IRAQ -- After the explosion, in the darkness, just a month into their deployment to Iraq, imagine the fear of a soldier, stuck in his seat, unable to move, unable to get to his gunner trapped just inches behind him with an injured leg -- and a missing foot.
Imagine the relief for the soldiers when they finally reached their wounded comrade -- and the terrible smell of blood, the terror of putting hands on a soldier’s wounded legs to tie a tourniquet that could save his life even as his injuries threaten to cost him his legs.
Later, after the medevac and the medals ceremony, the soldiers must carry on in Iraq while their wounded friend receives fittings for prosthetic legs back home.
Most of us cannot fathom returning to a job that causes such tragedy to co-workers, but for soldiers it is part of what they signed up for.
“Nobody wants to think that way, but you have to,” said Sgt. Brandon Christopherson, 24 of the Dalles, Ore.
Yet, looking at these two men, Christopheron and Sgt. “Danger” Dave Powers, 32, of Wilsonville, Ore. -- the two who saved their gunner’s life by tourniquets and steady hands -- you cannot see any hint of the tragic events of the recent past.
They tell their stories with voices unfaltering and eyes unflinching.
On Aug. 12, 2009, Christopherson, Powers and gunner Spc. Jeremy Pierce, 22, of Salem, Ore., from Task Force Atlas, Alpha Battery 2nd Battalion of the 218th, under the 41st Infantry Brigade Combat Team were performing convoy security when an IED (Improvised Explosive Devise) ripped through his armored security vehicle.
“From when we were hit to just before we stopped, I don’t remember anything,” Christopherson said. “It was probably the shock.”
When he came to, he tried regaining control of the vehicle heading towards a guardrail, but the wheel wouldn’t turn and the brakes were out, leaving the vehicle rolling to a stop on its own accord.
At first, Pierce told Powers he was OK, but moments later admitted in a nervous voice that he needed a tourniquet.
“Shaky, but I’m still here and talking,” Christopherson said about Pierce.
Christopherson tried moving in his broken seat for accessing the back of vehicle and within reach of Pierce.
“As much as I pushed and put all my weight on it, it wouldn’t move,” Christopherson said.
So Powers left the vehicle and made his way to the side door to assist Pierce. “I could obviously tell that things weren’t good right there,” Powers said.
Inside the vehicle, Pierce struggled with his left leg, and all the toes on his right foot destroyed. He was also missing a finger.
“I couldn’t get the stupid door to come down,” said Powers, who jumped in, resting his torso over the stuck door to administer the first tourniquet before pulling Pierce out.
Soon a medic from a nearby unit arrived on the scene and took control. Christopherson stayed with Pierce all the way to Baghdad until Pierce’s admittance into surgery. When stable, Pierce traveled to Balad Theater Hospital by an Oregon Medevac unit.
Christopherson and Powers attribute their competency from training in Combat Life Savers, where soldiers are taught basic skills like how to stop major bleeding and tourniquet use.
“Things that most people don’t know," said Christopherson. “It’s great training, invaluable training.”
Now the unit moves on without one of their soldiers, as soldiers are trained to move on. “It made people more aware, it woke people up really quick,” said Christopherson.
“Your senses are heightened a little bit more, you know,” said Powers. Soldiers are no longer able to just drive down the road as if nothing could happen.
“Now everyone is working their best to find stuff before it hits us,” said Christopherson.
“In our squad alone there has been a big change,” said Christopherson. “I think in our platoon alone there has been a big change.”
Soldiers now take more time organizing items inside the vehicle and know exactly where important items are located.
“Everybody keeps an extra quick clot dressing in their left cargo pocket and a tourniquet in their other pocket," said Christopherson. “It’s all a matter of just preparation.”
But can soldiers ever prepare to lose a comrade? Soldiers fight wars because they fight to keep each other alive.
“I’m not gonna save Dave’s life just because the Army wants me to,” said Christopherson. “I’m gonna save Dave’s life because I care about Dave and his family back home.”
It is an obvious morale crusher when a member of the team is no longer playing in the game.
“You can’t really prepare yourself for this,” said Pierce in his hospital bed in Iraq right after the incident. “I knew what I was getting into.”
Christopherson is quick to say that everyone is doing awesome.
“As good as you can be in Iraq. I volunteered for it, can’t even imagine why I did it now,” says Christopherson. “But I’m glad I did it.”
Then there are the frequent reminders that Pierce is missing.
“Everyone is a little more quiet,” said Christopherson, who remembers Pierce as a strong personality provoking arguments, debate and laughter.
Out at the motor pool, Pierce (at right) was one of the more experienced soldiers.
His old roommate Pfc. Adam Mortier, 22, of Beaverton, Ore., remembers Pierce as always the one still working on vehicles, cleaning or checking weapons when other soldiers had left.
“He dragged me out there a few times,” said Mortier with a laugh.
At "the cans" (housing area for soldiers), Pierce was the type of guy who ran a room. Pierce frequently bought fixings for barbeques and cooked for anyone who would drop by.
“We haven’t barbequed since,” said Mortier. “It was kind of his thing.”
Mortier cleaned out Pierce’s area in his room a month after the accident to make room for a new soldier transferring into the platoon.
“For the first week it was really odd,” Mortier said. “His stuff was all here.”
In the aftermath of Pierce’s injuries, “I had my family pray for him on the phone, they like to do that,” says Mortier. Now Mortier receives updates from his family, through the news, on Pierce’s progress with his prosthetic leg.
As for soldiers still in country dealing with a traumatic event there is not a lot of de-stressing while stationed on a military base in the desert.
Ask Christopherson and Powers how they deal with the stress of that night and they will answer with wry smiles.
“A lot of guys do PT, a lot of guys do a lot of PT,” said Christopherson.
“Wait for leave,” said Powers -- because there is really no escape while in country, no escape from the never-ending walls of concrete, reminders that they cannot leave.
The accident occurred months ago, but Mortier can still clearly remember sitting in his room thinking, “I can’t believe that happened.”
Cali Bagby is embedded with the Oregon Army National Guard from Charlie Company, 7th Battalion, 158th Aviation, a Medevac Unit based out of Salem, Ore., for KVAL.com. Her work has been published in the Washington Post and the Eugene Weekly.
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