Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Alive Day

After many years, I think I have come to a point in my life where I'm finally willing and ready to tell part of my story. The story I speak of course, is the day I was injured by an Improvised Explosion Device (IED) while serving in Tal Afar, Iraq. In some circles, this day has come to be known as my “Alive Day.” I’ve never felt comfortable calling it that since, I lost one of my soldiers that day. I do feel that by putting this information out in the open, that part of my soul will heal. I've read stories of other veterans doing similar things, so I figure I should give it a shot. This story is as I remember it.

I think it was destiny that brought me to Army. As a young child, I was the kid in the neighborhood always playing G.I. Joe. I loved that cartoon. I’d dress up in camouflage and run around my backyard shooting bad guys. Even in the winter, when I couldn’t go outside, I’d find a way to play. I cut up an old cardboard box in the shapes bushes and trees, then colored them green and played that way. I remember when Operation Desert Storm was happening, how I admired those men and women I seen on television. I was raised in a very patriotic family. With the belief that many people have died so that we may enjoy the freedoms we have today. My dad taught me how important it is to serve your community. I think without that type of upbringing, I would not have served. I LOVED being in the Army.

It was 8 April 2006. I was a squad leader assigned to 3rd Platoon, Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 36th Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division. Our platoon the “Black Sheep” had affectionately called our deployment our “Iraqi Vacation.” Maybe a lot of other people did the same thing, I’m not sure. But it sounded cool! Our primary mission was to help train the local Iraqi Police Forces and “win the hearts and minds” of the Iraqi people. I met a lot of good people in Iraq. I still wonder what they are doing or even if they are alive. I hope they are. Little did we know that our unit would take more casualties than any other unit in country that year. I look back at the time I was in Iraq as a highlight in my life. I was doing my dream job. I was a squad leader deployed in the U.S. Army! I could not have asked for more. We were attached to an armored company as part of the brigade task force. Around noon, local Iraq time I had just returned from the Forward Operating Base (FOB) after a 24 hour day off. Our platoon lived in an Iraqi house in the city of Tal Afar. In total we had approximately 38 people living in the house, so we would rotate out 6 or 7 guys at a time for 24 hours off. It was great; we could shower, use running water, eat hot meals, and even make phone calls home. The house we lived in had electricity, but no running water, internet, and hot meals were something we were happy to get!

For many days before we had been receiving mortar around our house. We decided to set up sniper team in the northeast part of town. To do this, we would go out on a dismount patrol with a large number of men. We took 17 on that patrol. Our plan was to leave a 2 man sniper team in a house overnight. We were hoping that they would be able over watch a main supply route and find where the mortars were coming from.
 In the preceding weeks during other patrols we had found weapons and ammunition in abandoned houses. During our patrol we were again searching empty houses. I sent one of my fire teams into an empty house to clear it and conduct a search. Once the team gave me a signal the house was clear I went in to help with the search. 

Once inside the courtyard, I noticed small garden to my left. In front of it was a piece of white lattice. The kind you could buy at a home improvement store. On the lattice were a long green vine and the most beautiful red, yellow flower I have ever seen. I stood there staring at this flower for what seemed to be an eternity. I can remember thinking, “how can something so beautiful and unique, grow and thrive in such a terrible disgusting place.” Moments later, one of my men said to me, “Sergeant, the house is clear, we didn’t find anything.” I begin to walk from the courtyard to the road to inform my platoon leader we were ready to move out. 

Once I entered the doorway to the road, the IED went off with the loudest noise I have ever heard. It sent shockwaves through my entire body. I remember this loud ringing in my ears, a metallic taste in my mouth and dust so thick you could cut it with a knife. Dazed, but still alert, my immediate thought was to prepare for small arms contact. I remember telling myself “get your hand on your weapon!” But as I looked down, my right arm was just hanging there, not responding and pool of blood was on the ground. I took a few steps backwards and sat on the ground inside the courtyard. I began calling for the medic. Our medic showed up, along with a few of my soldiers. They took me into the house and sat me in a chair. The medic went straight to work, applying a bandage to my mangled arm. One of my men was shouting at me to stay awake. Another was poking me in the forehead. I remember thinking “Who has the balls to be poking me! I’m SSG Pauley!!”

I have to say a few words about my medic. I won’t use his name, since I don’t have his permission. But plain and simple, he saved my life. If not for his treatment, I would have bled out. I think about him every day and I love him like a brother! Once the bandage was applied, my men placed me into a skedco, a plastic stretcher. By then, support had arrived on-site in the form of Bradley fighting vehicles, tanks, and armored personnel carriers. As they began carrying me out, that is when I heard that worst words of my entire life. “Missilldine is dead.” Private First Class Jody W. Missilldine was one of my soldiers. He was 19, and had been in the Army less than a year. I wear his name on a bracelet, so that I will never forget him. I lost one of my men. Men that I had promised, I would protect. At that moment of being injured, I felt like such a terrible failure. I thought I had failed as leader. I thought I had failed as a soldier. I was going to be sent back to the states. But one of my men would never go home again. It felt like it was my fault. And that guilt was a heart crushing experience. All I can remember thinking is, “this is not fair!” “I don’t want to go home!” I wanted to go find the guys that did this! In my eyes, I only had a broken arm. I could stay and operate radios or something. But unfortunately the decision was out of my control. Imagine that for a minute. Everything you have ever prepared for, ever practiced for, ever wanted, was out of your hands. Sometimes fate can be just plain evil. I hate to admit it, but when I was presented my Purple Heart in a hospital in Mosul, Iraq. All I did was cry. R.I.P. Jody.

