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.
“I signed up for this,” he said to himself. “I can do this. I was bred for this.”
O’Brian smoked a lot. Most of the guys did — before breakfast, in the middle of the night, on patrol. It helped them to process events, to calm their nerves. For a few minutes, the focus is solely on the inhale and exhale.
The guys drink, smoke, and fight when something tragic happens. Testosterone runs high when you realize that you’ve been spared, that your timing was right, that you’ve been given another chance at life. Soldiers have to blow off steam, pound their chests, and many times pound on each other, shouting, “I’m alive!” The fighting helps. Listening to heavy metal soothes. Smoking calms.
O’Brian spent his first 15 months serving in Iraq. His tour was supposed to be for a year, but in dire need of more men on the ground, the Army extended his duty an extra 3 months. He wasn’t even aware that his tour was extended to 15 months until his wife Sofie called. She found out on the local news.
“They didn’t tell us yet,” he said to her, a calm tone veiling his disappointment.
Sofie had moved in with her parents in San Diego after Tom was deployed. She’d just had their second child, a boy, and being a single mom with two kids under three years of age was taking its toll. Base living was tough. There were daily scenes of domestic violence next door, and there was nothing she could do about it. With a newborn boy and a 3-year-old daughter, she needed the love and support of her family. So she stayed with them until Tom returned.
She hated having to learn the fate of her husband’s future while watching the local news.
“Many times the media would know things before we did,” she said. “We [the family] are sworn to confidentiality, but the media would sometimes broadcast their whereabouts and give out other critical information.”
After months of living without him, the news that he would have to endure an additional three months more in the field, where every minute counts, almost broke her spirit. But when she and Tom spoke, she didn’t show it.
“I couldn’t show disappointment or exhibit any fear,” she says, “because I didn’t want him to lose focus. I didn’t want his mind anywhere other than where he was.”
With everything else out of her control, this was the only way Sofie knew how to keep Tom safe. Three more months on deployment was like an eternity. But she wouldn’t dare complain. She had a mission, too.
As team leader, Sgt. O’Brian also never complained. He was on the front lines, and as part of the “needs of the Army” in the infantry, he had to go wherever the Army needed him. His orders were to stay longer in Iraq, and so he did, without objection.
Iraq was hostile. It was the height of the Bush era in 2006 and 2007, and the Iraqi people were in general agitated and angry. The missions came fast and furious. The Army rolled into towns, hoping to keep the hostility down and avoid open combat and spot IEDs resting roadside. They mounted support of air-assault missions. The raids kept Sgt. O’Brian determined and focused.
It wasn’t the probability of dying that kept him awake at night, but thoughts of losing his wife and family. With so much time and distance between couples, “Dear John” letters arrived for soldiers each day. Getting an email or a letter about a significant other cheating or breaking up with a soldier while at war was common. Guys would post them on the Wall of Shame, the most prominent wall in the mess tent. It was their way of helping each other get over it.
Meanwhile, Sofie wasn’t going anywhere. A bright, beautiful, cheery person, she found living with loneliness hard, but she kept busy in order not to miss her husband quite so desperately.
The days passed, and Sgt. O’Brian’s homecoming, November 28, 2007, approached. Every soldier in his company was going home. In 15 months of fighting on the front lines, no one on O’Brian’s direct team had died. He was part of the reason why. He’d done everything within his power to be well equipped, so that he would survive, and so that those serving with him would too. He’d helped keep them all safe. He’d made good choices and was quietly proud of it. Now, he was strapping on his boots. He and his boys were going home. His mission was accomplished.
Homecoming is one of the biggest, most celebratory days of a soldier’s life. Families don’t know exactly what time their soldier will arrive home, only an approximation. They have to wait for instructions.
Patience is demanded of you and your entire family when you join. You no longer make decisions about your
future, and you have to be okay with that. Living in the moment is the only thing you can do. Plans are not an option. You have to get used to a life in limbo.
The wives try, but when you haven’t seen your husband in 15 months — aside from a two-week leave midway through his tour — the waiting is excruciating.
It was 3:00 a.m. when the white buses full of returning soldiers pulled up to the Ft. Hood base in Texas. They lined up head to tail on the base’s floodlit field, where the soldiers perform drills. Then there they stood, flesh and blood, 100 yards away, home at last from the brutal war in Iraq. After the General said a few words of inspiration and congratulations, he shouted, “Soldiers, at ease!”
