

Vietnam vet Jim Mayer has become a fixture at Washington, D.C.'s Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where he has delivered milk shakes and hope to the patients of Ward 57—the orthopedic unit—about three times a week since 1991. "It makes sense," he says simply. "They're thirsty and homesick."

There's more to his visits than malted milk. Mayer lost his own legs below the knee at 23 after he stepped on a land mine in Vietnam. It took nearly a year in the hospital and 21 operations before he could walk using prosthetics. After hearing a soldier who had lost both hands describe how he had moved on, he says, "I thought, 'There is life after this!' " Now Mayer delivers that message to the amputees of Walter Reed—more than 70 soldiers there have lost limbs since the Iraq war began—who are struggling to recover from the trauma of their injuries. "I just want them to know, 'Hey, you're not alone; someone cares,' " Mayer says.

The executive director of a leadership program for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs by day, Mayer—divorced with one grown son—uses the milk shakes (now mostly paid for with donations, though he used to spend $75 a week) as an ice breaker. "You ask them about the pain they are feeling," he says, "and it just goes from there." Sgt. Ryan Kelly, 23, who lost much of his right leg after his Humvee hit a bomb last July, was skeptical at first. "But after he left I felt better, more empowered," he says. "You realize there are more possibilities." That's exactly the result that keeps Mayer coming back. "The greatest reward," he says, "is to be there when they get the message."

Building a future, one child at a time

Riding in a Humvee through the northern Iraqi city of Mosul in May 2003, Spc. Dave McCorkle watched the throngs of barefoot children—many orphaned or fatherless—trying to support themselves by panhandling or selling candy and cigarettes. "It's heartbreaking," says McCorkle, 46, an information specialist in the 318th Tactical Psychological Operations Company. "You want to help."

Then an 8-year-old boy grabbed McCorkle's hand and wouldn't let go. Charmed, McCorkle began sneaking treats to the boy and with the help of an interpreter, learned his tragic story: Yahya Hussan's father had died of cancer, leaving him and seven siblings penniless. McCorkle told Yahya's mother that if the boy would go back to school, he would supplement the family's living expenses, providing $60 per month.

That was the start of American Aid for Children of Nineveh, Iraq, a fledgling charity through which McCorkle matches needy kids and eager donors. So far 16 people have pledged $60 monthly so children can stop working and go to school. "In the midst of all the chaos, he was able to reach out and touch these kids," says his commanding officer, Maj. Paul Dixon.

McCorkle was a 350-lb. software engineer when 9/11 inspired him to lose 125 lbs. and join the Army reserves. "It was something I had to do," says McCorkle, who returned to his IBM job near his home in Lone Jack, Mo., on May 1 after a 14-month tour of duty. His wife, Maureen, 45 (with whom he has two young sons), is helping with the charity. Still in touch with Yahya, he hopes to bring the boy for a U.S. visit this summer. "Just the smallest thing makes kids happy," he says. "That's why I'm doing this."

The mother of all Marine moms

Karen Gill has 14 turtles with names like Semper and Fi—pets she chose in part because their shells look like Marine Corps helmets. She knows that "sugar cookie" is the term for what a recruit looks like after doing push-ups in the sand. Last Halloween, to encourage support for Marines, she dressed up as a care package. Says Gill, 45: "I'm obsessed with helping the troops."

The infatuation began when son David, 20, headed to boot camp in San Diego in July '02, and Gill befriended other corps parents through online support groups. Soon the freelance TV producer in Lake Havasu City, Ariz., was offering information and moral support by e-mail and phone into the wee hours, at times talking to a single stranger five times in a day. "When you're freaked out and don't know who to ask, I tend to be that person," she says. Marine mom Cindy Fyffe, 44, has been there. "I could call her at 1 a.m. just because I feel anxious," says Fyffe. "Karen is always there for anybody."

If she's a den mother to parents, Gill is like a fairy godmother to their kids. Since David deployed to Iraq last June, she has shipped more than 600 care packages—with donated items from sunglasses to slippers—to Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan (occasionally with messages like "Please call your mother!"). When one wrote from Iraq asking her to help find a discount hotel in Las Vegas for a future trip with his wife, she landed him a free casino stay. Treats for Troops has limited her TV work. But Gill, who with husband David, a retired shipyard supervisor, also has a daughter, Alicia, 22, doesn't mind. "My heart," she says, "is with every Marine and Marine family I can possibly help."

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