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The Young Hero

Army Pfc. Mahlke, an NWTF member, laughs and says he has seven lives left. The first two are somewhere in the Iraqi desert. He is living the rest to the fullest back at home now. Pfc. Mahlke, an automatic weapons gunner, became the first Minnesotan seriously injured in Operation Iraqi Freedom when his Bradley Fighting Vehicle overturned March 28.

Mahlke's crew was near Najaf, about 50 miles from Baghdad, when the armored vehicle he was riding in nose-dived 45 feet into a gully. He says he flew forward in the Bradley but recalls little else. "The next thing I remember was on a Navy hospital ship," the USNS Comfort.

Pfc. Mahlke is lucky to be alive. His heart stopped twice en route to the infirmary — once immediately after the crash, then again in a Black Hawk over the ocean.

On the ship in the Persian Gulf, surgeons laid open his forehead and skull to remove a blood clot that apparently formed when Pfc. Mahlke, 20, banged his head on the Bradley's bulkhead. Instead of stitches, doctors used staples that run from one ear to the other.

He has been home since April 25, when his plane touched down at La Crosse Municipal Airport to a hero's welcome.

"It's great to be around family again," he said. He thought of his folks every night after prayers as he searched for sleep that often seemed as remote as the desert stars. He worried about his parents, Dave and Amy, his sister, Katie, and a girl as loyal to him as he is to his country. Her name is Chardy, a yellow lab, who follows him to the woods and fields he loves to hunt.

The soldier said he drifted to those places in his mind every night as he tried to sleep in a hole only big enough to lie in. In February, he even thought of the NWTF banquet he would miss and the turkeys he'd have to pass up. Another memory, another piece of home.

Even in Iraq, Pfc. Mahlke drew similarities between hunting at home and pulling duty in the desert. Patience and the ability to wait for the right moment to act were as important in war as the peaceful pastime of hunting. Only the desert wasn't quiet. Bullets whizzed by, bombs exploded, and every day was a battle against death.

Pfc. Mahlke has been put on temporary disability leave from the Army pending a medical review in 2005. Until then, Mahlke has returned to college hoping for a chance to become an officer.

"He's realized since he has been home that the military is the career for him," said his dad, who is the NWTF president of the Minnesota state chapter. "He was born to be a soldier."

Not long after his return home father and son went hunting in Bethelow, Wis., on land owned by a family friend. "It was like playing chess for three days" Pfc. Mahlke said. "Every morning was dead quiet. We finally figured out where the birds were roosting, and on the last day, two jakes came in and stood around a little too long."

After the hunt, a wounded soldier walked beside his father, with a 17-pound turkey slung over his shoulder and an unspoken thought on both their minds. This was part of what people fight for, the freedom to have such moments together in peace. To learn more about the NWTF, and how to become a member and volunteer, click here.



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