There are two days in March of 2007 that I will remember for the rest of my life – and dream about, replay, and question. They almost killed me, and at the very least, they completely changed the course of my life. I wasn’t the only one, either.
It was supposed to be a three-day mission. We’d recently taken over the AO from another unit that had failed to patrol the area like they should have been. In fact, by the time they left, they weren’t even patrolling at all. They’d just sit around the COPs [combat outposts] and wait for us to get in-country and relieve them. Because of their inaction, the whole region was overrun with Al Qaeda. We had our work cut out for us. We would spend those three days flushing through all the palm groves and searching the areas known to be infested with Al Qaeda.
We originally set out in Strykers, but that didn’t go so well. We kept getting hit by IEDs, so we’d call EOD [explosive ordnance disposal] all the time, which slowed us considerably. Eventually, we decided to just go on foot for awhile and avoid the roads. We started pushing through the palm groves.
Sure enough, we were attacked almost immediately by machine guns, small arms, and mortars. I don’t know how many there were, but they fought hard and didn’t really shoot and run like they do in other places in Iraq. Al Queda is a lot more organized than most of the other insurgents. We ended up fighting most of that day and well into the night, too. Some platoon leader got hit in his head that day, and in the process of evacuating him, the guys misplaced his helmet and headset, but that was the extent of friendly injuries that day. I guess we got lucky.
Eventually, we set up in a small house and posted on the roof. We ate a few MREs [meals ready to eat], stuffed the bags with trash, and then used them as pillows on the concrete. Watch rotations would be hourly. Two guys on at all times, while the rest of us grabbed a few hours of sleep. They told me I had watch from 0500-0600. I’d be on with the platoon leader, who, unlike many of our lieutenants, actually stood watch with us – which was pretty neat. “Two more days,” I thought, and I drifted off to sleep.
When I got on watch it was still completely dark, so I just sat on the inside of the wall looking down one of the avenues of approach through my NVGs [night vision goggles] and waited for the sun to come up. It was almost completely light by a quarter before 0600, so I took off my NVGs and kept watching down the road. There wasn’t much going on down there, anyway. Just a few people walking here and there, and an old guy standing on the side of the street. That stuff is common. When I looked at my watch, it read 0555, so I got ready to go wake up everybody five minutes early.
Just as I was about to stand, I glanced at the road again and saw two military-aged males sprinting down the road towards our position and carrying something. I checked through my scope, but they were still about 200 meters out, so I couldn’t figure out what they were holding. It could have been anything. As I sat back down to watch them, they stopped next to the old man standing on the side of the street and started talking to him. Then the old man points directly at my position on the roof, which was surprising. That’s when I told my platoon leader and he came walking over.
He watched them intently for a moment and asked if I knew what was in their hands. I told him I couldn’t. It was too far. Then the two guys set down whatever it was they were carrying and started stringing wires across the street. But even that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Iraqis are always doing stuff with the power lines, or wiring up a satellite dish for their TVS. It’s strange; they never consider how it LOOKS to us: bad. I just wasn’t sure, and they were too far away to see clearly. The PL [platoon leader] stared at them some more.
“Kill them” he ordered.
“Um, both of them, sir?”
So I sighted in on the guy by the object on the ground and took him down. The other started running, but I got him without much trouble, too. After all the attacks we sustained the day before, I was pretty much fresh out of mercy. As I fired, everybody on the street disappeared, and everybody on the roof woke up. My adrenalin was pumping, so I got up and started walking around the roof, trying to relax a little.
We sent the EOD robot out to see what the object was that the guys had dropped in the street, and as the robot was scooting along, an insurgent sniper started shooting at it. He wasn’t very accurate, but he was close. The dust was kicking up all around the thing. A second later, a sniper round hits right between me and my team leader. We couldn’t determine its source, so we just laid low and waited for the controlled detonation.
Anyway, the robot eventually gets out there unscathed, and we find out what the guys had been doing. The “object” was the helmet and headset that the PL had lost yesterday, and the wires were connected to two artillery rounds. I felt better about shooting them. They were definitely two insurgents laying in an IED. If we’d gone out there to check it out, we’d have been killed.
