By Bill Murphy Jr.
Washington Post Foreign Service
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.
"The idea of being wounded in the real world scared the hell out of me," Sloan acknowledged. But another motivation took time to understand: "You wake up in the hospital different than you were before. The last time you were the person you've always been, you were in a foreign country fighting a war. And I was thinking if I can redeploy, I was not beaten. I was whole."
There was no way he could recover in time to rejoin his unit -- the 3rd Brigade of the 25th Infantry Division -- in Afghanistan. But he calculated that they would return to war sometime in the fall of 2006 or spring of 2007.
"Right there in Walter Reed I was like, 'I want to be a part of that. I want to go back.' "Time for Rebuilding
In early 2005, Sloan went to Hawaii, where the 25th Infantry Division is based, and was selected to be the aide to Brig. Gen. John M. "Mick" Bednarek, one of the division's two deputy commanding generals. Sloan ran Bednarek's calendar and handled the small details of military life.
A year passed, time Sloan used to plan and put his life together. He had one surgery to reconstruct his face, recovered and worked, and had another surgery. He was self-conscious about his scars and appearance. He was still missing teeth, and his eyes were cross-eyed for months as a result of the aneurysm. At one point he walked with a cane, after surgery to transplant bone from his hip to his palate. He got along well with Bednarek, who worked Sloan hard enough that he had little time for a personal life.
By summer 2005, he wondered whether a long-term military career was his true calling. Few of his West Point friends planned to stay in past June 2007, when their commitments were up.
"The truth is, I don't know," Sloan said during an interview in July 2005. "It's hard for me to get out because of West Point. The nation's at war, but at the [same] time, do I think this is quite the best place for me? There's other things I want out of life, like grad school, a family. And if I'm going to Iraq every other year, that's a lot to ask."
He still wanted to go back to combat, but not out of vengeance. He didn't think much about the fighter who had fired the grenade at him. "If the situation was reversed, I would have fired at him," he said later. "That was life in Afghanistan; that was life in war."
Sloan believed in America's wars. He thought of his duty in Afghanistan as the honor of his life and thought that the global threat of Islamic fundamentalism was real.
Sloan's unit got its orders: Iraq for a year, starting in summer 2006. Sloan, who had been promoted to captain, told Bednarek he was making plans to leave the Army in 2007 and would apply to business school. But he had a request. He wanted to deploy to Iraq first.
"Okay," Bednarek said. "I understand what you're asking."
They would go to war together.Feeling 'Really Alive'
In August 2006, two months after Sloan's last surgery and just before his 27th birthday, he, Bednarek and the rest of their unit were at Camp Speicher, a sprawling military base near Tikrit, about 90 miles north of Baghdad. Soon, he and the general were going out on infantry missions.
On Dec. 21, in Baqubah, about 35 miles northeast of the capital, Sloan was riding in the back of a Humvee similar to the one in which he'd been wounded in Afghanistan. Sgt. Ryan Abbott, 25, sat next to him. As they passed a building painted with the five-ringed symbol of the Olympics, they heard a loud explosion. Debris filled the air. An improvised explosive device had gone off between their vehicle and the one ahead.
"Clouds of smoke and dust and whatever else," recalled Bednarek, who was also on the patrol. "You're driving through that . . . you can't see it until you get through it to the incident site. Or you're going to drive through a hole that's now 10 feet deep, caused by 400 pounds of homemade explosive."
Abbott spun around. Sloan was smiling broadly, reaching out to pound fists with him.
"He was fired up," Abbott recalled.
It was the moment Sloan had imagined. He was elated. More than two years after he'd been injured, he felt like the person he'd been in Afghanistan. "Having a bomb go off close by to you can't help but remind you about your own mortality," he explained later. "And being reminded of that makes you feel really alive."Climbing Back
In January, Sloan logged on to a computer at Camp Speicher to see whether he'd been accepted to graduate school.
"We've got a Harvard man!" Bednarek bellowed in the division headquarters. Sloan had been admitted to the business school and would be out of the Army by summer.
The next month, Bednarek's small staff fanned out around the world for a two-week, mid-tour leave. Sloan went to Africa, where he climbed Mount Kilimanjaro with a cousin and a friend, looking as civilian as anyone else on the trip, with a solar charger for his iPod and speakers mounted on his North Face backpack. His facial scars had largely healed, and his hair was long for the Army. It was only when his fellow climbers asked where he'd flown in from that the war came up.
Later he went scuba diving in Kenya, and there was no blending in. He stood in his bathing suit, his scars revealed. A vertical line on his stomach exposed where a feeding tube had been inserted. A dimple over his windpipe betrayed a tracheotomy.
"You look like you've been in the wars," the dive instructor said casually. "What was it, a car wreck?"
"No," Sloan replied. "You were right the first time. It was war."