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Donnellan Receives Respite from Iraq

101st Airborne communications specialist granted medical leave after spider bite.

Matt Donnellan was home again from the Iraq war, and cut down the yellow ribbon his family tied around the tree on their front yard in Montgomery Square. But Donnellan, a communications specialist in the 101st Airborne, expects to go back to Iraq shortly, and his family will once again tie on the yellow ribbon.

Donnellan spent the past month on convalescent (medical) leave from the Army after sustaining a gaping wound on his leg that doctors believe came from a camel spider bite.

Before returning to Fort Campbell, Ky. for a medical reevaluation, Donnellan got to meet the class that adopted him last Thursday. The 5th-grade class taught by Christine Black at Our Lady of Mercy supported Donnellan and his platoon with letters and care packages.

“I opened it up, and it was awesome, guys,” Donnellan told the class of receiving a package in Iraq. “It was touching to know that people in the States were thinking of us … even from those who don’t support the war.

“You’ll probably never know how much it meant to many of us over there,” he continued. “A lot of the guys don’t have family support.”

DONNELLAN’S MOTHER, Victoria Donnellan, was grateful to have her son back for a month.

“It’s wonderful,” she said. “He’s reverted back to the old Matt.”

It took two weeks for Donnellan to reach Potomac after receiving his medical leave, as he went on buses through Iraq, was flown to Spain for further treatment, then to Fort Campbell, Ky, and finally to Andrews Air Force Base, where his family was waiting to meet him. After four months of Army food, Donnellan was granted his first request: lunch at McDonald’s.

“I thought I was cheesy because I got a spider bite,” said Donnellan, but while he was receiving treatment, he saw a soldier who tore his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) playing football, and another who fell out of a cot and sustained neck injuries .

No embellishments were needed to impress the students.

“When he went to the hospital, they didn’t give him any painkillers,” said Katherine Black, a rising 6th-grader who helped organize the care packages that she and her classmates sent. Donnellan described what the war had been like, and passed around Iraqi dinar bills and several pictures. Students were warned about a graphic picture of Donnellan’s leg, but many took a look.

“The picture of the spider bite — that rocks,” said rising 6th-grader Megan O’Connor, who also asked Donnellan about the scariest part of his service in the war.

Donnellan described going through a convoy on a two-lane road lined with blown-up tanks as they approached a town, and when the convoy arrived, the streets and balconies were filled with people. “All it would take was a grenade launcher” from the crowd and it would have killed Donnellan and those around him. “Going through this town, I got kind of scared.”

When one student asked about the climate, Donnellan asked the students if they’d seen “The Mummy,” and when most of them nodded, he reminded them of the movie’s sandstorm scenes. “That really happens,” Donnellan said, describing the desert on the Iraq/Kuwait border. “It makes you feel like you’re getting stung by hundreds of little bees.”

A MOTTO STAYED with Donnellan as he and the 101st prepared for battle in Kuwait near the Iraqi border, and he continues to live by it: “Prepare for the worst and hope for the best.”

“I’m worried about fellow soldiers and guerilla warfare… but if I can’t do anything about it, I don’t stress over it,” he said. “There’s enough there to worry you as it is.

“You guys are actually better informed than we are,” Donnellan continued. “They let us know what we need to know… that way we don’t worry about stuff that’s outside our control.”

Donnellan admitted that his most recent Iraqi accommodations could be worse. “I’m living in Saddam’s palace [in Mosul],” he said. “We have a swimming pool and a volleyball net. … One of the nice things about being in communications is that I have a phone in my shelter.”

“The good thing about his having the phone is we could just talk and talk,” said Victoria Donnellan, who can also instant message her son sometimes.

CLASS TEACHER Christine Black named Donnellan an honorary middle school staff member as he opened two gifts from the class, an Our Lady of Mercy shirt and a Beanie Baby bear in military fatigues. Donnellan presented the class with a yellow ribbon, again thanking them for their support since the war began.

“It was about three-and-a-half months, and it seemed like forever,” he said.

Mary Katherine Green, a rising 6th-grader at Our Lady of Mercy, said she would remember “what Matt was like and how he appreciated everything we gave him.”

Donnellan’s leg still bears strong discoloration and marks from surgical incisions, but he was recovered enough to go camping with his siblings in the Shenandoah Mountains in Virginia. His injury will be re-evaluated this week at Fort Campbell, and he will return to Iraq if he is medically cleared.

“Driving into Mosul, you see tents and nomadic goat herders, then 10 minutes later, you see a city,” said Donnellan. “It can be a really beautiful place [but] it’s not my choice of where I would want to be. … You learn to respect the things you live without,” like running water and toilets that flush.

BACK IN THE U.S.A.

* Food – Donnellan had a request when he met his family at Andrews Air Force Base: “I asked my family to get me McDonald’s.”

* Freedom – A month-long respite from military life means day-to-day freedoms. “I’m able to what I want,” he said. “I can go to the bathroom without having to put on 10 articles of clothing.”

* Facilities – After living without running water or toilets that flush, Donnellan has a new appreciation for indoor plumbing. “You learn to respect the things you live without,” he said.