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.