Sofie sprinted across the field. Amongst the more than 1000 soldiers, she found Tom. He scooped her up in his arms and held her to his pounding heart. Finally, they were together again. She could breathe. All fingers, all toes, all parts, safe from war. He had made it. He had survived. He was home.
“It was the best day of my life,” Sofie recalled as tears filled her blue eyes. She took a quick breath, holding the tears in check, a practice perfected over the years. No words could hold the emotional weight of her feelings on that day.
Once home, at their new location on the Ft. Hood base in Texas, Sgt. O’Brian relished the quality time spent with Sofie and his children — his almost-two-year-old son and five-year-old daughter. He settled in with a new perspective on life. He was one of the lucky ones; he’d made it home in one piece. He had a new lease on life, and he was going to appreciate it, live it to the fullest, in honor of the men who had lost theirs.
With high hopes, O’Brian had joined the Army in 2005, to be in the Special Operations division. His grandfather had been in the Marine Force Recon, and he wanted to follow in his footsteps. He worked hard, day in and day out, in basic training, and he was about to begin Special Ops training, when graduating cadets came in from West Point, and his spot was taken. He was pushed back to the infantry, the front lines. There was nothing he could say or do about it, despite how hard he had worked. He couldn’t nor would he complain. He would go where they needed him.
Once home, O’Brian continued to work hard at the base. He’d proven to be a gifted marksman, and the Army gave him the opportunity to move to Ft. Lewis Army Base in Washington and head up a new Stryker Brigade there. In this new Stryker Brigade, he would be the leader of a sniper team, a highly specialized group. His experience and skills would be wholly utilized. This spot was his.
O’Brian learned to shoot at 6 years of age. His grandfather became a Marine at the age of 17 and served in World War II and Korea, and his dad served in the Army during the Vietnam War. Growing up, O’Brian’s dad and uncle would take him to a shooting range and teach him, patiently and accurately. He showed signs of being a gifted marksman right away. He was a natural.
Despite the quality moments spent with his father and uncle at the shooting range, his early years had been difficult. By the time O’Brian was ten, his mother had divorced his father and become a full-blown Jehovah’s Witness. She uprooted her children and moved them from San Diego to Arkansas, to be closer to her brother.
In Arkansas, O’Brian’s life changed dramatically. In San Diego, he’d been a soccer superstar who’d played on a traveling team, but now, living in the middle of nowhere, under strict Jehovah’s Witness rules, there would be no more sports in their household. He wasn’t allowed to celebrate birthdays, holidays, or special occasions either. Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, his mom would dress him up and take him and his siblings out to knock on doors, to spread the Jehovah’s Witness word. O’Brian hated it, but he couldn’t get through to her. She wouldn’t listen; she was brainwashed by the Jehovah beliefs. She believed that Armageddon was approaching. The family needed to earn their spot among the 144,000 people being let into heaven.
Luckily, O’Brian’s father followed the family to Arkansas and rented a place 20 minutes away, so he could still be a part of his children’s lives. His dad was always someone Tom could count on, his love constant and unwavering. His dad didn’t say “I love you” often, but his actions spoke volumes. O’Brian credits his dad with teaching him patience and how to relax under pressure. Little did his father know how much Tom would rely on those lessons in the field.
Frustrated and unhappy after many years of living under the Jehovah’s Witness restrictions enforced by his mother, O’Brian ran away when he was 16. He didn’t want to leave his brothers Samuel, Miles, and Daniel or his sister Jennifer, but he was suffocating and desperate. He had to get out of there. He left in the middle of the night, with nothing in his pockets or on his back, and walked ten hours to his dad’s place. His mom never came looking for him.
He moved in with his dad, and eventually his dad got the okay from his mother to move all of the children back to San Diego. Tom jumped right back into Mission Bay High and sports. As a junior, he was offered a scholarship to play football for USC. A gifted athlete, he now had the chance and platform to prove it. He also began surfing and building his own boards.
He continued playing football as a senior. More scholarships were offered. He graduated from high school at 18 and found a great place to live in Pacific Beach. He surfed every day, no one told him what he could or couldn’t do, and he was earning a lot of money making surfboards. When July came and he was supposed to report to football camp, the thought of returning to school had lost its appeal. He passed up his football scholarship to play for USC. Like a lot of kids who have struggled for love, he’d lost direction. His mom had shunned him, cut him off from all communication and affection for not being a Jehovah’s Witness, and his dad was working all the time, trying to make money and provide for the family. But he had no regrets.
