‘We plugged all the holes’

Chopper medic re­counts sav­ing Omar Khadr

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - CANADA -

‘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.’’

CP PHOTO

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.

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