AL ASAD AIR BASE, Iraq --
A Marine loses blood, flesh, and sometimes life when wounded in combat. Even when that Marine overcomes death, is sewn up and found fit for full duty, scar tissue will always remind him of that day, if not the memories he carries that may weigh his thoughts with troubles and self-appointed failures.
Meritoriously-promoted Sergeant Juan Valdez, a vehicle commander with Mobile Security Detachment, Headquarters Company, Regimental Combat Team 8, earned a Purple Heart when he was struck by a bullet to his torso while on patrol with 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment in Kharma, Iraq during his 2006 deployment. Volunteering for his current deployment, Valdez overcomes his self-inflicted guilt and feelings of failure through a second deployment to the same country where he almost lost his life.
“I had all this guilt from my last deployment,” Valdez said. “I wanted to get back to Iraq so bad. I felt like I left my boys hanging.”
The guilt Valdez feels stems from a patrol on Oct. 31, 2006, where he volunteered as the radioman for the patrol. He and his Marines came up to a road with a wall on their right and a street market with three-story buildings, separated by a tall, grass covered irrigation ditch. The Marines on patrol had no view of who was in the marketplace because of the tall grass and were practically silhouetted by the wall to their right. This was a perfect ambush spot for insurgents because the enemy could fire from the marketplace, concealed by grass while being given information from spotters in the windows. They could also have used the tall buildings as perfect vantage points for sniping at the patrol as it passed through. The insurgents chose the latter.
“I heard a snap that sounded like sniper fire and thought ‘If that hit someone I’d hate to be that guy,” Valdez said. He was ‘that guy.’
Valdez was thrown against the wall by the rifle round that had pierced through his body. He didn’t realize it was he who had been shot in the first moments of his near-death experience.
“I heard the shot and saw Valdez drop to his knees,” said Lance Cpl. Mark Bowling, a turret gunner with MSD and a machine gunner with Mobile Assault Platoon 4 during the patrol. “He tried to get up but couldn’t. Everyone was trying to help; even the cameraman from New York Times dropped his camera and asked what he could do to help.”
The chaotic situation unraveled differently to Valdez.
“My buddy rushed over and took off my flak,” Valdez said. “My hand was going numb and I was thinking, ‘How am I going to be able to dance with a hook for a hand?’”
After five minutes of bleeding out from his back, Valdez began to feel he may die right there, next to the wall and in his fellow Marine’s arms.
“I said my peace with God,” Valdez said. “If He was going to take me then so be it, but I’m still going to fight it.”
Valdez fought it. After a quick medical evacuation helicopter ride, going from base to base within days, he eventually ended up at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.
“I couldn’t walk for the first four days at the hospital,” Valdez said. “After I learned to walk again, I was showing the nurses how to clear stairwells and rooms with my hands.”
The Boston native tried to keep himself busy by teaching the hospital’s staff, skills that seemed foreign to them, but it didn’t scratch the itch inside him -- getting back into the fight.
“I would get so angry with the doctors because they wouldn’t send me back,” Valdez said.
The wounded Marine’s guilt was not uncommon for service members who earned their red badge of courage while their brothers were still fighting.
“It all goes back to the esprit de corps mindset ingrained into Marines,” said Petty Officer First Class Christopher Kopf, a Fleet Marine Force-qualified psychiatric technician with Regimental Aid Station, RCT-8. “If they are taken out of the fight, they may experience extreme guilt.”
After he was physically healed, the lance corporal donned his dress blue uniform and assisted his hometown recruiters in helping fellow Bostonians in joining the Corps. He would busy himself at the recruiting office or approaching prospective candidates throughout his city, but when he removed his blouse and hung up his uniform for the day, he also wiped away his jovial demeanor because he despised what reflected from his bathroom mirror.
“After I got out the hospital I hated myself,” Valdez said. “I couldn’t even look myself in the mirror.”
To overcome his depression, the Purple Heart recipient took care of his two daughters. He would take them to school every day and spend as much time as he could, thus solving the problem of being alone.
He was almost finished with his enlistment and was soon transferred to 8th Marine Regiment, a place where he could honorably serve out the rest of his time in the Marine Corps.
“I was asked to deploy with the regiment as part of the colonel’s Mobile Security Detachment,” Valdez said. “I spent a day to think it over and decided this was my chance to let go of the guilt.”
Valdez isn’t known for somber thoughts about deadly situations, in fact he’s better known for his humorous views on life. This is how he copes.
“I joke about all this, hoping it’ll help me get over it,” Valdez said. “I just want to let go of all the anger and guilt.”
Recently promoted to sergeant, Valdez has plans to make history as being part of a team to train the very first Iraqi Marine Corps.
“I’m going to tell my grandkids that their grandpa helped train the first Iraqi Marine Battalion,” Valdez said.
Halloween is a special day for Valdez because it’s his self-acclaimed ‘life-day.’ He celebrates it each year with gratitude knowing it was the day he almost lost his life. Today, he jokes around with his fellow noncommissioned officers and instructs his subordinate Marines while there is idle time because he doesn’t want to let a second pass by without living life.
“I just hope this deployment puts me at ease,” Valdez said.
For more information on the ongoing mission in Iraq’s Al Anbar province, visit www.iimefpublic.usmc.mil/iimeffwd