A year later, when he was 19, he met Sofie and fell in love. She’d grown up in San Diego as well, but her upbringing was different. She’d lived in the same house her whole life, and her parents were happily married, supportive, and encouraging. The day she met Tom, she knew he would be the love of her life.
After three dates, they moved in together. Their connection was permanent and profound. They’d found in each other a soul mate. Sofie quit college. Young, footloose and fancy-free, the two made great money working in restaurants. They often traveled — “Let’s go to Mexico!” they’d say and pack up their truck. Used to moving around, Tom kept his belongings in a duffle bag, so spontaneity came easily. Sofie was just as adventurous.
Eventually they moved to Mammoth, to snowboard and work on the mountain. Six months after meeting, Tom proposed to Sofie at the highest point on Mammoth Mountain. She said yes. They celebrated that night but waited two years to get married so they could legally drink at their wedding.
Three nights before the wedding, after the rehearsal dinner, Tom’s younger brother Samuel was in a devastating car accident. It was late, Samuel was tired, and he missed a turn on a freeway overpass. His car careened over the side. He ended up in a coma.
As Samuel lay in the hospital, Tom and Sofie decided to proceed with the wedding. Samuel would have wanted that. It was a bittersweet day. Tom was in love, ready to start a new life with Sofie, but he was numb too, unable to process the fact that Samuel was slipping away. Samuel, his little brother, his laughter, his memory-keeper, the one he always looked out for, died the following day.
A few years later, Sofie got pregnant, and they had a beautiful baby girl. They settled down and bought a small house. They were making money, living the American dream. Tom’s heart began to heal from the loss of his brother. His anger at his mom dulled. He was growing up, becoming a man, setting aside his grievances so he could move forward and live without resentment. He had to, for the sake of his new family.
But at 25, he was restless. He knew he could be doing more with his life. Then, in January of 2005, he was watching CNN when he recognized the names of some of the dead soldiers, rolling like movie credits up the television screen. And it hit him: he would join the Army. On some level, he’d been thinking about it since September 11. Now he couldn’t just sit on the couch and watch what was going on in Iraq. He felt an obligation to go and make a difference. He knew his shooting skills could be of serious help. He could have an impact. Suddenly, his future looked so clear.
The next day, he and Sofie were in an Army recruitment office. Four days later, he was in basic training in Georgia. He had no idea what he’d gotten himself into.
O’Brian liked it. He excelled at target practice. He was in great shape from surfing, so the physical challenges came easily. He was beyond proficient on every level. He focused on the drills, not on missing Sofie. He tucked his feelings aside, just as he had done for so many years with his mother. He had to learn everything he could, to prepare himself for what lay ahead. Soon, he “couldn’t imagine doing anything else” and quickly moved up the ranks. He was a born leader, and the Army recognized it. He was “all that he could be” and felt honored to be a part of something important.
Before he was deployed to Iraq, he lived with the anticipation of the unknown. But by his second deployment, this time to fight combat in Afghanistan, he felt more prepared. He knew the job, he knew the mission, he knew the atmosphere. He was comfortable and ready. Sofie was ready too, except that this time, with two young children who needed their Papa, she had to reach deeper for strength. Was it too much to beg God to keep him safe one more time?
Sgt. O’Brian left on his second deployment July 13, 2009. He left with confidence, knowing what lay ahead. Combat was familiar. Daily duties were practically routine. And in fact, once there, he found life in Afghanistan easier in some ways than life at home, helping
Sofie take care of two kids.
Afghanistan turned out to be far more dangerous than Iraq. Mortars flew airborne all the time. There were new imposed rules of combat that the Afghani president insisted the U.S. Army follow. During a raid, Afghan police had to enter first, before the U.S. Army, and civilians could drive right next to Army vehicles without getting a citation (in Iraq, civilian vehicles could not drive closely to an Army vehicle, for fear of a bomb detonating). The insurgents’ attacks were calculated, oftentimes striking a vehicle on patrol, and then once the soldiers dismounted, striking again. Everyone and everything was a threat to their safety, and civilian anger accompanied them as they rolled in and out of towns. More soldiers were dying. IEDs were more sophisticated, better hidden, and ignited with more precision. Tensions ran high.
This war was different.
Sofie would go days without hearing from O’Brian. If a soldier has died in combat, the others cannot call home until the family of the fallen is notified — the Army doesn’t want them to hear the news from anyone else. So Sofie would wait. Days passed with her looking out the window, holding her breath, praying that the casualty notification officer and chaplain wouldn’t drive up and ring her doorbell.
To the outside world, it was obvious when Sofie had heard nothing for days, because her smile would fade and her eyes would dim. She’d force herself to think positively, chanting, “He’s okay. He’s safe. He’s alive. He’s not leaving me.” She’d focus on breathing while she tucked the kids into bed, the lights turned down and soft music playing. She’d tell them stories of Papa, wiping away tears that brimmed. She willed him to be all right.
“Please call,” she pleaded.
Finally, he would, and the reality of his
being so far away in such a dangerous place would settle in. Sofie couldn’t dwell on it; he had a whole year to go. The quicker she got through each day, the sooner he would be home.
Then came the morning of November 13, 2009, when the mortar struck inside the gym tent. Sofie got a call from Tom. He had been injured. He could talk, so she knew that he was okay, but he was still injured. She didn’t know to what extent. They were moving him soon, and he couldn’t talk long. He’d call again when he could.
They flew Sgt. O’Brian to the military hospital in Qalat, extracted the shrapnel from his hand, and tied together his ruptured tendons. With blood filling his lungs, he was put on oxygen. There were signs of internal bruising. They flew him to Bagram, Afghanistan, where he received hand surgery. After surgery, they flew him to Lohgstuhl, Germany. Then home.
He was coming home.
He was alive.
It wasn’t his day to die.
Sofie flew to Washington. Sgt. O’Brian was asleep when she found him. She crawled into his hospital bed. Moments later, he awakened from a nightmare to find his rock, the love of his life, holding him close. He was home.
Sgt. O’Brian has been back in the States for six months now. Adjusting to civilian life is odd. You’d never know by looking at him that he’s been through so much, seen so much. He’s quiet. He tries to blend in.
He doesn’t have that elation soldiers get when they finish their mission, their job. He feels as if he didn’t complete the mission, and he hates that his team is out there without him. Part of him wants to go back to finish the job, get his team home safely, while the other part is resigned, knowing he can’t shoot a gun and so wouldn’t be that much help.
He’s worried about the guys. Since he returned home, they moved his troop to an extremely hostile, undisclosed location. In this new assignment, one of his soldiers, only a kid, died within a week from a roadside bomb. All together, 15 have died from his battalion. In all of his time at war, he’d never lost anyone in his troop.
But he keeps moving forward.
Sleeping in a bed without the sound of war overhead is peaceful. Spending time with Sofie and the kids is ordinary and precious. Each day he wakes up, he knows how lucky he is, and he is grateful.
When he first got home, Sgt. O’Brian spent most mornings at the rehabilitation hospital. Because the surgery to save his right hand was done incorrectly, his tendons have fused together, and he can no longer move his hand no matter how hard he tries. His tendons strain against each knuckle, and he has lost all mobility in the hand. He’s in a lot of pain but won’t take medication. He doesn’t want to lose the clarity in his mind. “It’s not that bad,” he says, even though the hand looks angry and unbearable.
So he waits. He waits on orders to see if, and when, they will redo the operation. He does what he has to do to survive the pain. The Army has cut his pay in half, because technically, he’s not fighting anymore. They’ve shuffled him back to Washington, while Sofie stays with the kids in San Diego, until they finish the school year. He spends his days running errands for higher-ranking officers and chaperoning new recruits on weekends.
He continues to wait for the Army to schedule a surgery to save his hand. In the meantime, he’s learning how to drive, shower, eat, dress, write, and type with his left.
Waiting, his life remains in limbo, his future up in the air. In one year, his enlistment will be over. Through the GI bill, he could go to college and study landscape architecture, which interests him. He could join Homeland Security or become a police officer here in San Diego, where he could utilize his fluency in Spanish. But future career choices will be limited without the use of both hands.
Sgt. O’Brian continues to do his duty every day, without complaint. Despite being injured and all but forgotten, he remains devoted to the Army, to his band of brotherhood. He knows he escaped dying many times and now savors every living moment. November 13 was not his day to die. It was the first day of the next chapter of his life. His hand will never be the same, and he won’t either.
Sgt. O’Brian did his part. The Army needs to do its part by taking care of our wounded soldiers.
Godspeed, humble warrior, Godspeed.
Note: Names in this article have been changed. A shorter version of this story was first published on San Diego News Network (sdnn.com).