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Soldier wounded in Iraq on the mend back home in Minnesota
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Private First Class Michelle Loftus sits in front of a welcome home sign in the yard of the family farm she grew up on in sourthern Minnesota (MPR Photo/ Mark Zdechlik)
This weekend Pfc. Michelle Loftus, 19, will be honored with a celebration at her family farm near Rochester. Loftus was seriously injured in an attack near Baghdad in mid-July. Loftus is lucky to be alive. She is now on the mend in Dover, Minn.

Dover, Minn. — A half a world away from Iraq's scorching heat and devastation and its ever-present danger, the Loftus family farm is a 200-acre slice of paradise nestled in the rolling hills of southeastern Minnesota. Cattle in the pasture by the barn, chickens meandering about the yard and sheets waving on the clothesline complete the storybook setting. There's a lot of red, white and blue. Tiny American flags line the driveway.

Loftus says being home is wonderful. So was seeing the lush green vegetation that surrounds the farm.

"The first thing you want to do is kick off you shoes and walk around barefoot because you haven't been able to do like the little things like that for a long time for a long time," she says.

Sitting and talking at a picnic table Loftus' injury is obvious from the bandage covering the area between her nose and mouth. She recalls always wanting to join the military. She enlisted before her senior year of high school and shipped out for basic training last summer only a month after graduation. She says she always knew serving would be dangerous but she never expected such a close brush with death.

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Image 11 year old Ethan Loftus is Michelle's brother

"There's never a day that you know that you can take for granted." Loftus says. "We were so close to never seeing our families and stuff again. It was tough to kind of think about that but at the same time we're grateful and thankful. And I guess just downright lucky."

Lucky, despite her serious injuries.

Loftus was trained as a combat medic. In Baghdad her job was to care for injured Iraqi prisoners. She arrived in the city two days after U.S. troops took control of the airport this spring. Shortly before Loftus was to leave the base at Baghdad International Airport for a trip back to the United States, a homemade bomb propelled shrapnel into here face.

"It was made of nails, clay...just scrap metal type stuff." Loftus says.

Loftus had joined six other GI's for a volunteer mission to check out a road under consideration for her upcoming convey out of Baghdad to Kuwait.

"We were just basically going to to see how safe the road was and we went out of the gate and went probably 20 miles out from the base and everything looked good," she remembers. "Then on our way back we were about five minutes from the gate when the explosion happened."

Loftus and the others were traveling in two Humvees.

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Image Private First Class Michelle Loftus

"It was surprising and everything I mean we didn't see it coming at all because of where it was positioned on the road. I kind of felt it and heard it at the same time so to mean reflexes just kicked in," she says.

Loftus began firing her M-16, not realizing the extent of her injuries. Moments later fellow medics rushed her back to the airport base. She was stabilized, then transported by helicopter to a nearby hospital. The first of what will be several surgeries to rebuild parts of her mouth and face took 2 1/2 hours.

Her injuries were severe.

"The top part of my lip and the between my nose and top lip that area was peeled open. My lip kind of hung down and I had a slice across my cheek and during surgery they patched up my palate and fixed my gums as much as they could but there's too much tissue missing so they couldn't patch it all together," she said.

Loftus's spirits are high. Some bruising remains around her left eye, but she says she's recovering well. Already the stitches on her cheek have been removed.

She says relating the news of her injuries to her family was tough.

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Image Dover Minnesota grain elevator owner Robert Bedtke

"When I called to tell my mom and dad that you know, that I wasn't OK and that I wasn't going to be coming home the same way as I left. That was definitely out of this entire thing was definitely the hardest part."

Having Michelle back on the farm is a tremendous relief for family. Ethan Loftus, 11, is one of Michelle's six brothers and sisters.

"At first it was really horrifying because we didn't know really anything," said Ethan says. "All we knew is that she's been hurt and in serious condition and that's all we knew."

In the town of Dover, a few miles of the farm, Robert Bedtke stands outside of his grain elevator. He says Loftus' injuries have sparked a lot of local discussion about the war with Iraq.

"I know the family fairly well and you get to wonder, you know, what other kids are doing over there. I call them kids because they're young. You know like the boy up by the cities got killed that's further away, but when it comes only four or five miles from your area and you know the people, then you say you know it can happen to anybody," Bedtke said.

Michell Loftus says she's looking forward to the open house her family is hosting for her at the farm. She wants to thank people for their outpouring of support.

"We've been getting cards and phone calls and things like that," she says.

Loftus says her medical training has prepared her well to care for herself. She dresses her own wounds and says she can easily assess progress in her recovery.

As for the trauma of the attack, it's something she'll never forget.

"I was doing really well until about last night. Something fell and it triggered the same sound of the explosion and I guess in my dreams I heard some of the same things and I kind of woke up and it took me a minute to realize where I was," Loftus says. "I just kind of had to calm myself down for a minute there. I mean it was crystal clear in my mind, the sound of the people talking or yelling."

Loftus will travel to her base in Texas soon to welcome home the rest of her unit. She'll then be back in Minnesota for a couple of weeks before returning to Texas for another round of surgeries.

She's hopeful she'll be finished with operations by Christmas time.

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