When we started moving out that morning, we got hit pretty hard again from the palm groves, and one of our guys took two rounds in the leg. We took cover on the roof of another building, and I remember the company commander yelling at us to not peek over the top, which was stupid. I couldn’t see anything, so I just quickly looked over and ducked back down. A sniper round flew right over my head, so everybody opened up into the palm grove with small arms, machine guns, AT4s, and grenades. While we did that, another unit flanked them from the side and then we called in an airstrike to finish off any stragglers. I’m not sure of the exact numbers, but I think we killed at least a dozen fighters between both units and the airstrike. We kept pushing through the town and searching houses.
Late in the day, they told us that we were going to set up overnight in the same house, which isn’t very intelligent. We’d just finished searching another house, so we got out on the street and started to patrol our way back. At the intersection, I couldn’t remember if we needed to take a right or a left and nobody else could either, so I told our radio man to ask over the net and see if anybody else knew. He never got a chance to speak.
As he was about to talk, an Iraqi tossed a grenade over the wall around their house into the street next to us, where it detonated, hitting me in the right shoulder. And as soon as it went off, at least one enemy machine gun opened up on us from the palms again. Two of my guys got hit in the legs and fell, unable to walk. I got virtually strafed.
One round hit the knife on my flak and deflected, and then a few more hit me in the chest plate. One round, however, went through my assault pack, through the Kevlar vest, into my left scapula, and out the front of my chest. My arm went lip immediately, and I could feel the blood start to pool inside my flak vest and run down to my waist. Then it started dripping on the ground. I was afraid to look at it. I feared it was completely mangled, or maybe shot off. I sprinted back towards the house we just left, because I knew our medic was still in there, and collapsed as soon as I got into the courtyard.
The guys started stripping off my gear and my uniform, and when they got my shirt off, the blood spurted out of my shoulder like a garden hose. The bullet had severed my axillary artery, which then snapped back somewhere into my chest cavity. Doc looked at me quickly.
“I’m sorry, dude, but this is going to hurt.” He grabbed hemostats and started digging around in the entry wound trying to find the artery and clamp it. By this time, the internal bleeding was so bad that it collapsed my left lung.
Whenever something like this happens, the first thing you do is panic. You’re completely freaked out and frightened, and you have no idea what’s going to happen next. But then, you started to get some peace with it. It was a supernatural experience for me. I was panicking, and then I felt a peace wash over me. It’s almost like when you’re a kid and you fall and scrape your knee. You’re in pain and inconsolable, but then your dad reaches down, picks you up, and suddenly everything’s okay. That’s what it was like for me. I was okay with dying.
The doc never was able to find my artery, so he just packed the entire wound with gauze and hoped that the medevac to hurry the hell up. Even with my lung collapsed, I felt a little better. I started thinking that maybe I was going to make it. All we had to do now was wait for the medevac Stryker, which was inbound.
When it arrived, they loaded up me and the other two guys and drove us hard to some other FOB for evacuation. I can’t even remember which FOB it was, since I was only sort of cognizant by this point. I do remember that they had the Blackhawks waiting for us on the deck, and as soon as we loaded, they flew us to the trauma center.
All along that flight, I kept thinking about my family. Your whole life really does flash before your eyes. I thought about my wife a little, but mostly I thought about my children. They were 3 and 1 ½ then – young. What did they do to deserve losing a father? They were completely innocent – to life, to the evil of the world, and yet they were going to pay. To stay conscious, I prayed out loud the entire time. I could just have easily prayed in my head, but I needed to fight off the darkness, and talking out loud helped it. They told me later that I’d lost 2/3rds of my blood, so it’s amazing I didn’t pass out.
When we landed, they rushed me into surgery, and I remember the chaplain holding my hand as they started stabbing me with needles and put me under. That was the last thing I remembered.
Eighteen hours and four transfusions later, I came to with the surgeon standing over me.
“How do you feel,” he asked.
“Okay I guess. Just waiting for the anesthesia to wear off.”
“Son, you’re not on any” he told me. “Your days of power lifting are over. You have too much nerve damage in your arm.”
Sure enough, I couldn’t even move it. It was devastating. I had loved lifting weights.
