‘We plugged all the holes’
Chopper medic recounts saving Omar Khadr
‘This is human life’
For years the battle-hardened and decorated American veteran wrestled with his conscience, with whether he’d done the right thing in saving the life of Omar Khadr, seen by many as a terrorist who profited from his crimes.
Now, watching the furor over the government’s $10.5-million payout to Khadr from afar, Donnie Bumanglag wants to tell his story, offer a perspective born of bitter experience _ one he admits may not be popular with many Canadians, or even some of his own former comrades in arms.
Bumanglag, of Lompoc, Calif., 36, has spent years coming to terms with his former life as an elite airborne medic supporting U.S. special forces during three missions to Afghanistan and Iraq. He’s been haunted by flashbacks, frequently thrown back to that time in the summer of 2002, when he spent hours in the back of a helicopter frantically working on Khadr, then 15 years old and at the very edge of death.
“This is a human life. This is war. This is something that most people can’t fathom, and they want to be real quick to give an opinion just because it makes them feel good about themselves,’’ Bumanglag said. “(But) there’s more to this story than just talking points.’’
The following account is based on interviews Bumanglag gave to The Canadian Press, as well as on a recent podcast he co-hosts in which he talks about saving Khadr.
Little guy on a door
Doc Buma, as the 21-year-old Ranger medic was known, was looking forward to leaving the remote area of Afghanistan in which he had been operating for more than a month and heading to Bagram for a shower and some downtime before redeploying to Kandahar.
Instead, as they flew toward Bagram that day in July 2002, a distress call came in. The MH-53 helicopter veered toward Khost and an encounter that would stay with him for years.
Edmund Sealey, then the Rangers platoon sergeant, remembers the call coming in with orders to divert and pick up an “enemy fighter’’ who had been shot.
“I was on the aircraft. We picked up that casualty in a firefight,’’ Sealey, 47, now of Columbus, Ga., said from Afghanistan where he still works as a contractor. “With Buma being a Ranger medic, he’s going to assist as soon as you get on board, enemy or friendly, it doesn’t matter.’’
With the chopper gunners providing covering fire, they landed in a field. Sealey led the way, Bumanglag behind him, as they threaded their way through a suspected minefield, down a road, and connected with a group of U.S. special forces soldiers.
On what appeared to be a wooden door lay the wounded enemy fighter, shot twice by one of the elite Delta forces. The soldiers had found the casualty barely alive in a compound the Americans had pounded to rubble during a massive assault. One of their own, Sgt. Chris Speer, had been fatally hit by a grenade, and another, Layne Morris, blinded in one eye. It was apparent to the incoming medic that the Delta soldiers were in “some pretty severe distress’’ over the loss of their comrade.
“There’s a look on somebody’s face when the whole world went to shit 10 minutes ago and it’s too much to process,’’ Bumanglag says.
As he recalls, the soldiers gave him bare-bones biographical data on the casualty: The fighter had killed Speer. He was a Canadian who had been Osama bin Laden’s “houseboy.’’ They also told him to keep the high-value detainee alive because he would be a vital source of information and passed him off.
Bumanglag was now charged with saving Khadr, son of a high-ranking member of al-Qaida. He didn’t know Khadr was 15 years old, but his youth struck him.
“I don’t know if I can call him a little kid but he sure looked little to me. He’s 80 pounds or something. He’s a little guy who’s on a door, basically,’’ Bumanglag says.
They moved the patient up the ramp and the chopper took off. The medic immediately began working to save the boy, who was covered in blood and sand.
“Omar, with gunshot wounds and flex cuffs like an animal had been shot, didn’t look human,’’ Bumanglag recalls. “But moving in closer and working on him as a patient and seeing the facial features and seeing the skin pigmentation, those images always stuck with me.’’
Khadr, it turned out, bore a striking resemblance to one of Bumanglag’s cousins, which bothered the young medic then, and for years after.
“All I seen was a kid that looks like a kid that I knew.’’
Donnie Bumanglag stands in the backyard garden of his home, Saturday, July 22, 2017, in Lompoc, Bumanglag is a former U.S. soldier who served in Afghanistan. Calif.