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Blasted by Adversity

Excerpted from Blasted by Adversity: the Making of a Wounded Warrior, which chronicles Army SSG Luke Murphy’s two tours with the 101st Airborne Division, his recovery from an IED blast that took his leg, and his advocacy for wounded service members.

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SSG Luke Murphy

April 24, 2006, the anniversary of Troy Jenkins’s death, three years earlier. Since he was blown up, that day had been bad for me. I didn’t want to be around people, I drank too much. I didn’t really know how to deal with it. I couldn’t talk to anybody about it because none of my buddies had been there. And the guys who were there were wounded and had moved on.

This day was shaping up to be just as bad. Our assignment was to guard FBI and CIA agents while they tried to identify mass graves as evidence against Saddam Hussein. Saddam didn’t like the Shiites, and Sadr City was Shiite central. He had murdered many and piled them in mass graves, so we were in a dump digging through trash trying to find bodies as little kids ran up and threw bricks at us. This was not a typical infantry mission, and I had a bad feeling about it, but you don’t ask questions.

Later that evening, back at the base, we were told we needed to go back into the city and recover a truck that had broken down. “Hey, sir, this is not us,” I told the lieutenant. “Please send somebody else.”

“Sergeant,” he said, “this is something we’ve got to do.”

“Lieutenant, would you just sit down for a second?” I finally told it to him straight, explained to him the meaning of the day, how Troy had died three years earlier. I told him how it affected me, and he listened, then said, “We’ve got to go anyway.” That was it. I resigned myself. Okay, we’re going.

It was close to midnight by the time we recovered the truck, but after working twenty-three hours straight without sleep. Our convoy was on the way out of the city on a road called Route Predator. That’s when I saw the flash.

After the blast and my realization that I’d lost at least one leg, I saw my driver, Shane Irwin, trying to put the vehicle in park because the brakes weren’t working. The round that went through me had lodged in the transmission. Military Humvees are really wide, not like the civilian ones. There’s probably six feet from the driver to passenger side, plus there’s all kinds of gear in between. So even though I was screaming, “Crash the truck! Crash the truck!” Irwin couldn’t hear me. A fire blazed behind our seats, and we couldn’t breathe. I saw him open the door; he wanted to jump. I realized, If this guy jumps, we are done. Then Irwin looked around in the vehicle and shut the door; he chose to stay in the fire. I remember thinking, Thank you, Irwin. Thank you. I can’t imagine what courage it took to stay in a fire and burn up rather than leave his men. When Irwin did finally crash into the wall, the force of the wreck almost knocked me out. I tried opening the door, but the blast had buckled it, and it was also blocked by the wall. I tried shouldering it and managed to knock it off the hinges. It’s hard to shove against a door when you don’t have legs to push with. When it fell open, I rolled out on my face and crawled what felt like a mile, though it was probably only nine feet. I had lost a lot of blood, my right leg was gone, and my left leg was blown in half, hanging by skin. Irwin was the first one to get to me, and he said he was getting help. I heard the medic, Ian Gallegos, moving from guy to guy, giving directions. When he got to me, he knelt and took off his huge backpack, filled with medical equipment. That told me triage had started; I was pretty sure I was the worst hit.

“How you doing, Murph?” Gallegos asked.

“I’m fine,” I responded.

“Do you need morphine?”

“No.”

“Good, he said, “because I wasn’t going to give it to you anyway.” He kind of laughed.

Gallegos was cool and didn’t show any sign of stress. You can’t teach that. Maybe they try in medic training, but putting it into practice is entirely different. One minute Staff Sergeant Murphy is walking and talking and fine. The next minute, he’s lying there smudged in black with just his femur hanging out from one leg, and mangled with bones from the other. The air smelled of blood and burned meat, and gunpowder and sulfur from the bomb. We were not sure the threat had subsided. Some of the young soldiers were freaking out, but the leaders were doing great, their responses flawless. And here was the medic cracking jokes.

There was no time for IVs, just a tourniquet to stop the blood, a quick check to make sure I’m breathing, and get me back to the trauma docs. As we drove onto the base, I saw the medevac coming down, but our vehicle turned the opposite direction. I thought, Guys, there’s my bird. Why are we going that way? My mind wasn’t one hundred percent sharp. I knew my life was on the line, that golden hour, and I knew I wanted to get on that flight.

They took us to an area I’d never been. I never expected to see every doc in the whole battalion in that tent. Doc Tenario, who had worked on Troy Jenkins, was working on me. They were checking tourniquets, getting IVs started, getting our paperwork together. We ended up being the worst our company would see the whole deployment.

A lot could still go wrong, and it almost did. They got us to the bird, and since I was the worst injured, they put me on last. The medevac Black Hawk choppers are painted green with a red cross on the side, and they’re not set up for carrying troops, only stretchers. Besides the pilot, there’s a crew chief who also serves as the in-flight medic and the gunner. With the long cable attached to the headset, he could barely get around and check on the patients being transported. It took him a minute or two to get all of us strapped down. In case the pilot had to do some evasive maneuvers, to dodge an RPG gunfire, they didn’t want us slamming into a wall.

The gunner put the oxygen mask on me but didn’t turn on the air. I lay there doing the fish face, sucking plastic. With my arms were strapped down, I couldn’t do anything, and the choppers are so loud, he’d never hear me anyway. As I tried to breath, all I could think was, You bastard, turn on the air! The chopper lifted off, and I knew I was going to pass out soon. He finally looked back at me, and his eyes lit up when he realized his error. He started the oxygen, and I was too weak to admonish him. I had nearly died, for the second time that night.

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SSG Luke Murphy and his dog, Bella

 Blasted by Adversity: The Making of a Wounded Warrior is currently available on Amazon. You can read more about the author on his website.