CAMP HANSON, Helmand province, Afghanistan --
The pouring rain drenched the streets of Ramadi, Iraq, mixing with the rancid stench of backed-up sewage canals. The knee-deep concoction made the night patrol difficult for the Marines, but they had a mission to accomplish.
Enemy snipers had become a problem for the Marines of Company C, 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, in 2006. A four-story building near one of their observation posts offered the enemy a perfect elevated position from which to fire at the Marines. On Oct. 14, a squad of Marines began moving into position to cordon off the building in order for engineers to destroy the stairs and effectively disable the building as an enemy firing position.
The water level rose to nearly waist level as Macon, Ga., native Sgt. Stephen Smith led his fire team through the streets to their objective. Smith turned and gave his team the hand signal to spread out when the patrol stopped to cut through a line of concertina wire. When he turned back around and took his first step, his life was changed forever.
“I couldn’t feel the ground underneath my feet,” said the 2004 Central High School graduate. “It happened so fast; it felt like 20 linebackers tackling me all at the same time.”
After flying through the air, Smith’s next memory was hitting the ground hard on his side and swallowing what seemed to him to be a half gallon of sewage water.
“I just thought that was disgusting, I had just swallowed all that water,” Smith said. “At this point the pain hadn’t set in, then reality came back and I started screaming.”
The blast from the Improvised Explosive Device severed his Achilles tendon, shattered the bones in his lower leg, and broke his femur, nearly severing his femoral artery.
The two corpsmen in his platoon, one of whom narrowly avoided stepping on the IED himself, rushed to his side, strapped a tourniquet to his leg, and put him on a stretcher bound for the nearest vehicle to take him to the Battalion Aid Station.
“The last conscious memory I have was when I got to the BAS,” said Smith. “I grabbed the nearest Marine and told him to go get my brother; tell him what happened to me.”
Smith’s brother, who enlisted in 1999 and was a big influence on Smith enlisting in 2004, had recently transferred to Weapons Company, 1/6, so he could deploy to Iraq with his brother.
Smith was then flown to Balad Air Base in Iraq en route to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany.
“From there I was in a twilight zone,” said Smith. “I was unconscious, but I could feel and hear everything around me. They were resetting my bone, which stuck out of my leg, and I remember feeling all that pain, but I was like a vegetable — I couldn’t scream, I couldn’t move, I couldn’t do anything.”
Smith remained in Germany for 35 days before transferring to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., where he was forced to make the biggest decision of his life.
“I didn’t originally lose my leg in the IED blast,” Smith said. “I originally thought I could keep my leg. The doctors would touch my toes and ask me if I could feel my feet and I could … just barely. I thought that was a good sign.”
After one of many surgeries to clean the wound, Smith awoke and the doctor gave him an option: he could allow doctors to amputate the leg or they could try and save the limb using cadaver tissues, but the longer he waited the more likely they would have to amputate.
Smith knew the answer he had to give the doctor, and his family and girlfriend, now wife, were there to support him.
“As soon as they gave me the choices, I knew what I had to do,” Smith said. “A few days later I had my amputation. I came back from my surgery and my mom, dad, sister and girlfriend were there; they were a tremendous support during that time.”
After Smith’s initial surgery he began running a temperature of 105 degrees regularly. The sutures on his leg wouldn’t heal, and doctors were puzzled by his worsening condition. Eventually, he mentioned that the waist-deep sewage water during the blast. Immediately, the doctors knew he had contracted an E. Coli infection, a bacterial illness that can be deadly in some cases.
His original amputation was right above the top of his boot, but because of the E-coli infection, his suture lines wouldn’t heal properly and doctors had to remove three more inches of his leg.
Smith transferred to Walter Reed Army Medical Center after the surgery in November 2006, but had to wait for his femur to properly heal before he could start his rehabilitation. The femur is the largest bone in the body; it also takes the longest to heal. Smith watched as injured service members who arrived after him received their prosthetic limbs before he did, and his frustration grew.
“I was in a wheelchair for two and a half months,” Smith said. “Going to places that were crowded was difficult. Fighting infections, not getting my prosthetic as soon as I wanted to, and then there was the phantom pain.”
Phantom pain is a pain that feels like it’s coming from a body part that is no longer there, and it haunts Smith to this day.
“Sometimes I feel like I have an itch on the bottom of my foot and I can’t do anything about it,” said Smith. “Other times it feels like I’m stepping on a nail. I laugh at it now though – it’s usually really quick and then it goes away.”
During the recovery process Smith decided staying in the Marine Corps would be best for his family. He finished his first enlistment working at The Basic School in Quantico, Va., as a machine gun instructor. Smith, unable to stay in the infantry because of his injury, yet still wanting to rejoin his brothers, chose to become an armorer in order to re-enlist. He received orders to work in the armory at the School of Infantry East at Camp Geiger, N.C.
A permanent duty station wasn’t enough for him though. He wanted to get back to a deployable unit. Smith was shaken by his original injury, but his desire to be back in the fight overcame an concerns of another injury. He talked with his chain of command and requested orders to 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, shortly before they deployed to Afghanistan.
“Once I decided to stay in, I just wanted to do my job,” said Smith. “It’s all about what you make out of it. Some people accept the fact they are crippled for life, but I’m back in a combat zone.”
Smith has been with 2/8 for a year now and is nearing the end of his seven-month deployment. Port Neches, Texas, native Lance Cpl. Christian D. Matte, an armorer with 2/8 describes Smith best.
“I didn’t know how to react to this man who had the guts to stay in the Marine Corps and do his job,” said the 21-year-old Matte. “He had questions before he came out here wondering if he could do it, now he has those questions answered. It takes a lot of heart to go through what he went through and come back to a deployable unit. He wanted to be as close to his fellow infantrymen as possible; he wanted to be close as he can to the fight.”
Editor’s note: Second Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment is currently assigned to Regimental Combat Team 1, 2nd Marine Division (Forward), which heads Task Force Leatherneck. The task force serves as the ground combat element of Regional Command (Southwest) and works in partnership with the Afghan National Security Force and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to conduct counterinsurgency operations. The unit is dedicated to securing the Afghan people, defeating insurgent forces, and enabling ANSF assumption of security responsibilities within its area of operations in order to support the expansion of stability, development and legitimate governance.