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Iraq vet survives bomb, returns home to Duluth

Master Sgt. John Souza (right) gets a hug from color guard member Wayne Hoffman. The color guard was at the Duluth International Airport Tuesday morning to welcome Souza home to Duluth. He was wounded during his most recent tour of duty in Iraq and had been recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. (Bob King/Duluth News Tribune)

DULUTH - John Souza knows the exact date and time that his leg was blown to shreds. It was 9:32 a.m. June 24, 2008, when the bomb that went off in Baghdad blew him across the room and caused his watch to stop working.

"Out of the six in the office," he said, "I was the only one that survived."

Since then, he has spent most of his time recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., going through multiple surgeries and countless hours of physical therapy to repair a leg he said was "hanging by a piece of meat." He also is being treated for a mild traumatic brain injury, the result of being knocked unconscious, he said.

Souza came home to Duluth on Tuesday morning for the first time since the explosion last year, greeted by family, friends, the Patriot Guard and the Duluth Color Guard.

"Thank you," Souza told the group that gathered in the airport.

"It's our honor to be here," one of the Color Guard members responded.

Souza arrived on crutches, with a sock concealing most of the damage to his leg. The 30-year Army veteran and master sergeant was working as a motor transport operator on the day of elections in Baghdad when extremists detonated an improvised explosive device inside an office.

Of the five with him who died, he said, trying to hold back tears, "those are the real heroes, the ones that never came back."

It will be a short trip home for Souza, who will be in Duluth for two weeks before returning back to Walter Reed for more care. In a few months, he said, he will go before a review board to determine whether he's fit to return to duty. Souza said after his injury he initially wanted to get back. Now, he's not as certain -- he also was involved in a near-miss explosion while serving in 2005.

"I've had two strikes," he said. "I'm not going for a third strike. I can't put my family through that again."

Ultimately when he's discharged from the military and able to live in Duluth with his family -- who have been here for 10 years -- he wants to help groups identify needs that aren't being met in the local veterans community.

"What do we have in the Duluth community that's not being done for our veterans?" he said. "My wife, Deb, and I; it's time for us to give something back."