The emergency room of the Naval Medical Center San Diego was buzzing. Veterans of all ages waited their turn to be seen. In the corner, San Diego native Sergeant Tom O’Brian grimaced in pain. The gnarled knuckles and mangled tendons of his right wrist, the result of a hasty surgery to save the function in his right hand in Afghanistan, had become too excruciating to bear.
After waiting for more than three months on orders from above for a reoperation, this forgotten, injured soldier brought himself to the ER, in the desperate hope of some relief from the agony.
On November 13, 2009, Sgt. Tom O’Brian was in the gym tent of the Forward Operating Base in the Zabul province of Afghanistan, listening to heavy metal on his Bose headset, when an 81mm mortar ripped through the tent’s ceiling and imploded behind him. Ted, the American name given to his troop’s Afghani interpreter, stood between him and the mortar. Sgt. O’Brian was still standing after the explosion, because Ted, his friend, had blocked O’Brian’s six-foot-three-inch frame from the debris.
The lethal bursting area of an 81mm mortar is 34–38 meters. Once it lands, it throws over 1400 shell fragments of scalding debris outward, in every direction. Sgt. O’Brian, Ted, a second Afghani interpreter named Andy, and another soldier were within its range.
In the chaos of the aftermath, Sgt. O’Brian didn’t notice his own injuries. Within seconds, he had assessed the situation, checked the rise and fall of Ted’s chest, noticed another fallen soldier lying a few feet away, with badly injured lower extremities. As Sgt. O’Brian tried to scoop up the young soldier, he realized he couldn’t move his right arm. He looked down to see a piece of burning shrapnel above his wrist tearing a hole through the tendons on his right hand. He threw the soldier onto his back with his other arm and delivered him to the medics, in another tent across the dirt field, shouting that Ted was unconscious and Andy was still in the tent.
The medics rushed to the gym tent, Sgt. O’Brian following. He stood back and watched as they tried to revive his buddy.
“Ted! Come on, man! Breathe!” Sgt. O’Brian prayed.
But Ted’s wounds were too deep, and he could not be saved. Ted was the last remaining member of his Afghani family to die, all casualties of the brutal war on terror.
Sgt. O’Brian knows that he was lucky. He knows that Ted, the team’s interpreter, saved his life.
Sgt. O’Brian and Ted had spent a lot of time together, every day, for days on end. Like many Afghani interpreters who help the Army, the Taliban had killed all of Ted’s family. Sgt. O’Brian — and the military — had become his new family. And despite being from opposite ends of the earth — Sgt. O’Brian, born and raised in San Diego, and Ted from Kabul — they became fast friends. Sgt. O’Brian had grown to depend on Ted and trusted him, and in a blinding flash he was gone. Sgt. O’Brian didn’t get a chance to thank his friend, he didn’t get a chance to say goodbye.
Stripped of his clothes, his beloved iPod, and the Bose headset that had protected his ears in the explosion — and his brain — Sgt. O’Brian was put on a helicopter and flown to Qalat. He’d sustained internal bruising, his lungs were filling with blood, and his right hand was lifeless. But it was not this decorated soldier’s day to die.
On the ride out, after inquiring about the others, he learned that the second interpreter, Andy, had been killed. Andy’s adrenalin had kicked in after the blast, and the medics hadn’t reached him before he rushed out of the tent, looking and raging against the bomb slingers. Fifteen minutes into his mad search, Andy died from the swelling in his brain.
There went two comrades, gone, in an instant. Many of Sgt. O’Brian’s friends had died over there, great guys with bright futures. Too many to count. He couldn’t dwell on it. Soldiers died, soldiers got injured, and his survival depended on being able to compartmentalize his feelings and keep moving forward to accomplish his mission.
This wasn’t the first time he’d been injured at war. During the winter of 2007, on his initial tour in Iraq, while on patrol in the heart of Ad Dujayl, he’d suffered a traumatic brain injury, a “TBI.” His Humvee hit an improvised explosive device, and he was thrown against the Humvee’s steel frame, cracking his skull. Cuts, breaks, bruises, and brain injuries were an everyday occurrence. Sgt. O’Brian and his soldiers took it in stride, just as, a couple of days before the insurgents blew up the workout tent, they’d taken in the attack of a suicide bomber who rode his motorcycle into the base with intentions to kill everyone. Mortars flew by. Improvised explosive devises went off incessantly. They got used to it. They just prayed they weren’t in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sgt. O’Brian had been inches from dying many times.
In 2006, six weeks after landing in Iraq, while watching over a city street from the third floor of a blown-out building, the blunt reality that he could die at any moment stole his innocence.
He was standing watch with Johnny Rivera, a young soldier from a different company. While he stared through the binoculars, comparing the sector sketch (a detailed drawing of territory within a one-mile radius) to what was visible outside, Corporal Rivera yelled, “I just saw a flash!” Then a bullet blasted through the corporal’s head.
Immediately, O’Brian fell to the floor, providing “buddy aid.” Every soldier must perform “buddy aid,” a first-aid training given to soldiers to help heal a fallen comrade, until someone more qualified comes to assist. After doing everything he could to save his comrade and helping the medics once they’d arrived, O’Brian asked for his first cigarette. Covered in Rivera’s blood, he shakily smoked. It was the first time he understood that it could easily have been him. One foot over, or one foot behind, he would have been a dead man. Breathe in, breathe out. The smoke calmed him down.