The first thing you need to know is that I wasn’t supposed to be there.
My initial tour of duty was in 2003. I led a fire team on the invasion of Iraq, which contributed to the 101st Airborne Division’s success of liberating three key cities and establishing a free and democratic Iraq. I earned several awards and commendations for exemplary service during Operation Iraqi Freedom. But I came back to the states without some of my buddies. That’s war.
By the fall of 2005, my time was up. I had nearly completed six years, so the last thing I expected was to be redeployed to Iraq with 28 days left on my contract. There was a shortage of troops, though, so the Army instituted their stop-loss policy. They sent me back to Iraq in the pre-surge of 2006. Now 24 years old, I was one of the youngest squad leaders in the battalion.
At one o’clock in the morning on Tuesday, April 25, 2006, our 12-man reconnaissance team had been working 23 hours straight without sleep. Earlier in the day, we had been on a joint mission in the slums of Sadr City, Baghdad guarding FBI and CIA civilians while they tried to identify mass graves: evidence against Saddam Hussein. We were part of a company of 100 – but were grossly outnumbered. The population of the city was about 2.5 million with about 40,000 men in the opposition. It was exhausting work.
Patrolling the city might not sound that dangerous to most people, but it can actually be the deadliest. In the city, you don’t know your enemy; you’re always getting shot at and dodging bricks thrown by kids. Three years earlier a little four-year-old girl walked up and handed a fellow soldier to my left something while we were on a foot patrol. It turned out to be a grenade. Four men were injured by the blast and Sgt. Troy Jenkins later died of his injuries.
After the joint mission in Sadr City, we managed to make it back to the base and were trying to wind down when we got the bad news: you’ve got to go back into the city. The brass wanted us to escort a vehicle that had to be out that night.
We made it through the city and were on our way out, driving in a convoy. I was the truck commander – the front right passenger – in the second Humvee and my gunner AJ was in the turret behind a 50-caliber machine gun. His eyes and nose were looking out the rooftop, but neither of us saw the infrared laser. It was attached to one of the more deadly forms of roadside bombs – an Explosively Formed Penetrating IED known for its power to pierce almost any type of armored vehicle. It detonated on my side, immediately engulfing us in flames. The blast threw AJ’s head into the side of the turret, knocking him out and mutilating his leg. I felt a huge fireball at the back of my neck. I gulped for air, but the toxic fumes burned my esophagus; I had to stop breathing or die.
Heat from the fire started igniting chains of ammo that fed into the machine gun causing random explosions. Boom…boom…boom. With nine grenades in the vehicle, it was only a matter of time before an even bigger explosion.
I looked down and lifted up my right leg up, but my boot stayed on the ground; it had been ripped off by shrapnel at the knee. My left leg was up near my face, blown in half at the calf but still attached by skin. Not good.
The vehicle was still moving, so I ordered the driver to crash into a wall. When we stopped, I pushed on the door with my shoulder. It was already caved in from the blast and now was blocked by a 10 ft. brick wall. I kept slamming my shoulder into it, until I made enough space to crawl out.
The driver came around to my side and start beating back the flames, thinking I was still inside. I could see him dodging rounds from the machine gun, as the heat set off explosions. I tried to yell at him, but nothing came out; my throat was singed. Finally, he looked over and saw me.
I laid back down and could hear the yelling, the orders, the mass chaos. This time, I wasn’t part of it. I could feel myself going to sleep, giving it up. I knew I was on the way out; I was dying. I started drifting off into what felt like an unbelievably great sleep, until I saw an image of my mom. She was wearing a black veil. It was antique looking, like the ones I saw at my grandma’s funeral. She was crying uncontrollably and holding my girlfriend. I remember thinking, “I can’t do this to my mom.”
Soldiers who have been to war can tell you that often times the last thing a dying soldier will do is scream out for his mom. I guess you get in that vulnerable spot, like you’re a kid again. For me, it was a little different. I just remember thinking, “Don’t die and do this to your mom.”
So I fought to stay awake, to stay conscious. I heard someone calling a 9-line medevac and they loaded me onto a stretcher. Our vehicles aren’t built for transporting patients, so they balanced me on the backs of two soldiers in the backseat. They drove so fast on the dark city roads, we made it to the base in 18 minutes. I could hear my guys screaming at the guards on the gate to get out of the way, “We got wounded! We got wounded!”
I saw the medevac bird landing for us as we pulled in, but they took the wounded to a tent to get us stabilized. They wanted to make sure we survived the flight. I knew the medics coming in to meet us; they had worked on our men in the past. Now the one who got a bronze star for working on my buddy blown up by the little girl was working on me. I was angry.
It was never supposed to be me.
Ten minutes later, they had me on the bird and I was headed to Bagdad ER. When we landed, I remember thinking, So this is where our soldiers were sent when they got blown up. They put my stretcher on the back of a John Deere Gator and drove me toward some tents. Tents? I thought. I wanted concrete walls. If you’re taking my gun and I’m not in charge, at least give me a wall.
I stayed conscious the next 24 hours as they pumped my body full of blood. Then they put me on a four-hour flight via military aircraft to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany.
And that’s where I got my second chance at life.
Video of Luke: http://youtu.be/LiKsIWbuo_s