The only one of his comrades to survive an explosion in Iraq, he soon learned to share his gift of healing humor.
It’s hard to miss my scars. One ear is gone, the other is mangled, my bald head is a patchwork of skin grafts and my left arm ends in a stump. How did I end up like this? I tell folks it took four tours in Iraq for me to realize that my lucky number is three. Funny, right?
Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing funny about what happened to me, but laughter has helped me heal. And it’s made me realize that how I look isn’t really what’s changed the most.
Why did I survive? Eight months after the explosion, I lay awake in bed next to my wife, Connie, that question hammering away at me.
The day before Easter in 2007, I was three weeks into my fourth deployment as an Army staff sergeant and transportation specialist. My unit, D Troop, 5-73rd of the 82nd Airborne Division, was prepping for a supply run to a base north of Baghdad.
I joined four of my buddies for a briefing to go over what we’d do in case of a breakdown or attack. They were young, most on their first tour. At 36, I was the old man of the bunch. Still, we were tight, like brothers.
At the end of the briefing, they bowed their heads and said a prayer. Hurry up with this God stuff, I thought. I had no use for someone who wasn’t in the here and now.
We got in our Humvee and rolled out. That’s the last thing I remember.
I wasn’t one of those guys who was gung-ho Army from the day he could walk. I grew up in San Jose, California, a Navy brat. And a rebel. I wasn’t into school. Or church. The idea of some unseen being telling us what to do with our lives–that didn’t make sense to me.
The main thing I was into was partying. I drank, smoked weed, dropped out of high school. My uncle, who’s six years older, set me straight when I was 17. “I’m joining the Army,” he said. “You’d better sign up with me if you know what’s good for you.” Deep down, I did. I knew I was in trouble.
I served in Desert Storm, then mustered out. I went back to California and worked different jobs–radio deejay, truck driver, railroad maintenance man. One night I met Connie, a medical biller. Gorgeous and smart. Our birthdays were a day apart, we’d grown up one town over from each other, loved the same music.
The only thing we didn’t have in common was faith. “I feel God’s presence all the time,” Connie told me.
“Not me,” I said. “I don’t buy that whole God thing.” I couldn’t understand why someone as smart as Connie did, but that didn’t stop me from falling in love.
We married, bought a house, started a family. Life was good, and I was content. Then September 11, 2001, happened. I may have been a bit of a cynic but I was a patriot. I reenlisted. Connie understood. That October, at age 30, I went through basic training again, then airborne school, and straight to the 82nd.
Serving my country gave me a sense of purpose my civilian jobs hadn’t. I did a second tour in Iraq. A third. In 2007, I was called for my fourth. That fateful Saturday, April 7, my buddies and I got into our Humvee and headed out on our supply run.
The next thing I remember, I was standing on top of what looked to be a giant iceberg, except it wasn’t cold. The sky was an inky black, dotted with stars. I heard voices, like in a choir. Not singing, though. Chanting. “You’re going to be okay.” “Hold on.”
I didn’t recognize the voices, yet I’d never felt so loved, so at peace. If I believed in heaven, this is what it would be like, I thought. I didn’t want to leave. But the voices chanted, “Your family is waiting for you,” and I knew I was being sent back.
Then came another voice. “Can you hear me? What is your name?” I forced my eyes open. I was lying in a bed, a doctor leaning over me.