Wounded in Iraq: A Marine's Story

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Five years after a gunshot changed his life, the author reflects on what a decade of war has cost Americans

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Reuters

I cry whenever I think of a memorial service I attended in Iraq. From the back of the hot, packed room next to the chaplain's office, I looked down the center aisle and saw six sets of boots, rifles, helmets, and dog tags. Six Americans had lost their lives defending their country. I had seen these Marines hug each other before heading out on patrol -- real hugs, as if they guessed they might not see each other again. They had been in Iraq for a while and knew how dangerous every mission was.

9-11 Ten Years LaterBlood and treasure are the costs of war. However, many news articles today only address the treasure -- the ballooning defense budget and high-priced weapons systems. The blood is simply an afterthought. Forgotten is the price paid by our wounded warriors. Forgotten are the families torn apart by lengthy and multiple deployments. Forgotten are the relatives of those who make the ultimate sacrifice in defense of our country. As we look back on 9/11, we should also remember all those who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Fewer than 1 percent of Americans have fought in these wars, and it is important for the public to understand their effects on our fighters and those close to them.

The attacks of September 11, 2001, ushered in a new era of reservist involvement, and like many others, I volunteered to deploy to Iraq. As a Civil Affairs Team Leader, I was entrusted to help local Iraqi communities develop critical infrastructure projects. Our focus on foot patrols, combined with the intense heat and carrying 65 pounds of weapons and gear, made for long days. The enemy threat was omnipresent, and this was a chance to truly lead from the front. Being a part of this unit was the highlight of my military career, and in my short time there I learned a lot about leadership and troop welfare.

October 18, 2006, started out like any day over there, at least as much as I can remember of it. We had a newspaper reporter with us, and he rode next to me in the up-armored humvee. We stopped to inspect an Iraqi police station that had been shot up the night before, and then to check on a squad of Marines who guarded a notoriously dangerous area.

As we exited the vehicle at our next stop, I told the reporter about an enemy sniper in the area who had already killed several Marines, and warned him to move quickly. Based on this advice, he took a big step forward, and a bullet smashed into the wall next to us right where his head had been. The next bullet hit me behind my left ear and exited out my mouth, causing catastrophic damage along the way. Somehow, from hundreds of yards away, the sniper had managed to shoot me in the thin sliver of exposed skin between my helmet and neck guard. Miraculously the bullet did not hit my brain or my spinal cord. It did, however, tear apart my mouth and face. Although I initially did not lose consciousness, I do not remember anything from the sniper attack, nor anything else from the next two weeks.

The Marines closest to me thought that I had been killed instantly, but that did not deter Corpsman George Grant. With complete disregard for his own life, Corpsman Grant ran over to me, even though the sniper was still trying to pick off other targets. George saved my life that day. He performed rescue breathing and an emergency tracheotomy on me, even under these chaotic conditions. Ultimately, he was able to stabilize me long enough to get me to the closest medical facility. The Battalion Commander also stared down death to help provide emergency medical care to me.

Fortunately for me, these two warriors weren't the only ones willing to sacrifice their lives for mine. Lance Corporal (LCpl) Buhler, a young Marine whom I barely knew, then drove me to safety at 70 miles per hour, although we normally drove at a quarter of that speed due to the inordinate number of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in the roads. Had we run over an IED driving that fast, our vehicle surely would have flipped over and killed both of us.

From Iraq, I flew to Landstuhl, Germany and then on to what is now the Walter Reed Bethesda Naval Hospital. By an odd quirk of fate, I would later run into LCpl Buhler at that hospital - he and his best friend in Iraq had approached a black BMW due to an intelligence tip, but the insurgents exploded it when they were just a few feet away. LCpl Buhler was lucky enough to only suffer from shrapnel wounds to his abdomen, but his best friend, as he said, was "vaporized" right in front of him. Although LCpl Buhler recovered from his stomach wounds relatively quickly, I am certain he will struggle with the mental image of his dying friend for the rest of his life.

The next four to six weeks were difficult for me, and at several different times the doctors were not sure if I would survive. At one point, my fever spiked to 105° and I had not slept in a week. I suffered from anxiety, fear, and depression, and had a severe allergic reaction to the medicine administered to me. As a result, extremely graphic and violent hallucinations filled my mind, to the point where although just lying in my bed, I was sweating profusely from the horrific images in my mind. In fact, my heart was beating so quickly that the doctors told my family that if they could not slow it down, I would have a heart attack and die. 

After I woke from my medically induced coma, I could not talk for several weeks, but the doctors did not know if that was due to incredible swelling in my head and neck, or if Corpsman Grant had accidentally cut my vocal cord while performing the emergency tracheotomy. Initially, the only way I could communicate was to spell out words, one letter at a time, on the palm of my girlfriend's hand. Dahlia's patience was immeasurable, because it would take several minutes just to communicate one sentence. Although this was a step in the right direction, it was incredibly time-intensive and made it impossible to have a conversation. And it was only with Dahlia that I was able to communicate this way, probably because I felt so comfortable with her. That made visits with my family embarrassing and frustrating for me. Just like our wounded warriors who wake up in a hospital missing an arm or a leg, I did not fully understand what had happened but knew that something was severely wrong.

I can still remember being in the ICU, waking up and stating my last name (although almost unintelligible due to the damage to my mouth, teeth, and tongue), and seeing Dahlia's teary reaction as she realized I was "talking" again. As it turns out, even with the sniper still shooting at us, Corpsman Grant had performed such a perfect tracheotomy that my plastic surgeon later thought that another surgeon had done it.

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Justin Constantine is a recipient of the Purple Heart Medal, a Major in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, and a Fellow with the Truman National Security Project.

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