Fighting back

After numerous surgeries and months of rehab, a UGA alumnus has no regrets about his decision to serve his country

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Fighting back

Darnell (left), accompanied by Cpl. Ashley Shelton (second from right) and an unidentified language assistant (far right), talks to a shop owner in the village of Pir Zadeh in the Maiwand District of Afghanistan. The cigarette packages nailed above the door of the shop let shoppers know what brands are sold.

The shopkeeper’s leathery face is still and set; he’s doing his futile best to conceal his anxiety. His gaze flits nervously from my rifle, to the face of my language assistant, to the motorcycle churning its way down the mud-choked streets of Hutal, a small town about 80 kilometers west of Kandahar City.

“Have you had any trouble recently with the police asking you for illegal taxes? Has anyone demanded money from you?” I ask. My language assistant, a former Afghan National Army officer who trained at Fort Benning before realizing he could better support his family on a contractor’s salary, relays the question in Pashto.

The old man shakes his head and mutters the Pashto equivalent of “no,” casting his eyes over the assortment of trinkets on display in front of his shop while carefully avoiding my gaze.

I sigh. It isn’t the first curt negative I’ve received today. It probably isn’t even the fifteenth. If you interact much with the hapless locals of southern Afghanistan, you grow accustomed to seeing the peculiar expressions of men who desperately want to tell you the truth, but feel compelled to lie.Violent Taliban reprisals for cooperating with U.S. Army forces are commonplace throughout Afghanistan, and while securing the civilian populace is any military unit’s priority, it is simply not possible to be everywhere all of the time. Arriving in July 2008, we are the first Army unit to set up permanent shop in this traditional Taliban stronghold. As a result, roadside bombs and wary civilians hinder our daily efforts.

“All right, thank him for his time,” I tell my assistant. I step out from the shade of the old man’s shop and into the noisy street where the commerce is beginning to taper off on this brisk January day. I scan the road and I see the soldiers of 1st platoon, Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment standing guard at loose intervals up and down both sides of the street. They are hard-edged, tough beyond their years, aggressive, and often too smart for their own good. They hail from wildly different social, economic, and educational backgrounds, yet share a grim swagger born from the realities of the dangerous profession for which they have volunteered. As their platoon leader, they are my charge and responsibility. In their courage and dedication, I find glowing traces of hope for an apathetic generation.

Most of these soldiers enlisted to do something of substance for a post-9/11 world. In that respect, I am no different. I chose this path because, quite simply, it seemed like the best way for me to do my part. The resulting journey has not always been a pleasant one, but it has refined me in countless ways.

From Basic Combat Training to Afghanistan, I would not trade a step of it for anything.

“Seven, this is Six,” I radio to the platoon sergeant. “I think we’re done for the day.” We have been in the Hutal bazaar for nearly two hours, which is plenty long enough to spend in a neighborhood of such dodgy repute.

Hutal has the dual distinction of housing the Maiwand District’s largest commercial bazaar while also being the seat of district government and law enforcement. Unfortunately, the area’s increased police presence is little deterrent to the area’s Taliban operatives and sympathizers, who use the bazaar as a playground for drug trading, extortion, and general thuggery. Assisting and protecting the local populace means exposing yourself and your soldiers to myriad dangers. We begin walking down the street toward our company outpost. I turn to a squad leader and make some flippant remark, the exact memory of which is erased in the next moment.

Explosions in movies always rumble with the textured basso profundo of digital surround sound. All I hear is a pop, momentary silence, and then the ringing in my own ears. I feel extreme heat and then a sensation of drifting weightlessly through mid-air, transmitted by senses too sluggish to keep pace with the moment. My left shoulder crashes to earth, followed by the rest of me, and my senses snap back to real time.

I hear things above the ringing: the screams and cries of terrified or injured civilians, the agitated shouting of soldiers trying to gain control of the situation, the pounding of my own heart, the stifled gasps of my lungs as they try to refill with air. The warm droplets I feel running off my arm and hip tell me I’m hurt, but little more.

I lift my head and see a soldier on the ground in front of me, bloodstains forming on his shredded uniform. I whisper a feverish, incoherent prayer, the gist of which is, “Not here. Not like this.” A “Let me see my wife again” slips in there somewhere.

I wiggle my toes inside of my boots, and realize I can move. An attempt to swing my right leg around is met with sharp pain and a crunching sensation, so I try to plant my hands to lift myself off the ground. The left one responds, the right one lays impudently in the dirt.

