SAV­ING KHADR: U.S. medic tells of ef­fort to keep teen fighter alive, and about com­ing to terms with mis­sion

U.S. medic re­calls ef­fort to keep 15-year-old alive af­ter bat­tle, and com­ing to terms with that 2002 mis­sion

The Hamilton Spectator - - FRONT PAGE - COLIN PERKEL

TORONTO — ‘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, 36, of Lom­poc, Calif., 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 co­hosts 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 bare­bones 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.”

Every­body is ji­had

As the chop­per bobbed and weaved to­ward Ba­gram, Doc Buma worked to sta­bi­lize his dis­ori­ented, barely con­scious pa­tient, who was writhing and moan­ing in pain. At the other sol­diers’ in­sis­tence, Khadr’s hands re­mained hand­cuffed be­hind his back out of con­cern he might turn vi­o­lent.

Bu­manglag’s main task was to deal with Khadr’s two gap­ing bul­let exit wounds on his chest. His head raced with thoughts about whether he should save the life of this “ter­ror­ist,” whether he’d have enough med­i­cal sup­plies for his own guys should some­thing hap­pen. He even pon­dered push­ing the en­emy fighter out the chop­per and be­ing done with it.

“He’s rock­ing his body around ev­ery­where,” he says. “I took it as ag­gres­sion. You get this idea that every­body is ji­had and they’re go­ing to fight to the death.”

Then there was his ego, he ad­mits: the no­tion that sav­ing this cap­tive would earn him praise, would show he had what it took. So he kept work­ing, try­ing to stanch the bleed­ing.

“My mis­sion, my job was just to save him, keep him alive. There was no pol­i­tics in it then. I was a young Ranger and this was my chance,” Bu­manglag says. “I worked on him for over two hours in the back of a he­li­copter as the sun went down. At the end, I’m work­ing un­der fin­ger light.”

He kept work­ing, and Khadr kept liv­ing, not say­ing any­thing, just mak­ing noises.

“His body in­di­cated that he was a pretty brave guy. He fought for his life just as much as we fought to save him,” Bu­manglag says. “Some peo­ple have a will to live and some peo­ple don’t. He def­i­nitely did.” They fi­nally touched down at Ba­gram. “We plugged all the holes and we tried to keep things vi­able,” he says. “I pass him off and I don’t know whether he’s go­ing to live or die.”

What he did know was that Khadr hadn’t died on his watch and it was there­fore mis­sion ac­com­plished — one for which he would later be com­mended for by his su­pe­ri­ors. It would take another year or so be­fore Bu­manglag learned that Khadr had sur­vived.

Things thought about for years

Omar Khadr, born in Septem­ber 1986 in Toronto, spent sev­eral months re­cov­er­ing from his wounds at Ba­gram, where, from the mo­ment he was con­scious and able to speak, he un­der­went what were, by most ac­counts, some of the harsh­est in­ter­ro­ga­tions the Amer­i­cans had de­vised in the War on Ter­ror.

A few months later, in Oc­to­ber 2002, he was trans­ferred to Guan­tanamo Bay. He had just turned 16.

It was in his early days at the in­fa­mous U.S. mil­i­tary prison in Cuba that Canadian in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cers went down to in­ter­ro­gate him. The Amer­i­cans made the in­ter­views con­di­tional on hav­ing the in­for­ma­tion he pro­vided passed on to them. The Cana­di­ans also knew the teen had been sub­jected to the “fre­quent flyer pro­gram,” a bru­tal process of sleep de­pri­va­tion de­signed to soften him up.

Video would sur­face years later of a weep­ing teen, now re­al­iz­ing the Canadian agents weren’t there to help him, whim­per­ing for his mother.

Khadr ul­ti­mately pleaded guilty to five war crimes in 2010 be­fore a widely dis­cred­ited mil­i­tary com­mis­sion. He later dis­avowed his con­fes­sion to hav­ing killed Speer, say­ing it was the only way the Amer­i­cans would re­turn him to Canada, which hap­pened in 2012.

The Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the fed­eral govern­ment had vi­o­lated Khadr’s rights. The rul­ing un­der­pinned the re­cent set­tle­ment of his law­suit in which Ot­tawa apol­o­gized to him and, sources said, paid him $10.5 mil­lion.

“If you say you’d go through what he went through for $10 mil­lion, you’re out of your mind, and that’s the truth,” Bu­manglag says.

Khadr has said he no longer re­mem­bers the fire­fight and would not com­ment on Bu­manglag’s ac­count.

‘I’m glad I saved his life’

Doc Buma re­turned to his na­tive Cal­i­for­nia and left the mil­i­tary in 2003. He be­came a po­lice of­fi­cer, work­ing anti-nar­cotics, for al­most 10 years. Ul­ti­mately, the flash­backs, the post­trau­matic stress bested him and he re­tired as a po­lice of­fi­cer about five years ago. He stud­ied ed­u­ca­tional psy­chol­ogy, he said, as part of try­ing to sort him­self out.

He took up co-host­ing a pod­cast, Sick Call, in which he and a fel­low vet talk about a va­ri­ety of is­sues, in­clud­ing top­ics re­lated to the mil­i­tary and law en­force­ment. In one re­cent episode, he talks about Khadr. It’s all part ed­u­cat­ing oth­ers, part ther­apy for him­self, he says.

The years since his days in the mil­i­tary, when he was ready to drop ev­ery­thing at a mo­ment’s no­tice and heed the call of duty wher­ever it took him, he says, have af­forded him time to grow up, to gain some per­spec­tive on war, on his life as a sol­dier, on de­mo­niz­ing peo­ple he has never met or with whom he has no per­sonal quar­rel.

“I’ve been on the worst com­bat mis­sions. I bought into the ide­ol­ogy. Now it’s time for re­flec­tion,” he says.

Time and again, he is care­ful to make clear he in­tends no dis­re­spect to Speer’s rel­a­tives or to Mor­ris and em­pathizes with what they have lost.

“Omar lost his eye, too. I don’t know how much more sym­bolic that can be.”

At the same time, he is clear that Speer and Mor­ris were grown men who had signed on the line to be­come elite pro­fes­sional sol­diers, know­ing the risks of their jobs.

On the other hand, Bu­manglag also makes it clear he em­pathizes with the young Canadian who was taken by his fa­ther to another coun­try and thrown into an ide­o­log­i­cally mo­ti­vated war over which he had no con­trol.

As a mar­ried fa­ther of four, Bu­manglag says it’s naive to be­lieve Khadr could some­how have just walked away from the com­pound his fa­ther had sent him to. More to the point, he says, had he found him­self as Khadr did that fate­ful day in July — un­der heavy bom­bard­ment with the fight­ing men dead and the en­emy clos­ing in for the kill, he likely would not have hes­i­tated to throw a grenade.

“What hap­pens if the shoe is on the other foot? This is the sce­nario that I’ve played in my head,” Bu­manglag says, his mind turn­ing to those who are fu­ri­ous at the Canadian govern­ment’s set­tle­ment with Khadr.

“They can be up­set but the re­al­ity is that they don’t un­der­stand the full story. I don’t think any of us do.”

Doc Buma says he no longer frets that he should have let Khadr die.

“Every­body may hate him but I’m glad I saved his life,” he says. “It just wasn’t his time then.”

MICHAEL OWEN BAKER, THE CANADIAN PRESS

Don­nie Bu­manglag is a for­mer U.S. sol­dier who served in Afghanistan and saved the life of en­emy sol­dier Omar Khadr.

COLIN PERKEL, THE CANADIAN PRESS

Omar Khadr, 30, in Mis­sis­sauga ear­lier this month, af­ter re­ceiv­ing $10.5 mil­lion from the fed­eral govern­ment.

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