I was lying in the back of the APC, in excruciating pain as I heard the sound of Blackhawk helicopter landing nearby. I was put on the helicopter and the medic immediately rolled up my left sleeve and administered an IV. From there, I was taken to a hospital in Mosul. Once we arrived, I was brought into an operating room, still lying on the skedco. Someone said to “I need you to sit up, so I can check the rest of your body for wounds.” I sat up and they cut off my body armor and my shirt. Finally, they told me to lie back down. As I did, all I could feel was that I was lying in a liquid. I asked, “Why am I lying in water?” Someone looked at me, and responded “That’s not water.” I was laying in a pool of my own blood.

The next thing I remember is waking up, with an external fixator attached to my right arm. An Army captain was next to my bed. He began telling me what happened. Basically, I would need physical therapy. But fortunately I did not lose my arm. I have friends that were not as lucky as I am.

Eventually I was sent Walter Reed Hospital where I spent the next 3 months. Family came to visit, the food sucked, but at least my dad was there. I loved my dad. He was there when I enlisted. He watched me graduate basic training. He even pinned my airborne wings on my chest. He knew how much I loved the Army. How it suited me. He told me once, “I’m so proud of you for finding something you are so passionate about.” We often spoke about the wars, before I left for Iraq in 2006. We spoke every chance I had to call home while I was there. Unfortunately, he didn’t make it to see the end of the Iraq war. He died 3 days after I got out of the Army.

I had an external fixator that helped hold my arm together. Being in the hospital was painful, but not because of the physical therapy or surgeries. I’ve always felt guilty that my men had to stay in Iraq for 11 more months, while I was getting 3 hot meals a day. Those were my soldiers. Men I had trained to go to war with. Men, who I promised, I would help protect them. It was awkward coming back to the states. People kept telling me how lucky I was. Some even called me “blessed.” I hated it. Did that mean PFC Missildine wasn’t blessed? That he was just some unlucky guy? In my eyes, I had a broken arm. But no, my career, as I knew it was over. All I ever wanted was to be in the Army. It fit me like a glove. I loved every minute of the 11 years I served. I was proud to serve. I was doing something that I loved. I was happy. The Army was part of my heart and soul. To have your passion, your love, and everything you’ve worked so hard for, taken from you is terrible feeling. I don’t think there is anything I can compare it to, to help you understand. But it is something I hope no one has to experience. It’s painful to lose everything you ever wanted in just a short few moments. Finally, because of my injury, I could no longer perform the job of an 11 Bravo. So I received a medical retirement. I retired from the Army at 11 years, as a Staff Sergeant.

I have to tell you about my best friend. He was my platoon sergeant in Iraq. He’s without a doubt my best friend in the world. And I love him like a brother. I’d do anything for this guy. He visited me a few weeks ago. I’ve heard people say that “best friends can go years without seeing each other and pick up, right where they left off.” I hadn’t seen this guy in over 5 years. We didn’t miss a beat. We did what infantry guys do best! We went to the bar, and made fun of each other! It was great. We had some time to talk about everything about our time in Iraq. I had remembered a conversation we had in Iraq and I asked him about it. I asked, “Do you remember, sitting in that house and asking me, ‘What are we doing here?” He said he didn’t remember. My words to him at the time were, “As soon as you are able to accept the fact you may die here, the sooner you will be able to forget about that question and accomplish our mission.” He just looked at me. Then I told him something, I’ve never told anyone before. I said “For a long time I was bitter and angry that I didn’t die there. I thought that was supposed to be my destiny. I thought dying for my country is what I was put on this earth to do. And I was pissed that I couldn't even die.”

Now I do not let anything hold me back. Things are so different for me now compared to 5 or 6 years ago, I’m in the gym almost every day! I do things that doctors said I never would be able to do again. The pure joy from doing pushups, pull ups, and anything that involves my “metal elbow” is so rewarding! Being in combat was like a drug. It was a rush! Now my rush comes from anything physical. And it’s a feeling that I want more of. I do not and will not let anyone tell me I have physical limitations. I go and make things happen! I love my life. I love the people in my life. I love waking up every morning. I love that I am able to do things that a few years ago; I would have said “I can’t.” Now that word “can’t” is no longer in my vocabulary. I do not let anyone or anything stop me from accomplishing my goals. I’m happy! I’m more driven than ever before. 

I reflect about something almost every day. I take time to think about my decisions and how they will impact my future. I still have rough days. I think about my “alive day” every day. Some days, when I’m sad, angry, or that old grumpy, bitter me starts thinking “forget this, you can’t do it!” I think about that flower. I think about its beauty and ability to survive in such a harsh environment. Then I think about PFC Missildine. And I think that I owe him, and every other American that has lost their life due to war, to live a life that is happy and honorable.