“You okay, sir?” shouts Sergeant Christopher Styron, a 1st platoon team leader. The best I can say is “I don’t know.” He hoists me to my feet. My right arm hangs dead at my side while my right leg drags in the dirt, unable to swing at the hip. He puts me on the back of an ATV next to another soldier who is unconscious but still breathing.

For the first time, I behold the entire surreal scene. Bodies, uniformed and civilian, are scattered about the street, most of them writhing or struggling to their feet. Several lay terrifyingly still. Several shops on the southern side of the street burn silently. A suicide bomber has detonated on our position. Twenty-three civilians are dead or wounded. Fourteen of my soldiers are injured—three of them fatally.

We speed toward the company outpost. I lean my head back and watch the blue sky as I resume my whispered prayers. Within minutes, the company aid station is the cacophonous epitome of controlled chaos. The most seriously injured, including myself, are moved inside to await evacuation by helicopter. Other soldiers and civilians are on stretchers and blankets in the gravel outside. Medics strip our burned and blood-soaked uniforms away with trauma shears, start intravenous fluids, apply tourniquets, and curse the helicopters for not being there yet.

Staff Sergeant Lester Medina, Charlie Company’s chief medic, darts from patient to patient. Medina, a die-hard Crimson Tide fan, used to joke that he would let me bleed to death unless I publicly stated that ’Bama was better than Georgia.

“I won’t say it, Medina,” I tell him through gritted teeth. “Don’t even ask.”

“Don’t worry about it, L.T.,” he says. “Georgia Bulldogs are better than the Crimson Tide.” A moral victory for me, though I’m pretty sure he’s just trying to keep me awake and fighting.

As the medics do their best to slow my bleeding, I struggle to maintain consciousness as an icy cold creeps steadily up my arms and legs. I am thirstier than I have ever been, and I can’t help but think of the old westerns in which the wounded and dying always beg for a gulp of water from a leather canteen. I think about how easy it would be to close my eyes, and then I hear the rapid, percussive thumping of helicopter rotor blades.

Thirty minutes later, I am in triage at the Kandahar Airfield Field Hospital. It is a NATO facility, so the staff is a mix of nationalities, uniforms and accents. They swarm around me, and I hear things like “slow the bleeding” and “rush him to surgery.” A pretty, redheaded nurse with a vaguely Irish accent stands at my head and strokes my matted hair. I think, ‘If she’s the last thing I see on this earth, I guess that’s not such a bad deal.’ Immediately, I visualize my wife, her blue eyes rolling in playful reproach of her idiot husband.

After 72 hours and three surgeries, I am stable enough for an evacuation flight to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. In the hours before the flight, I learn the specifics of my injuries. The blast obliterated my right elbow, causing serious vascular and nerve damage. A piece of shrapnel entered my right hip and passed through to the other side, causing muscle and tissue damage but miraculously missing my intestines. My right eardrum is essentially gone, my legs and right shoulder are peppered with shrapnel bits, and my face and neck are pink and puffy with flash burns. In short, I am outrageously lucky. Given my proximity to the blast, I should have been much worse.

I learn that Staff Sergeant Joshua Rath, Specialist Keith Essary, and my language assistant were among the dead. The knowledge registers flatly, like news of a fatal car wreck involving strangers. I reason that my brain, already near its stress limit, is enacting fail-safes to stave off the onslaught of grief. I know that somewhere down the road I’ll pay my emotional debt.

The flight to Germany is truly hellish. I am placed on a stretcher and stacked like luggage with other wounded soldiers in a stuffy, noisy aircraft. Tubes run in and out of our injured bodies, jostling painfully when the plane strikes turbulence. The medical crew does its best to make us as comfortable as possible, but there is only so much that can be done. The priority is expedience.

During my four days at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center I drift in a miasma of painkillers, surgeries, and failed attempts at sleep. There is little the staff there can tell me beyond the fact that my arm will likely be amputated and that I will probably never walk normally again. “But,” they add, in happy punctuation, “we’ll let the doctors in the States decide all that.”

Sometime in the early afternoon of January 15, my flight home touches down at Bush Field in Augusta. The cargo door yawns open, and Georgia air dances in my lungs for the first time in a long time. I am wheeled inside for a battery of X-rays and tests before being placed in a cozy room on the ninth floor. My wife, Melissa, appears within the half hour. Despite all that could be said and all that needs to be explained, we sit silently in wordless relief.

