Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Purple Heart Recipient Back Into The Fight After Injury

Wounded in a convoy operation, one NCO couldn't wait to get back into the fight. Seven weeks after almost losing a leg in a mortar attack during an Operation Iraqi Freedom mission, Tech. Sgt. Jerome Baker not only returned to duty but also volunteered to stay in the area of operations for an additional 70 days. Sergeant Baker, the 56th Logistics Readiness Squadron training NCO at Luke Air Force Base, was on his third tour of duty in Iraq this year when he was wounded in action. Sergeant Baker was assigned to a protective service detail in Baghdad for a high ranking officer. His team's duty was to provide security and transport the officer as he traveled around the city and beyond. Sergeant Baker was familiar with his assignment and the country. For five months in 2003, he was assigned to convoy duty and for seven months in 2004 to 2005, he served in an armed convoy escort with the Army. He volunteered to go back to serve in his most recent tour because, as he put it, "Unless I am out there doing my job and getting shot at, it's just not worth it." And get shot at he did. "Insurgents started throwing rockets into the Baghdad area on Easter Sunday -- 105- and 107-mm rockets, that were 5 or 6 inches round, and 5 to 6 feet long," Sergeant Baker said. "Until that point, it had been pretty quiet. The first attack was at 5 a.m. and from then on for the next week or so, we were getting seven to eight attacks a day. It was just, 'Boom! Boom! Boom!' all day long." In one of the first attacks, Sergeant Baker's armored sport utility vehicle was hit by a rocket. Luckily, no one was in it at the time and the only casualty was the truck itself. But March 26 brought a rocket attack that would change the NCO's life. "I was outside in front of a building working on the wiring of one of the trucks that didn't get blown up and the incoming rocket alarm went off," Sergeant Baker said. "I started running for cover and within five seconds, the first rocket landed 400 to 500 meters away from me. Two seconds later, I could hear another rocket coming. When one comes toward you, it sounds like a jet engine. It was getting louder and louder. I got down behind a large concrete curb right before I saw it hit. I felt the concussion wave, saw a big fan of smoke and heard the shrapnel hitting the building, blowing out windows."Sergeant Baker paused for a second and then kept running for the front door. He was less than 5 feet from the front entrance of the building when a third rocket hit. "I saw the rocket hit about 30 feet from me, and I thought it had hit the ground," he said. But in reality, the rocket had hit a vehicle parked in front of the building. A piece of the truck blew off, ricocheted off of the building and flew up the driveway, hitting Sergeant Baker. "As I was running, I saw this thing about the size of a dinner plate coming at me and I tried to dodge it," he said. "I turned my body away from it, but it hit me in the upper right thigh; taking out my legs. I went down face first, and smashed my elbow and knee on the curb where I fell. At first, I thought about my elbow and knee and how much they hurt. But when I started moving, I couldn't feel my right leg. It was numb and I could see blood coming through my uniform." His colleagues dragged him to safety and applied first aid until medics arrived. The medics continued caring for the wounded NCO and transported him to a combat surgical hospital. Unfortunately for Sergeant Baker, another patient in worse condition had to be taken into surgery first. After three hours of waiting, he went in. The shrapnel that hit him had missed a major artery in his leg by half an inch, but took out a large chunk of flesh. The surgeons cleaned and stitched up the wound. The next day, as Sergeant Baker was awaiting transport to Joint Base Balad, Iraq, the general he was working with told him he would be receiving the Purple Heart. But even the presentation of that award would not go without incident. "I was in the hospital, and the rocket attacks started again," Sergeant Baker said. "I was moved, along with everybody else, into the hallway away from the windows. And I got my Purple Heart right there in the hospital hallway. I couldn't fully appreciate it at the time because I was too worried about losing my leg and just wanted to get out of the city." A day later, Sergeant Baker was medically evacuated to Joint Base Balad and then to another air base in Southwest Asia, where he stayed for the next six weeks. When he got his stitches out 10 days after arriving there, the doctors discovered the wound had become infected, and they had to remove more muscle in his leg that had died off. After the second surgery, Sergeant Baker continued to do everything the doctors told him he needed to do to heal, and continued to focus on returning to the fight. "I kept asking the doctors when I could go back to Baghdad. I was just sitting on my butt for six weeks and I was going crazy!" he said. "I was used to working 12-plus hour days, six or seven days a week and wanted to get back and do my job."After six weeks, the doctors let Sergeant Baker go back to Baghdad, where his boss made him wait another week before getting back to work. "I begged him to let me get back to work," he said. "I told him I would take care of my leg, and it would be fine. Besides, they needed bodies, and I was available." Just seven weeks after being wounded in action, Sergeant Baker went back to work on convoys. Even though his leg wasn't completely healed, he said he was working on missions outside the wire; glad to be back in the saddle. In June, his team was short one member, and Sergeant Baker volunteered to stay on for an extra 70 days to fill the vacancy. "They asked me if I was sure I wanted to stay," he said. "I told them that I wanted to make up for the seven weeks that I was out of commission, so we filled out the paperwork, and I stayed." Sergeant Baker is now back at Luke AFB and adjusting to life stateside. "Coming back this time, it was harder to adjust," he said. "Over in Iraq, we controlled the roads; people got out of our way. We had lights and strobes and signs that told people to stay back or get shot. Here, cars are right next to you on the road, and I am just waiting for something bad to happen. I'll see a piece of trash on the side of the road, and wonder, 'What is that doing there?'" Physically, Sergeant Baker is having circulation problems in his injured leg. With the damage to the soft tissue, his blood will flow down his leg, but it won't flow back up on its own, causing painful swelling. He has to wear an anti-embolism stocking to control the swelling whenever he knows he is going to be standing or up and about. He can walk, but can't stand for more than an hour or run. Sergeant Baker said he plans to see a specialist about a third surgery to help with the circulation problems in his leg. Despite the obstacles caused by the rocket attack, Sergeant Baker said he would go back and serve in Iraq.

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