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Thousands of our returning soldiers face incredible adversity. Meet one who found a way to grow strong in it.
I never thought quitting was in my DNA. I never thought about giving up. I was strong. I played football at West Point. I was an officer in the U.S. Army. I had a wonderful marriage and two beautiful children.
But war can change you. War can turn you inside out. And adversity can either break you or make you stronger. It is a lesson thousands of our men and women in uniform have learned over the last decade, a lesson that began for me one day in Iraq in 2007.
The ride back to Camp Liberty, our battalion headquarters northeast of Baghdad International Airport, was supposed to be routine that May night. Not safe—in 2007, no Iraqi road was safe—but the paved, four-lane highway we were driving was considered less risky than most.
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My men and I—I was commander of the U.S. Army’s 2nd Battalion, 32nd Field Artillery unit—had just left Forward Operating Base Falcon, eight miles south of Baghdad’s Green Zone.
We’d gone there to attend a memorial service for two soldiers in our brigade who’d been killed by an IED—an improvised explosive device, a crude but deadly roadside bomb used by insurgents.
There were four M1151 armored Humvees in our convoy, each with five soldiers. I was riding shotgun in the third Humvee.
And then it happened. We ran over an object on my side of the vehicle. An IED buried under the asphalt. It happened faster than the mind can process. The flash and the boom, in that order.
I remember being propelled out of the 400-pound, two-inch-thick door of the Humvee. I felt a galvanizing rush of adrenaline. It was like one of those scenes in Saving Private Ryan, where a battle is being fought all around you and time seems to freeze.
I remember the Humvee careening past and me rolling to the side of the road. I didn’t think I was hurt. I remember being angry. Way more than angry. Furious. How dare these guys do this! I thought. We’re here, trying to make a difference in this country.
I tried to gather myself. My first thought was, Where is my rifle? I wanted to be able to protect myself and my men, because insurgents often followed up an IED attack with small-arms fire.
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I reached around, feeling for my weapon, and realized I couldn’t move. All at once I knew: I was hurt, badly. My head swam. I thought about my wife, Kim, our kids, and our home back in Virginia. My last thought was, God, I don’t want to die here.
When I came to, our first sergeant was kneeling over me, and a medic was wrapping tourniquets around my legs. The ground was sopping; I was lying in a pool of my own blood. Soldiers carried me to one of the remaining Humvees, and laid me inside, on my back.
I looked down and saw something odd. My left foot was folded over on my lap.
I tried to move it. Nothing happened.
“I can’t feel my legs. What’s wrong with my legs?”
“Don’t worry, sir,” the medic said, “your legs are going to be fine.”
I nodded okay, but somehow I knew otherwise. Maybe it was the fear and urgency in his voice. And maybe it was then that the question silently took root: Would I ever be fine again?
We raced back to Forward Operating Base Falcon, my head cradled in the medic’s lap. He wouldn’t stop talking. “Stay awake!” he kept saying. “Keep fighting! Don’t you quit on me!”