Today’s blog is written by US Army veteran Jay Erwin. Jay is a volunteer with GallantFew and many times is the first contact a new veteran makes when connecting with GallantFew. km
7 years ago yesterday I was still in the Triangle of Death about to have one the worst days of my life.
We loaded a Chinook helicopter at 2300 and would be on the ground 30 minutes later to conduct what I thought was a routine mission. We would spend 4 days at the same power plant hunting for the same elusive enemy. I was going to be driving a John Deere Gator 6×6 loaded with 20 high explosive 81 mm mortar rounds and the complete 81 mm mortar system. We were to walk in on the objective and I was to drive the mortar system and rounds to our hasty position. The problem was that we were miss-dropped from our original SP point about 2 clicks off course. We would have to navigate to our final destination point with a compass and a map, nothing out of the ordinary.
The night was hot and I could already feel my body being engulfed in a warm barrier of sweat. We began to walk in a single file line,stagger, every other man on the opposite side of the road. We had enough distance between us so that one well aimed shot wouldn’t kill 2 of us. We walked for a good 30 minutes until we came to a small house with a cow in the back, it looked abandoned but I knew better than that. The house looked like something out of the Stone Age era, made of mud and bricks molded together by some sort of mud paste (example). It had a small courtyard in the front made of a wooden gate surrounded by a makeshift fence. There were no windows or doors just holes bored by hand that resembled a door and 2 windows. The were no lights on, the only sign of life was a very skinny and nervous cow with a lead rope around its neck pacing around in a tiny coral area.
The small dirt road I was traversing had huge craters form 155 mm artillery rounds that had impacted earlier in the war. It gave me a very eerie feeling in my stomach and I could feel the hair rise on my arms and neck. The goose bumps and chill I got from that house was not a feeling I like to remember. My palms began to sweat and my senses were so heightened and my adrenaline so high that I felt like I was a super human. I could hear my heart thumping in my chest as my mouth began to become dry. I felt completely alive.
I began to see my teammates’ IR strobes and lasers light up the house in the windows and doors through my NODS. We were all waiting for a possible target to pop up and were to engage. The low hum of the motor on the Gator began to get louder as I began to speed past the house and get out of the danger zone. Once we got to the front of the house I notice two Toyota Hilux 1980 something looking trucks,the typical enemy transportation that they liked to use. The trucks were the only things that were reminiscent of something past the Stone Age.
We slowly passed the house and turned on a black top road that led us to the front of the power plant we were to occupy. This was not our original position we were supposed to go to but due to being dropped off in the wrong location and a flat tire on the Gator we had to hurry to a safe area before the sun came up. The enemy doesn’t like to fight at night because we have the technical and tactical advantage of night vision and air assets. These devices allow us to see the enemy just as well at night.
We began to lay our guns in and settle down to eat chow and get a well needed water break. The sun was up and it was a brutally hot day. I think it was nearly 130 degrees around noon, nothing short of miserable. As soon as we got done eating we scattered around 2 mobile trailers with FDC (Fire Direction Control) in one trailer and the gun teams in the other. Around 1400 we began to receive enemy mortar fire. The fire was getting close and I began to feel super helpless. There is nothing worse than waiting on an enemy mortar round to land in your lap. Not my idea of fun at all. One of the 82 mm mortar rounds impacted the back of the trailer and peppered our RTO’s arm. It was just a flesh wound but we were all very shaken. These bad guys had us dialed in. The barrage lasted around 15 minutes and just as fast as it all happened, it stopped. We fired a few rounds back but never heard what had happened.
Around 1700 we were all eating in an open area when we began taking more enemy fire, this time you could hear them impacting closer and closer. I told the guys near me to get their helmets and eyepro back on because it was just in time for the enemy to start fighting. The enemy likes to fight during first light until about 0930 then take a break for a few hours and then start back when it starts to cool down in the evening.
As soon as I started walking back to the base gun, I saw a huge flash of light and then felt a piercing shock through my body. I felt like I was in slow motion, my body buckled and thudded to the ground. It felt like someone had turned off the lights. My mind started to race and flicker with thoughts like, where am I? What just happened? Why can’t I move? I could only see a haze of white and started feeling a burning sensation in my legs.
My mind started flickering back on, catching glimpses of blood, people running, their mouths were moving but I couldn’t hear them. I could not hear anything but a very high pitched ringing it was deafening in my ears. I slowly came back to and started to notice that I was no longer standing, I reached for my gun, I couldn’t find it, I was panicking. I couldn’t find my gun.
The sound came back, everyone was screaming, “Medic!” “MEDIC!” “MEEEDDDICCC!” I felt as if I were in a tunnel. I had been hit by a mortar round and I was bleeding through my pants. Everyone around me was on the ground, yelling. I thought, this is it, I’m going to die.
I looked up and noticed someone emerging from the burning mobile trailer. It was my section sergeant, his hair and arms were on fire, his face was black and charred from the smoke. He stumbled to the ground, smoldering as others ran to his rescue. I lay there knowing I needed to help but I couldn’t move. My buddy Bush who was just 10 feet away from me when this happened. He had a hole the size of a half dollar in his upper bicep which I didn’t notice at the time. He began to drag me away from the burning trailer because we had 15 of our 81mm High Explosive rounds inside and they started to detonate from the fire. He managed to drag me about 15 meters over a berm high enough for us both to be shielded by any secondary explosions.
