A Story of Courage
By Lt. Col. Paul DeFlorio
/ Published December 11, 2018
DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. -- In 2006, I was a young emergency medicine doc staffing the ER in Balad, Iraq. There was a break in the action, and about when I sat down to read the paper, my patient got blown up.
He was on patrol, riding in a Humvee when an improvised explosive device detonated nearby, peppering his vehicle with supersonic metal. Most of this shower of shrapnel pinged harmlessly off the armor, but one dime-sized fragment burst through the window, striking him in the neck. He felt a gout of pain and a warm slick of blood running down his neck to his chest. After dismounting it didn’t take long for his comrades to secure a perimeter and call for a medical evacuation.
When I saw him half an hour later he was flat on his back on a NATO gurney covered in grime, dust, blood and bandages, but he was awake and talking and able to relay his story as if issuing a report. When I sheared away the dressing, I recoiled when I saw a gaping hole the size of a peach pit in the lateral base of the neck, oozing dark venous blood. What vital structure did this wound channel lead to? The jugular system? Carotid artery? The spine? The esophagus? The trachea? Surely this large chunk of shrapnel had severed something that threatened to end this man’s life forthwith?
But after a careful examination, review of his CT scan and lab work, I was forced to conclude that he had somehow avoided the worst. The fragment had transited his midline neck without hitting anything vital – a miraculous trajectory that had spared his life. His wound had to be explored and the chunk of metal removed, but for the time being he was fine. Faced with a half-hour wait until the operation and no other patients to care for, I just sat down and started chatting with him.
I carried a small digital recorder around my neck at all times, and since this soldier’s story was so compelling, I asked him if he’d mind if I interviewed him on tape. He seemed surprised that anyone would bother to hear his story but managed a smile and said “go for it, doc.” He was serenely calm, still covered in grime, but with a new bright white dressing taped to his neck.
We ran through the whole event from the explosion to the painful wait for a helicopter ride, with his medic’s hand clamped on the wound, but I wanted him to tell me not just what happened, but how it all felt to him. What did he think about as the smoke cleared and the rotors turned over him? While what happened was already extraordinary, what he told me about his experience left me speechless.
“So, is the whole thing just like a dream? Did you ever really think this would happen to you?” I asked.
“Every day,” he replied, with no hesitation. I stared blankly back at him, surprised.
“I thought about it every day. And I was just, ah, hoping it wouldn’t. And hoping it wouldn’t to my Joes . . . I’m glad it was me instead of them. But, I just wish it hadn’t happened at all,” he said simply.
“Did you think at any point you were going to die? Did you ever think that ‘this is it: I’m going to die’?”
“Yeah,” he replied, nodding slightly, but then wincing with pain. I glanced away, clearing my throat.
“What’d you think about when you thought that?” I asked.
“What’s my wife going to do? Who’s going to take care of my family?” he replied, locking his steely gray eyes with mine.
Twelve years after I met this man I am still stunned by this exchange. Stunned that he thought about getting hit every single day yet he still had the courage to do his duties, day after day. Stunned that when the bomb went off, all he thought about was his men. I’m glad it was me and not them. And stunned that afterwards when he felt the warm blood coursing down his neck and soaking into his t-shirt when he lay in the dirt, convinced he was about to die, all he thought about was his family. He thought about his mission, his comrades, his duty, and his loved ones, but never of himself.
I have had the privilege of caring for many heroes, and I recount their stories every chance I get. They bear testament to the certainty that while the war is long and the sacrifices great, American fighting men and women are still facing down the odds with honor and bravery. During a season when so many are still so far from home, that’s something worth remembering and celebrating.