BALAD THEATER HOSPITAL, Iraq -- Jeremy Pierce remembers a fellow soldier telling him to stay awake; he remembers that he was losing a lot of blood.
“I remember being put into the vehicle, looking at my left hand noticing that I had part of my finger missing," says Pierce, who lost his left leg, all the toes on his right foot and a part of that finger. "I knew I couldn’t stand up; my boot was in another spot.”
Now Pierce, 22, a longtime resident of Salem, Ore., serving in Iraq, is awake and surrounded by his fellow soldiers as he shivers beneath a patriotic blanket at the Balad Theater Hospital in Iraq, the first casualty from Oregon's 41st Infantry.
Pierce goes over the past few days.
On Aug. 12, 2009 -- close to 12 hours before Pierce was injured -- Oregon’s 41st Infantry Battalion held a ceremony commemorating the official transfer of authority -- to them.
The mission was now solely in their hands.
Late that night, Pierce, a gunner for Task Force Atlas, Alfa Battery 2-218 under the 41st Infantry Battalion, was performing convoy security when an Improvised Explosive Device ripped through his armored security vehicle.
The explosion left Pierce trapped in the turret, a roof compartment at the top of the vehicle.
Soldiers at the scene were unable to reach him.
“It happened so quick, it hit the vehicle, you don’t expect something like that,” Pierce says. “No one could get to me. I held my thigh so I wouldn’t bleed out, I started to pull myself out of the hatch.”
Once outside of the vehicle, soldiers stayed by his side until Pierce was evacuated on the ground to the nearest base.
Pierce attributes his survival to the soldiers on the ground and the Oregon Medevac unit that eventually transported him to Balad Theater Hospital.
Nearly 10 hours after the explosion, Pierce was transported by UH-60 Blackhawk from Baghdad to Balad by Charlie Company, 7th Battalion, 158th Aviation, a Medevac unit based out of Salem, Ore.
Pierce is the first casualty the 41st has suffered since arriving in country a little over a month ago.
When Colonel Dan Hokanson, the 41st Infantry Brigade commander, discovered one of his soldiers was injured, he called Charlie Company inquiring about a flight that would transport him from a base in Al-Asad to Balad.
Hokanson wanted to be with his wounded soldier. Some of the soldier's neighbors from back home helped make it happen.
Neighbors helping neighbors half a world away
Major Geoff Vallee, Charlie Company’s commander immediately contacted Balad’s 449th Aviation Battalion in the hopes that a C12 would be available to pick up Hokanson. Due to a mission canceled earlier in the day, the 449th was able to offer a ride.
Meanwhile Sgt. Ben Sjullie, 30, wasn’t on duty, but when he heard a soldier serving with an Oregon unit needed an evacuation he instantly volunteered to serve as a second medic on the mission.
Sjullie, a paramedic with Springfield Fire and Life Safety, and Sgt. Merissa Merlin, 26, of West Linn, Ore., a registered nurse, flew to Baghdad to pick-up their patient.
“The main surgeon at the hospital said he’d never handed over care to a registered nurse and a paramedic on the same flight before,” said Sjullie.
“It’s quite odd to have a paramedic and a registered nurse on board, it’s a rarity, the doctors and nurses were surprised that we were able to offer the level of care that we did,” said Merlin, who still finds it hard to believe her title. “I’ve always wanted to be in the medical field since I was a little girl.”
After Pierce was loaded into the UH-60 Blackhawk, Sjullie monitored oxygen and pain medications as Merlin tended to the IV pump. “We see if we need to make any changes in the medications dose, do a quick assessment to see that his bandages are intact and not bleeding through, monitor his vital signs, blood pressure and pulse rate,” said Merlin.
Back in Balad, Powell notified Charlie Company soldiers that an Oregon soldier was being transported to the hospital. “We wanted to thank him for serving his country, can’t sum it all up in a salute, but its the best we can do for now,” said Powell.
As the aircraft landed on Balad’s helipad the medics assisted hospital volunteers who transferred the patient onto a gurney to transport him to the hospital.
As Sjullie followed the patient towards the Emergency Room he was not surprised to see at least 30 of his fellow soldiers lined up on the walkway to the hospital doors, but he hadn’t realized so many of his comrades would show up. As each Medevac soldier saluted the patient rolling by, Merlin had her own reaction.
“That shocked me," Merlin said. "It’s a feeling that you can’t describe when your walking to the ER and your Medevac Company is standing outside paying their respects to a soldier’s sacrifice. We were surprised that this had happened, but it feels good being able to help another soldier from Oregon.”
Sgt. Sjullie presents Spc. Pierce with a flag, flown on the same mission he was medevaced on, and a picture of Charlie Company soldiers from Oregon.
Over the next several days at Balad Theater Hospital, Col. Hokanson and about eight Oregon soldiers take shifts all through the night and day so Pierce is never alone.
His battle buddy, Spc. Scott Tyrrel, 26, of Calif., is by his side. Tyrrel will travel with Pierce to a hospital in Germany and most likely the two soldiers will have to part ways. Tyrrel will return to his base in Al-Asad and Pierce will be going home.
“He doesn’t want to get sent home," Tyrrel said. "Before this happened we were going to extend this deployment together here or to Afghanistan.”
Four years his friend's elder, Tyrrel could be Pierce's older brother.
“The kid’s got heart, got spirit," Tyrrel said.
Pierce will not be able to continue serving his country.
“I would (return) in a heartbeat, everybody outside the wire is like family,” says Pierce. “I just wanted to be a good soldier.”
In the afternoon of his second day at the hospital, Pierce received a Purple Heart decoration for his injuries sustained during combat.
The specialist already has a Bronze Star with Valor on his last deployment for receiving enemy contact and exchanging fire. Pierce finished a deployment in Iraq as a gunner and driver with the Alaskan National Guard in 2008 and jumped on the deployment with Oregon this summer.
Pierce’s fellow soldiers stand at the side of his bed as the Intensive Care Unit fills with over 40 nurses and doctors watching the ceremony.
General Paul Wentz, commander of 13 ESC (Sustainment Command Expeditionary) places the Purple Heart over Pierce’s chest and offers quiet words commending the young man’s service.
Pierce smiles for the camera and shakes hands.
“He hasn’t asked about himself, he’s been asking about the other soldiers, making sure the convoy got back to safety,” says Tyrrel. “He’s a true warrior, a patriot and an America hero.
"The enemy may have slowed him down but his determination and intestinal fortitude to get back into the fight, it’s unquestionable and un-wavering," Tyrrel said. "He’s a symbol of an American soldier."
As a soldier, Tyrreel is supposed to protect his battle buddy; he is also trained to expect the worst.
“The only way to deal is to do what he was trying to do and continue on the mission and drive on,” says Tyrrel. “That’s the only way to deal with anything, we all know the possibility of this happening when we enlist, this is what we train for.”
Despite all the years of training, the experience of a past deployment, everything could seem diminished under the recent events.
“You can’t really prepare yourself for this,” says Pierce, his bright green eyes illuminated by the fluorescent lights. “I knew what I was getting into.”
Pierce will celebrate his 23rd birthday on the 21st of August.
Cali Bagby is embedded with the Oregon Army National Guard from Charlie Company, 7th Battalion, 158th Aviation, a Medevac Unit based out of Salem, Ore., for KVAL.com. Her work has been published in the Washington Post and the Eugene Weekly.
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