For Decorated GI, Grief, Recovery and Redeployment
Sunday, November 25, 2007
At a Pentagon ceremony this month, 1st Lt. Walter Bryan Jackson became one of a handful of soldiers since 2001 to receive the Distinguished Service Cross, the military's second-highest medal, for saving another soldier's life while himself wounded and under heavy fire in Iraq.
Jackson's award was overshadowed a week later, though, when he learned that his closest friend and West Point roommate, 1st Lt. Matthew C. Ferrara, had been killed in a mountain ambush in Afghanistan. Last weekend, Jackson was on stage in Los Angeles for his friend's eulogy. And on Friday, after a quiet Thanksgiving with his parents in Fairfax, Jackson packed his bag for another yearlong deployment, this time to lead a rocket platoon along South Korea's demilitarized zone.
"It's kind of hard to explain" how it feels to be part of a small segment of the U.S. population that is "bearing the brunt of the responsibilities" from today's conflicts, Jackson said as he waited for his flight at Dulles International Airport. "It doesn't affect society at large in the slightest. Life just goes on, and a lot of people . . . are more concerned about the price of gas than about soldiers fighting and dying," said Jackson, who has lost several comrades in the wars.
Proportionally, Army lieutenants suffer the highest casualty rate of any rank in the service because they tend to lead combat patrols, and lieutenants and other soldiers in combat units can now expect to deploy to a war zone at least every other year. Indeed, the personal impact of the past few years on Jackson and his Army peers has been profound. "We are a lot more serious," said the fresh-faced artillery officer, who turns 25 today, "because we know how short life is."
Amid rising attrition among graduates of some West Point classes, Jackson said he and most of his peers from the class of 2005 are "on the fence" about whether to make the military a career. "We're expecting to see at least a third of our class get out" at the first opportunity, he said. "Everyone has their breaking point."
Within a few months of his graduation, Jackson, the son of a naval officer, was sent to Iraq as an artillery officer for the 1st Battalion, 36th Infantry Regiment. Based in the town of Hit in Iraq's western Anbar province, Jackson and his company commander were checking on Iraqis detained after a mortar attack when their Humvee almost rolled over, getting stuck in a ditch.
Standing guard with three other soldiers in an exposed area, Jackson spotted a few Iraqi men drive slowly by on scooters, apparently surveying the soldiers' location. A minute later, machine-gun fire tore into the soldiers from two directions, bringing down Jackson's commander, Capt. Eric Stainbrook, and 1st Sgt. David Sapp.
"A round hit me in the leg and kicked my leg out real hard," recalled Sapp, of Metter, Ga. "I fell over, and I felt another round hit my head, and my eyesight went out. Everything was black."
Lying on the ground, Sapp recalled, he began praying he wouldn't get shot again. "I was completely helpless, and I wanted to see my wife and daughters again."
Help came in the form of Jackson, who rushed to give Sapp first aid. But within seconds Jackson, too, was shot, in the left leg and hand. Slumped down, he nevertheless managed to return fire with his M-16 rifle.
Jackson tried to reload, but found the blood loss had left him too weak. "I didn't have the strength to pull the loading chamber back," he recalled. But he managed to stand up and help other soldiers carry Sapp to a Bradley Fighting Vehicle 30 feet away. "I knew how dire the situation was," he said. "If I didn't help out, someone else might get killed or wounded."
Sapp, whose arm and leg bones were shattered by bullets, was screaming in pain, both men recalled. In the Bradley, Jackson grasped Sapp's hand to comfort him, refusing medical aid for himself until they reached their base and he could no longer stand.