Eventually, they shipped me to Germany for recovery, and while I was there, my squad leader, Sergeant Romeo, kept in close contact with me. He was one of those guys that didn’t just forget about his boys once they left the unit. He’d get off of long patrols and missions in the middle of the night, but he’d still call or e-mail me and see how I was doing. Romeo actually cared about his troops, unlike a lot of other guys that didn’t really go that extra mile. This was a guy who took what most everybody considered the platoon rejects and made a tight, cohesive squad out of us. Not only that, we got so good that the platoon considered us the “go to” squad. We led the charge most the time. It was because of that one man. He genuinely cared.
Within a couple weeks, though, I got an e-mail from Sgt Romeo that bothered me. He sounded weary, and solemn. He wrote, “tell them what we’re doing here.” It sounded terminal, like he was telling me his last wishes. It was also the last time I heard from him. Two days later, him, and my five other brothers remaining in my squad were killed when their Stryker rolled over a 1000lb bomb hidden under the road. The only one who survived it was the driver. Everybody else, every single man that hadn’t been medevaced from my squad already, was killed. Even the two that had replaced me and another guy. One was only about 17 or 18. My squad leader always told us he knew he wasn’t coming home, and tragically, he was right. He wasn’t even a US citizen. They awarded it to him, and promoted him, posthumously.
I’ve replayed that last day with the squad repeatedly. I’ve wondered why the insurgents let one squad patrol right by, but then they hit mine. Maybe they knew my face because I’d shot the other guys that morning. I’ve wondered how things would have turned out if I’d been standing an inch to the left or to the right of where I was. Maybe I would have dodged those bullets. I’ve wondered what would have happened if I’d still been with the squad when they rolled over the bomb. Maybe I would have directed the driver down a different route. Maybe they’d all be alive still. Maybe I’d be dead. I still feel responsible. I was the vehicle commander before I was hit.
So yes, I have survivor’s guilt. And I’ve wondered why I’m still here and they’re not. I’ve asked that question repeatedly. Why did I make it, and why did they die. The answer is: it’s complicated.
It’s dictated by how you live the rest of your life. I’ve been given a second chance for a reason. I still have a purpose in this life, and I have to do great things. I have to do something with myself.
It’s pretty intimidating sometimes, because it’s easier to just sit my ass on the couch and drink beer. It’s easier to feel sorry for myself. But I can’t. I’ve been preserved for a purpose, and I need to live that out. Otherwise, it’s been a total waste, and I was meant to go out with my brothers.
After two years, it’s still tough. I have PTSD, which continues to be a problem. I have anxiety, which doesn’t help either. And I also have excruciating nerve pain in my arm still. Getting shot and almost dying changed everything.
I couldn’t move my arm for a long time, but I’ve slowly regained some feeling in it. My forearm is still weak, though, and my hand is still completely numb. I’ve been prescribed every medication in the world for the pain, but the only things that actually work are alcohol or narcotics. I stay away from the alcohol, but now the VA isn’t prescribing me any narcotics anymore, so I have to pay for it out of pocket at a private practitioner. I got laid off from my job recently, too, which was tough. The only income I have right now is from disability.
I still have to ask people to help me all the time, which is a real ego blow. If I have my right arm full of stuff, I can’t open the door with my left. I have to get help opening jars now. I can’t even tie knots to go fishing. As much as I may try to forget what happened, I have a constant reminder. I can’t do certain things anymore.
I keep thinking about my purpose, and why I survived when almost everybody else was killed. It haunts me. They were such good men; they were my brothers. Some days are hard still, or dark, or discouraging, but I always pray for a better tomorrow. I’ve been kept here for a purpose, and I have to see it through. Those men, I guess they’d completed their mission, and they were taken home. For me, however, I’m not done yet. I have to live well, and I have to do it for six men who didn’t. That, I think, is my one remaining mission.
The platoon is doing ok, I guess. [T]he commander is running us into the ground, and the morale is low, but we have no choice but to continue to push onward... We were the best squad, and you can really tell the difference because the rest of the squads don’t move and fight like us. [W]e had a special bond, all of us. [E]veryone had their own defects, but somehow we all worked together, sometimes at the drop of a hat, and no one can take that from us... [D]eep down, everyone knows it...
P.S. Tell everyone about the great things the squad has done here, and remember it was all because of you guys.
-Army Staff Sergeant Vincenzo Romeo. Died May 6, 2007. He was 23.
Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved