Sol­dier In­jured in Afghanistan Seeks Re­newal in Iraq Mis­sion

The Washington Post Sunday - - The Conflict In Iraq - By Bill Mur­phy Jr.

CON­TIN­GENCY OP­ER­AT­ING BASE SPE­ICHER, Iraq — The sol­dier woke up at Wal­ter Reed Army Med­i­cal Cen­ter in Oc­to­ber 2004 with no me­mory of the am­bush or his trip home from Afghanistan. Ev­ery bone in his face but one was shat­tered. He was drugged and delu­sional, eat­ing and breath­ing through tubes. In four days, Army Lt. Drew Sloan had lost 17 pounds.

As the doc­tors re­duced his med­i­ca­tions, Sloan re­gained his lu­cid­ity and learned what had hap­pened. He had been rid­ing in the back of a Humvee in south-cen­tral Afghanistan on Oct. 10, car­ry­ing bal­lots from the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion the day be­fore. Staff Sgt. Brian S. Hobbs sat in front, with Spec. Joey Bane­gas man­ning the .50-cal­iber ma­chine gun in the tur­ret. As they reached a creek bed sur­rounded by moun­tains, gun­fire erupted. A rocket-pro­pelled grenade slammed into the front of the ve­hi­cle.

The con­cus­sive force of the ex­plo­sion burst through a weak point in the Humvee’s ar­mor. The rush of air smashed Sloan in the face, crack­ing the bones in hun­dreds of places like a shat­ter­proof win­dow struck with a base­ball bat. His cheek was torn open. His jaw dan­gled un­nat­u­rally. Blood spurted ev­ery­where. The roof of his mouth was pul­ver­ized, teeth de­stroyed, the re­sults of nine years of child­hood or­thodon­tics wiped out.

“Blow through! Blow through!” Hobbs yelled. But the Humvee’s en­gine was dead. It rolled to a stop, on fire. Twenty or so Afghans emerged from the wood line, fir­ing AK-47 ri­fles. Bane­gas shot back be­fore he no­ticed Sloan in the back seat, half­con­scious. Bane­gas pulled his pla­toon leader from the ve­hi­cle as the bul­lets flew.

“Don’t drop me, Bane­gas,” Sloan said at one point, ac­cord­ing to a let­ter he wrote con­grat­u­lat­ing Bane­gas for be­ing awarded a Bronze Star for valor in the in­ci­dent. This ac­count of Sloan’s ex­pe­ri­ences is based on in­ter­views with him and oth­ers over nearly two years.

The sec­ond Humvee in their con­voy ar­rived, but the Amer­i­cans were iso­lated, their ra­dios blocked by the high moun­tains around them. The fire­fight raged for 30 min­utes be­fore the at­tack­ers pulled back. Nearly a dozen U.S. sol­diers crammed into the re­main­ing Humvee, with Sloan slumped in the front and oth­ers hang­ing on the roof. They made it to a small po­lice sta­tion a few miles away. Sloan was flown by he­li­copter to the U.S. mil­i­tary base at Kan­da­har, then evac­u­ated to Ger­many and fi­nally to Wal­ter Reed.

At this point in his life, Sloan had be­come the per­son he had long hoped to be: a top grad­u­ate of the West Point class of 2002, an air­borne Ranger, a pla­toon leader in com­bat. “I wanted to do some­thing that was not only big­ger than my­self, but also dif­fer­ent from any­thing my peers were do­ing or any­one in my fam­ily had ever done,” he wrote later.

In a fleet­ing mo­ment he couldn’t even re­call, he had been rein­vented as a hospi­tal pa­tient. Over two months at Wal­ter Reed, and in the year and a half of op­er­a­tions and phys­i­cal re­cov­ery he en­dured af­ter­ward, he re­al­ized that re­build­ing his body was only half of what he needed to do. Be­com­ing whole again would re­quire re­turn­ing to com­bat.

‘I Want to Go Back’

Hours af­ter the am­bush, a colonel called Sloan’s par­ents in Arkansas. His mother feared her son would no longer have a face, but the colonel’s de­scrip­tion over­stated the case. Most of Sloan’s in­juries were be­low the sur­face. He was miss­ing teeth, his jaw was torn and dis­lo­cated, and he had scars on his fore­head, cheek and throat, but his face was oth­er­wise un­bruised.

Sloan’s new life re­volved around surg­eries and re­cov­er­ies, start­ing with a 16-hour op­er­a­tion the week af­ter he ar­rived from Afghanistan. An­other af­ter­noon, a doc­tor dis­cov­ered a brain aneurysm and rushed him to surgery. A few more hours, days at the most, the doc­tors said af­ter­ward, and it prob­a­bly would have rup­tured and killed him.

Gen­er­als and dig­ni­taries reg­u­larly vis­ited. Twice, Sloan was among groups of troops picked to meet with Pres­i­dent Bush. He watched some sol­diers with the worst wounds beg their vis­i­tors to help them go back to their units. He un­der­stood their feel­ings, even shared them.

Doc­tors told him it would take more than a year to re­cover. He was of­fered a med­i­cal dis­charge. He turned it down.

“The idea of be­ing wounded in the real world scared the hell out of me,” Sloan ac­knowl­edged. But an­other mo­ti­va­tion took time to un­der­stand: “You wake up in the hospi­tal dif­fer­ent than you were be­fore. The last time you were the per­son you’ve al­ways been, you were in a for­eign coun­try fight­ing a war. And I was think­ing if I can re­de­ploy, I was not beaten. I was whole.”

There was no way he could re- cover in time to re­join his unit — the 3rd Brigade of the 25th In­fantry Di­vi­sion — in Afghanistan. But he cal­cu­lated that they would re­turn to war some­time in the fall of 2006 or spring of 2007.

“Right there in Wal­ter Reed I was like, ‘I want to be a part of that. I want to go back.’ ”

Time for Re­build­ing

In early 2005, Sloan went to Hawaii, where the 25th In­fantry Di­vi­sion is based, and was se­lected to be the aide to Brig. Gen. John M. “Mick” Bednarek, one of the di­vi­sion’s two deputy com­mand­ing gen­er­als. Sloan ran Bednarek’s cal­en­dar and han­dled the small de­tails of mil­i­tary life.

A year passed, time Sloan used to plan and put his life to­gether. He had one surgery to re­con­struct his face, re­cov­ered and worked, and had an­other surgery. He was self-con­scious about his scars and ap­pear­ance. He was still miss­ing teeth, and his eyes were cross-eyed for months as a re­sult of the aneurysm. At one point he walked with a cane, af­ter surgery to trans­plant bone from his hip to his palate. He got along well with Bednarek, who worked Sloan hard enough that he had lit­tle time for a per­sonal life.

By sum­mer 2005, he won­dered whether a long-term mil­i­tary ca­reer was his true call­ing. Few of his West Point friends planned to stay in past June 2007, when their com­mit­ments were up.

“The truth is, I don’t know,” Sloan said dur­ing an in­ter­view in July 2005. “It’s hard for me to get out be­cause of West Point. The na­tion’s at war, but at the [same] time, do I think this is quite the best place for me? There’s other things I want out of life, like grad school, a fam­ily. And if I’m go­ing to Iraq ev­ery other year, that’s a lot to ask.”

He still wanted to go back to com­bat, but not out of vengeance. He didn’t think much about the fighter who had fired the grenade at him. “If the sit­u­a­tion was re­versed, I would have fired at him,” he said later. “That was life in Afghanistan; that was life in war.”

Sloan be­lieved in Amer­ica’s wars. He thought of his duty in Afghanistan as the honor of his life and thought that the global threat of Is­lamic fun­da­men­tal­ism was real.