Doc Johnson came running over to me and began administering an IV and gave me a shot in the leg of something. He cut all my clothes off and of course I was more worried about my manhood being there than anything else in the world. Thank God it was still there! I had a younger private that sat with me and fed me water, I had him retrieve my can of chew from my sleeve pocket and tuck it underneath my hip. Through all of this, all I wanted was my powdery can of Copenhagen snuff? Weird.
The burning pain in my legs started to slow down and I started to realize that my fingers were mangled as well as my ankle. My legs looked like swiss cheese and I was screaming from the pain. Doc Johnson was super worried about the shrapnel I took to the face, mostly to my neck. I could tell he was worried even though he didn’t say it. He didn’t have to say it, I knew something was wrong. They put a tourniquet on my leg to stop the bleeding in my ankle. Two (F-F18‘s) fast movers came screaming in and cleared out the enemy by dropping two 500 pound laser guided bombs very close to our location. I could feel the earth rumble beneath me. I could see the MEDEVAC bird coming to pick us up, we were close enough to the 10th Baghdad CASH that it took about 15 minutes for us to be picked up. Time was on my side. There is usually about an hour that is critical time when a severely injured soldier has to be worked on also known as the Golden Hour.
Things started to slow down and I began to think I was okay until I got into the CASH (basically the ER), the doctors told me to call my mom and handed me a cell phone. They told me that they were not sure if I was going to make it out of surgery because of the puncture wounds to my neck (emphasis added by editor). It was 0400 in Wichita, Kansas but I wanted to tell my mom I loved her. Once again, I was faced with unknown, my mind started racing, the pain was excruciating and now I needed to compose myself enough to tell my mom possibly goodbye-forever. The pain meds were in full effect and I remember her answering, I don’t remember what I said but I do remember saying I love you.
I woke up in so much pain I wanted to puke, my leg was completely wrapped up in a mess of gauze, bandages, and dressings. My right hand had been completely covered as well and I had a wound vac in my upper leg where I had taken a decent size piece of shrapnel near my femoral artery. I was on a huge gurney wrapped in an OD green Army wool blanket. I hated those damn blankets, they made me itch. The same itchy blanket I started my career off with making my bunk in basic training and now I was basically ending my time with one. It sort of reminded me of something that might have went on when soldiers in the Civil War were injured. The tent was hot with dim lights, heart monitors were beeping, strange buzzing sounds were going off, I could see the Army Chaplain making his way to the critically wounded.. Some soldiers were moaning, some were still in a panic, some were pleading for more pain meds and some were sobbing in fear. I still hate those damn wool blankets.
Doctors made two 4 inch incisions parallel with my airway on each side of my trachea to pull shrapnel from the fatty portion of my carotid arteries. The surgeons words were exactly, “shrapnel was in the outside membrane of both carotid arteries, you were within less than a quarter inch from losing your life.”
This news was very hard for me to understand at the time but something that has stayed with me. In ways this was going to be my second chance at life. I still carry over 50 pieces of shrapnel in my body still to this day. Its a bleak reminder of the pure chaos I was fortunate to live through. One of my buddies was less fortunate, he did not make it out of the burning building. That is actually why I am telling this story. Out of the 10 that were with me on that day 9 of us were MEDEVAC’d off the battlefield and one paid the ultimate price for freedom. SSG Angel Mercado still lives with me in my heart and watches over us every single day. Please say a prayer for those that have laid there life on the alter of freedom. So now more than ever, I can truly say that I have an Angel watching over me.
I was shipped off to Landstuhl, Germany the next day in a C-17 that was loaded with the best hospital equipment you can imagine. I was on my way back to safe soil. I started to talk to my mom a lot more and told her that I was going to make it. I finally took a shower after 12 days, I’m sure I smelt like something very rotten. The fact that I had lost a buddy and that my whole life changed in a matter of seconds had not really hit me.
In the next few weeks I would do small tasks like pull myself up, hold a fork, eat, and sleep. It was hard to swallow after all that I have accomplished and been through. Life is not always an easy road, you are going to be faced with obstacles. Its not really what type of obstacles you are faced with, its the manner in which you overcome those obstacles that shines light on the true person that you are. I finally was flown into Andrews AFB in Washington, DC to start my road to recovery. My mom met me on the tarmac with an Army Liaison from my unit. I was glad to see her, I was glad I was home, I was glad I was alive and I was glad I was away from that damn itchy wool blanket.
I want to thank my wife Courtney, my Mother, my family, my mortar teammates, and GallantFew as they support me in doing this. I could not be where I am today with out the loving support of these very important people. I really feel that God was watching over me and my teammates that day. This adventure has opened so many doors for me and has truly made me humble in my life. If you have had another chance at life I challenge you to talk about it and to share your experiences with others. This blog is a collaboration of my thoughts and feelings of what I was faced with on this day and by no means is it perfect.
On September 2, 2006 we lost 2 more guys in a different attack but on the same objective. My heart goes out to these men and there families who still mourn there loss today, RIP PFC Justin Dreese and SGT Ralph Porras.
Stay tuned for more as I start my long road to recovery, God Bless.