Over the next seven weeks, I am the full-time guest of Eisenhower Army Medical Center in Fort Gordon, Ga. My days are scheduled around intravenous antibiotic treatments to suppress the infection in my wounds. Two or three times a week, I am wheeled to the operating room so that Army orthopedic surgeons may piece together my shattered arm, one excruciating procedure at a time. They graft skin, reroute arteries to give blood flow to dying tissue, and bridge nerves in an effort to restore control and sensation to my deadened arm. The repetitive surgeries are tedious, painful, and remarkably effective. After three weeks, my fingers once again twitch on command.

Melissa is with me every step of the way as I begin to walk again. Initially, a slow trudge around the ninth floor nurse’s desk leaves me exhausted and stinging with pain. As new red blood cells are born and muscle tissue heals, I find I can make two trips around that same desk. Eventually, I complete the daunting hike to the third floor vending machines. I take my place among the great endurance athletes of all time as I bite into a hard-earned Snickers bar.

At night, I wage a new war in my own mind. Feelings of relief battle pervasive guilt as I struggle to reconcile my own survival with the loss of two soldiers under my charge. Staff Sergeant Rath was smart and good-natured, a consummate professional who quietly did work that would quail most men. Specialist Essary was dedicated and amiable, as gifted in carpentry as he was in mimicking Will Ferrell’s famous Harry Caray impression. Both deserved so much better of an end. I repeat to myself the words my company commander said to me that day in the aid station: “It’s not your fault.” I hope that someday I will fully believe them. Like thousands of military leaders before me, I spend a lot of time asking myself what I could have done differently.

In March, after nearly two months and double-digit surgeries, I am transferred to the Charlie Norwood Veterans Affairs Medical Center’s Active Duty Rehabilitation (ADR) Unit near downtown Augusta. The ADR is a new concept in military medicine, allowing soldiers who are still on Active Duty status to recuperate amongst their injured peers in an actual Army unit. I live at the VA hospital for the next four months while my occupational therapist, Lisa Dowling, attempts to torture the functionality back into my hand and wrist. Each day involves a painfully intense regimen of stretching and cranking, forcing dormant tendons to stretch and innervate. I am made to pry tiny beads from wads of putty with my nerve-addled fingers for what seems like hours on end. The maddening treatment works like a charm. My grip strengthens, and once-dead fingers begin to move with dexterity and coordination.

With my nerves recovering and my infection controlled, the surgeons bolt the disjointed bones of my arm together with metal plates and screws, leaving me with a sturdy, inflexible limb. In late July, I am released back to Fort Gordon’s Warrior Transition Battalion to await a medical retirement. This new assignment affords me weekend trips to Athens and plenty of time to reflect on the seven-month journey since I returned home on a stretcher.

I don’t know what comes next for me professionally, but to stay in the public sector seems like a good answer. To that end, I study for the GRE and hope to seek a master’s degree in public administration at UGA. My fight in uniform is over, but that doesn’t mean that my service to country shouldn’t continue in other ways.

In an effort to unhinge the flab accumulated during seven months of inpatient lethargy, I take evening jogs around post. I always hated running, but now I look forward to it. I feel a wistful sense of connection with the young trainees marching in tight formation past plaques commemorating units that have since moved on or deactivated. On occasion, I detour through Fort Gordon’s Freedom Park. At the entrance, there is a large granite slab inscribed with an excerpt from President Eisenhower’s 1961 farewell address to the Army. He mentions his admiration for the soldiers and their continued service, the nostalgia he will always feel for his days in uniform, and then he closes with a simple imperative: “Keep going.”

To “keep going” is the only thing I really want to do now. To “keep going” may be the only thing I can do to properly honor the courageous men with whom I was so fortunate to serve. It is certainly the only thing I can do to pay respect to those who lost their lives, and the only way I can truly thank the surgeons, therapists, friends, and family who helped me put my own life back together. I look at my scars now, and they don’t bother me as they did at one time. They are my constant, sacred reminder; my own personal monument to a time when I walked a distant land with brave men, of my journey since then, of my road ahead, and of how very, very blessed I am to have made it back home.

Editor’s note: Josh Darnell was assistant editor of the Georgia Magazine from August 2004 to February 2006. He joined the U.S. Army in March 2006 and was commissioned as an infantry officer seven months later. He deployed to Afghanistan on June 13, 2008. He was awarded the Purple Heart Medal on Jan. 9.