Sloan’s unit got its or­ders: Iraq for a year, start­ing in sum­mer 2006. Sloan, who had been pro­moted to cap­tain, told Bednarek he was mak­ing plans to leave the Army in 2007 and would ap­ply to busi­ness school. But he had a re­quest. He wanted to de­ploy to Iraq first.

“Okay,” Bednarek said. “I un­der­stand what you’re ask­ing.”

They would go to war to­gether.

Feel­ing ‘Re­ally Alive’

In Au­gust 2006, two months af­ter Sloan’s last surgery and just be­fore his 27th birth­day, he, Bednarek and the rest of their unit were at Camp Spe­icher, a sprawl­ing mil­i­tary base near Tikrit, about 90 miles north of Bagh­dad. Soon, he and the gen­eral were go­ing out on in­fantry mis­sions.

On Dec. 21, in Baqubah, about 35 miles north­east of the cap­i­tal, Sloan was rid­ing in the back of a Humvee sim­i­lar to the one in which he’d been wounded in Afghanistan. Sgt. Ryan Ab­bott, 25, sat next to him. As they passed a build­ing painted with the five-ringed sym­bol of the Olympics, they heard a loud ex­plo­sion. De­bris filled the air. An im­pro­vised ex­plo­sive de­vice had gone off be­tween their ve­hi­cle and the one ahead.

“Clouds of smoke and dust and what­ever else,” re­called Bednarek, who was also on the pa­trol. “You’re driv­ing through that . . . you can’t see it un­til you get through it to the in­ci­dent site. Or you’re go­ing to drive through a hole that’s now 10 feet deep, caused by 400 pounds of homemade ex­plo­sive.”

Ab­bott spun around. Sloan was smil­ing broadly, reach­ing out to pound fists with him.

“He was fired up,” Ab­bott re­called.

It was the mo­ment Sloan had imag­ined. He was elated. More than two years af­ter he’d been in­jured, he felt like the per­son he’d been in Afghanistan. “Hav­ing a bomb go off close by to you can’t help but re­mind you about your own mor­tal­ity,” he ex­plained later. “And be­ing re­minded of that makes you feel re­ally alive.”

Climb­ing Back

In Jan­uary, Sloan logged on to a com­puter at Camp Spe­icher to see whether he’d been ac­cepted to grad­u­ate school.

“We’ve got a Har­vard man!” Bednarek bel­lowed in the di­vi­sion head­quar­ters. Sloan had been ad­mit­ted to the busi­ness school and would be out of the Army by sum­mer.

The next month, Bednarek’s small staff fanned out around the world for a two-week, mid-tour leave. Sloan went to Africa, where he climbed Mount Kil­i­man­jaro with a cousin and a friend, look­ing as civil­ian as any­one else on the trip, with a so­lar charger for his iPod and speak- ers mounted on his North Face back­pack. His fa­cial scars had largely healed, and his hair was long for the Army. It was only when his fel­low climbers asked where he’d flown in from that the war came up.

Later he went scuba div­ing in Kenya, and there was no blend­ing in. He stood in his bathing suit, his scars re­vealed. A ver­ti­cal line on his stom­ach ex­posed where a feed­ing tube had been in­serted. A dim­ple over his wind­pipe be­trayed a tra­cheotomy.

“You look like you’ve been in the wars,” the dive in­struc­tor said ca­su­ally. “What was it, a car wreck?”

“No,” Sloan replied. “You were right the first time. It was war.”

BY BILL MUR­PHY — THE WASH­ING­TON POST

In Rabiyah, north­west­ern Iraq, Sgt. Ryan Ab­bott, left, and Capt. Drew Sloan ac­com­pa­nied their com­mand­ing gen­eral on a pa­trol of an Iraqi border cross­ing with Syria. Sloan, who was se­ri­ously in­jured in Afghanistan in 2004, wanted to re­turn to com­bat af­ter mul­ti­ple surg­eries and months of re­cov­ery. “You wake up in the hospi­tal dif­fer­ent than you were be­fore. ... I was think­ing if I can re­de­ploy, I was not beaten. I was whole,” he said.

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