Soldier Injured in Afghanistan Seeks Renewal in Iraq Mission
Sunday, April 8, 2007
CONTINGENCY OPERATING BASE SPEICHER, Iraq -- The soldier woke up at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in October 2004 with no memory of the ambush or his trip home from Afghanistan. Every bone in his face but one was shattered. He was drugged and delusional, eating and breathing through tubes. In four days, Army Lt. Drew Sloan had lost 17 pounds.
As the doctors reduced his medications, Sloan regained his lucidity and learned what had happened. He had been riding in the back of a Humvee in south-central Afghanistan on Oct. 10, carrying ballots from the presidential election the day before. Staff Sgt. Brian S. Hobbs sat in front, with Spec. Joey Banegas manning the .50-caliber machine gun in the turret. As they reached a creek bed surrounded by mountains, gunfire erupted. A rocket-propelled grenade slammed into the front of the vehicle.
The concussive force of the explosion burst through a weak point in the Humvee's armor. The rush of air smashed Sloan in the face, cracking the bones in hundreds of places like a shatterproof window struck with a baseball bat. His cheek was torn open. His jaw dangled unnaturally. Blood spurted everywhere. The roof of his mouth was pulverized, teeth destroyed, the results of nine years of childhood orthodontics wiped out.
"Blow through! Blow through!" Hobbs yelled. But the Humvee's engine was dead. It rolled to a stop, on fire. Twenty or so Afghans emerged from the wood line, firing AK-47 rifles. Banegas shot back before he noticed Sloan in the back seat, half-conscious. Banegas pulled his platoon leader from the vehicle as the bullets flew.
"Don't drop me, Banegas," Sloan said at one point, according to a letter he wrote congratulating Banegas for being awarded a Bronze Star for valor in the incident. This account of Sloan's experiences is based on interviews with him and others over nearly two years.
The second Humvee in their convoy arrived, but the Americans were isolated, their radios blocked by the high mountains around them. The firefight raged for 30 minutes before the attackers pulled back. Nearly a dozen U.S. soldiers crammed into the remaining Humvee, with Sloan slumped in the front and others hanging on the roof. They made it to a small police station a few miles away. Sloan was flown by helicopter to the U.S. military base at Kandahar, then evacuated to Germany and finally to Walter Reed.
At this point in his life, Sloan had become the person he had long hoped to be: a top graduate of the West Point class of 2002, an airborne Ranger, a platoon leader in combat. "I wanted to do something that was not only bigger than myself, but also different from anything my peers were doing or anyone in my family had ever done," he wrote later.
In a fleeting moment he couldn't even recall, he had been reinvented as a hospital patient. Over two months at Walter Reed, and in the year and a half of operations and physical recovery he endured afterward, he realized that rebuilding his body was only half of what he needed to do. Becoming whole again would require returning to combat.
'I Want to Go Back'
Hours after the ambush, a colonel called Sloan's parents in Arkansas. His mother feared her son would no longer have a face, but the colonel's description overstated the case. Most of Sloan's injuries were below the surface. He was missing teeth, his jaw was torn and dislocated, and he had scars on his forehead, cheek and throat, but his face was otherwise unbruised.
Sloan's new life revolved around surgeries and recoveries, starting with a 16-hour operation the week after he arrived from Afghanistan. Another afternoon, a doctor discovered a brain aneurysm and rushed him to surgery. A few more hours, days at the most, the doctors said afterward, and it probably would have ruptured and killed him.
Generals and dignitaries regularly visited. Twice, Sloan was among groups of troops picked to meet with President Bush. He watched some soldiers with the worst wounds beg their visitors to help them go back to their units. He understood their feelings, even shared them.
Doctors told him it would take more than a year to recover. He was offered a medical discharge. He turned it down.