- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 11, 2008

BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan — When Marine Lance Cpl. Ryan Walsh set our for the distant Afghan village of Sangin on July 8, he knew he faced three enemies — furnace-hot heat that can top 120 degrees, roving bands of opium gunmen and a resurgent Taliban that had bedeviled a British forward operating base in the region for months.

It was the beginning of a 10,000-mile journey that would take Lance Cpl. Walsh, Cpl. Austin Crockett and other members of their platoon from the eastern border of Afghanistan to the National Naval Medical Center (also known as Bethesda Naval Hospital), earning Purple Hearts for their service to their country.

The Washington Times took the journey with these Marines, gaining new understanding of the ordeal of soldiers wounded in one of America’s longest wars.

• Read the entire Washington Times Veterans Day special section.

Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, holding back tears, met with families of the wounded at the first Wounded Warriors Family Summit at the Pentagon Oct. 20 and promised to make the injured soldiers his “highest priority.”

In Iraq and Afghanistan, Air Force and Army medical teams have used advanced technologies to save lives that in past wars would have been lost. Mr. Gates, however, reminded families that the public and military have a long way to go in dealing “with the psychological effects of what has turned out to be a very long war.”

Since 2001, more than 620 U.S. troops have lost their lives in Afghanistan and more than 8,600 have been injured. This year has been the deadliest, with more than 151 killed and more than 740 injured, according to statistics provided by the Department of Defense.

The two young Marines understood the dangers. Their return home was bittersweet.

“If I could, I would stay and fight,” said Lance Cpl. Walsh, 21, of Easton, Mass., as he lay on a gurney aboard a C-17 cargo plane heading from Germany to Andrews Air Force Base. He was being treated for injuries to his hand, his left thigh and both lower legs caused by rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs). “We were lucky that day. We fought hard to survive. We’ll be OK, but who knows what will happen to those we left behind.”

Gathering the wounded

Capt. Terry Winnett, the medical crew director with the Air Force 455th Expeditionary Medical Group, leaned against the back of a table in his unit’s makeshift lounge at Bagram Air Base near Kabul.

He underlined to the Air Force pilots and crew - some of whom wore “evac-Istan” patches - what injuries they should be prepared to deal with and reminded them that they would be flying over dangerous insurgent strongholds.

“We’ve got Crockett, 21, with RPG frags (fragments); Hamby, 22, RPG frags; Walsh, 21, RPG frags with injuries to his left thigh and lower legs,” he said as he continued to read through the list of troops, which included a soldier with symptoms of depression who had attempted suicide.

An Afghan interpreter, who had aided U.S. troops in Afghanistan’s southern Helmand region, also was on the flight manifest after losing a leg when an improvised explosive device (IED) hit his unit.

The C-130 cargo plane had been converted into a medical unit full of injured who already had been stabilized at base clinics in Afghanistan’s eastern and southern provinces. The medical crew, along with the pilots, had received an intelligence briefing on the dangers they would face as they flew over hostile territory to get the wounded. They would be making four stops. “Bastion, Kandahar, Salerno, back to Bagram” and the plane would be full, Capt. Winnett said.

Master Sgt. Rich Kramer, nicknamed “Crusty” by his friends, smoked a cigarette to calm his nerves before the flight.

“I was there for the fall of Baghdad,” said Sgt. Kramer, who joined the Air Force in 1980 and has completed numerous missions in Iraq and Afghanistan in the past seven years.

“It’s not easy seeing this day in and day out. But you learn to just shut it down to get your job done,” he said. “Our job is make sure the troops, even the civilians we pick up, make it back alive.”

At the airstrip, pilot Maj. Steve Christiano and co-pilot Maj. Alex Pupich, with the 115th California Air National Guard, known as the “Hollywood Guard,” were preparing for takeoff. As the C-130, known by the team as the “supersized ambulance in the sky,” lifted off the runway, heading east, the surrounding jagged mountains looked smaller. The barren sparse roads and rough terrain reinforced the alien character of the country to most in the West.

“It’s different up here,” Maj. Pupich said, looking through the cockpit window at a narrow winding river and small villages below. “It’s a world we can’t understand, like time stood still … but for the guys on the front lines, it can be a nightmare.”

Facing the enemy

The 2nd Battalion attached to the 3rd platoon 7th Marines Echo Company had been on a mission to clear the small town of Sangin when it came face-to-face with Taliban insurgents.

“Honestly, earlier in the day, we didn’t see anything suspicious,” Cpl. Crockett said, watching as flight medics carefully inserted an IV into his arm after his evacuation from Bastion, a British-controlled forward operating base along the eastern border with Pakistan. “It wasn’t until dusk that the insurgents surprised us. We were completely exposed, and all we could do was fight to survive.”

Cpl. Crockett, whose legs were wrapped in medical gauze, said he was hit with shrapnel in his thigh and arms.

On the stop-and-go flight to pick up other wounded troops throughout eastern and southern provinces, he, along with other injured members of his platoon, recalled the day they encountered the enemy.

The platoon was trapped on a 10-yard-wide road with little visibility. The insurgents, hiding among 14,000 villagers, began firing on them with RPGs and small arms fire.

Lance Cpl. Walsh, a mortar man with the platoon who was first to face the insurgents, said the bullet that pierced his middle finger sent chilling pain throughout his body. During the battle, RPG fragments ripped through the skin of his legs, but he continued to fight.

His finger, which doctors attempted to save at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, was amputated eventually at Bethesda Naval Medical Center in July.

“I had to keep fighting,” he said. “We all did if we were going to survive. The insurgents had us trapped.”

He yelled to the others to continue fighting. Seconds later, shrapnel tore through his legs like a jagged knife, breaking both tibias and rendering him immobile.

“The platoon sent a quick reaction force to get us out,” he said as the plane lifted off the airstrip. “All I can think about is seeing my family. I really want to get home.”

The Times interviewed the two Marine buddies recently at Bethesda Naval Medical Center. Colorful handmade “thank you” cards from children across the country decorate a bulletin board near their rooms and remind them that they have not been forgotten and are “lucky to have the people we love by our side,” Lance Cpl. Walsh said.

Cpl. Crockett got his mother to sneak “a good old American burger” into the hospital. Lance Cpl. Walsh was able to have his parents, Jim and Cathy Walsh, stay with him through his rehabilitation.

Final salute

As Cpl. Crocket, Lance Cpl. Walsh and the other injured troops were being prepped at Bagram’s Craig Joint Theater Hospital for their flight to Ramstein Air Base in Germany, a caravan of Humvees and trucks slowly rolled down the main road.

Base contractors and U.S., French, British, Egyptian and other troops with the International Security Assistance Force stood and waited in silence in the scorching heat of Afghanistan’s late summer.

Two coffins, draped in American flags, lay next to each another in the back of an open vehicle. The troops stood in single file and gave their fallen comrades a final salute.

“It’s never easy,” said Army Sgt. Chuck Roberts, a media officer on the base. Sgt. Roberts and his colleagues videotaped the ceremony for family members. Members of the media and bystanders were not permitted to take photographs.

“It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve been through this, it’s always difficult,” Sgt. Roberts said. “This ceremony is to honor the troops and their families. I wonder how many people realize what an ultimate sacrifice they have made?”



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