Cover Story

Walking wounded

"Walking wounded" Continued...

On the morning of March 8, Smith ventured outside the patrol base with about a dozen U.S soldiers and seven members of the local Afghan police. They moved along a dirt road near farmland with a few scattered buildings. Smith watched nervously as the Afghan police used twigs to poke at anything in the road that looked suspicious.

As the squad entered a field, the pop of bullets erupted from their left. Smith and the others hit the ground and held their fire. The soldiers couldn’t see where the fire was coming from, but that didn’t stop the Afghan police officers from firing blindly.

One of the Afghan police officers ran over to Smith and a few other Americans and motioned them to follow. The Americans hesitated.

“You guys are good,” Smith’s squad leader shouted. “He knows where the Taliban are. You guys follow him, and we will be right behind you.”

Smith hopped over a wall and landed inside a narrow ditch. Shots flew overhead. Smith was third in line, following the Afghan policeman and another American. Somehow the first two missed the pressure plate. Smith did not. When he crashed back down to the ground head first after the blast, Smith’s first thought was to push himself onto his back. Then he screamed.

“Help. Help. Help.”

Smith’s team leader held his hands as the unit’s medic slapped tourniquets and gauze onto Smith’s wounds. It was the medic’s first battlefield casualty. He was 20 years old.

“Jesus save me. Jesus save me. Jesus save me,” Smith shouted over and over. His screams were matched by the team’s radio operator yelling landing coordinates to a helicopter launched to take Smith off the battlefield.

Shoved into the helicopter, Smith continued to cry out for Jesus. As the helicopter took off, Smith’s screams stopped. He had blacked out.

The next time Smith woke up was inside a military hospital in Germany. It was March 10, two days after his injury and almost exactly one year since his March 11, 2011, graduation from basic training. He had only been deployed for 18 days. A Purple Heart, awarded to Smith while he was unconscious, sat inside a bag near his hospital bed.

After a recent morning therapy session at Walter Reed, Smith wheeled himself back to the outpatient apartment on base that he shares with his wife. A group of men in wheelchairs waited with their wives and mothers outside the hospital’s pharmacy. On the back of the wheelchairs are bumper stickers that say, “I served in Afghanistan.” Other amputees wear T-shirts that read, “I had a blast in Afghanistan” written alongside a cartoon drawing of an explosion.

“You have to have a sense of humor,” Smith explained.

Smith greeted a soldier from his own platoon who was wounded a month and a half after Smith. After a brief exchange, Smith noted that the fellow soldier was in the intensive care unit for a week. “I was in there for a month and a half,” he added.

Smith’s body got torn apart on a Thursday. By the following Tuesday he had arrived at Walter Reed.

Since the blast, doctors had kept Smith’s lower body covered in sheets and wrapped in bandages. But on Smith’s second day in the hospital’s intensive care unit, a doctor came in to examine him. Nurses removed the sheets and bandages. Smith looked down and did a double take. He tried to lift his lower body and couldn’t.

He looked up at his wife with a puzzled face and said, “I don’t have any legs.”

“Not all of them,” she replied. Tori Smith had prepared a big speech for this moment. But before she could begin, her husband had gone back to sleep.

When she got the call about her husband’s injury, Tori was in her second semester of law school at Michigan State. The military could not tell her whether Smith would be transported from Germany to a hospital in Maryland or Texas. But she didn’t want her husband to spend his first night back in the United States without her.

She got into a car with her mother-in-law and brother-in-law and headed toward Washington. Along the way they listened to worship music and prayed that they were going in the right direction. If the military called and told her Smith had been sent to Texas, then they planned to drive to the nearest airport and put Tori on a plane to San Antonio.

When Smith landed at Andrews Air Force Base, military personnel loaded him into an ambulance the size of a semitruck with six other wounded soldiers and headed for Walter Reed. Tori was already waiting.  

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