Record Staff Writer
U.S. Navy Corpsman Robert Riley had saved countless lives during his three tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. But one day, Nov. 23, 2009, to be exact, it was his life that needed saving when insurgents attacked his unit with mortar fire.
At the time, Riley was stationed in Forward Operating Base Wilson, thought to be a secure military base, west of Pashmul in southern Afghanistan. He and 24 other soldiers were assigned to temporarily help make quality of life improvements for U.S. Army troops, like installing air conditioning and electricity in their camps, a change of pace for the doctor who was treating mass casualties with a Shock Trauma Platoon medical unit in Kandahar Providence just two months before.
The attack, Riley remembers, happened on a Monday at noon. He and a couple of his buddies were just about to sit down to their ready-to-eat meals on the base, when all of a sudden they heard a loud booming sound.
â€œIt sounded like the Conex boxes that you pull on the back of a trailer or train,â€ he said. â€œWell, thereâ€™s a machine that picks those up and moves those and stacks those, and we thought that one had dropped one.â€
One of his friends gave him a hard time, and said, â€œHey, Doc. Why donâ€™t you put down your damn spaghetti MRE, and go see what the hell is going on over there?â€
â€œOK, fine,â€ Riley replied. â€œLooks like nothing, but Iâ€™ll go look.â€
SWCN Aaron Thompson, a constructions man and steelworker striker in the Navy, offered to go with him. Since they were on a secure base, neither of the men wore protective gear. Thompson wore just a uniform and carried an M-16, while Riley had on fatigue pants, a T-shirt, belt, a pair of Oakleys and a 9 mm pistol in his drop holster.
They walked around a corner, then stopped in their tracks.
â€œThompson, do you smell that?â€
â€œYeah, but I donâ€™t know what it is.â€
â€œItâ€™s cordite,â€â€ˆRiley said, the explosive in military weapons, like mortars and rockets.
â€œIt has a very distinct flavor, itâ€™s almost like chewing on a penny,â€â€ˆRiley said in a recent interview.
Riley and Thompson picked up the pace, and then saw some people standing in a circle about 50 yards away, surrounding a man on the ground. They began sprinting to the scene to help, as did two other Navy guys, CM1 David Brown and an E-3 nicknamed â€œMijo.â€ They raced toward the man on the ground, later identified as Army Sgt. Jason A. McLeod, 22,Â of Crystal Lake, Ill.
Without warning, another mortar round hit. Just 10 yards from Riley, Brown, Thompson and Mijo.
Riley remembers nothing but silence. When he came to, he was sitting on the ground, confused.
â€œWhat just happened?â€ he recalls thinking.
He heard Thompson calling out, â€œDoc, Doc!â€ Then he saw Thompson, as white as ghost.
Riley opened his mouth to respond and smoke poured out. Then he started swallowing blood.
â€œImagine a pitcher of blood being poured down your mouth,â€ he said. â€œAnd Iâ€™m swallowing it as fast as I can so that I donâ€™t choke on it.â€
He realized he was hit. He felt his face and there was a gaping hole in his right cheek that was spouting out blood like a faucet.
â€œThis is how Iâ€™m going to die, right here,â€ he thought. â€œAnd I canâ€™t fix myself.â€
It occurred to him while he sat on the ground that the situation was ironic.
â€œIt was ironic that Iâ€™m a corpsman, and Iâ€™m the one person there who can save myself but I canâ€™t see whatâ€™s wrong with me.â€
Brown, a towering bulky guy who stands 6-foot 4-inches, grabbed Riley by his arm and dragged him behind a nearby barrier. Riley told him that there was about one minute left to get him to a medical center before he bleeds out.
â€œTell my wife I love her,â€ he told Brown.
Brown, himself injured in the blast and bleeding internally, sprung into action, picked up Riley and ran to the nearest medical center, just 50 yards away. Miraculously, a truck headed their way appeared. Brown flagged the driver down, threw Riley in the back and told the driver to gun it to the medical center.
Riley was still conscious when he got there, and though he was in bad shape â€” shrapnel is covering the right side of his body and face, and his left leg is in excruciating pain â€” he recognizes the two Canadian medics and a U.S. Army physician assistant who heâ€™s been training how to treat combat injuries for the past two months. He told them he thought he was hit in the jugular vein and carotid artery in his neck.
They applied gauze to his face, stopped the bleeding in his leg with a tourniquet and checked for internal bleeding and found none.
The doctors tried to calm him, â€œYouâ€™re not going to die,â€ they said. Riley asked how he looks. â€œPretty ugly,â€ they told him.
They airlifted him out of the base to the shock trauma platoon where he used to work in Kandahar. He arrived at 12:45, and doctors there immediately took out two of the 28 pieces of shrapnel lodged in his face. The other pieces were embedded too deep to remove. They performed two surgeries: one to remove shrapnel from his left knee, and the other to repair his severed right masseter muscle in his cheek that connects the head to the lower jaw and is necessary in order to eat or talk. They sewed together his cheek muscle, and skin on the outside (he was unable to eat or talk for the next two months). Luckily, Riley was wearing Oakleys at the time of the blast, which doctors said saved his eyesight.
Three to six hours after surgery, he was airlifted to Bagran Airfield, southeast of Charikar in Parwan province of Afghanistan, and recovered there for three days. From there, he was transported to the Army-run Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Ramstein, Germany, for more surgery to remove shrapnel from his body. He recovered for five days in Ramstein before being flown back to the U.S. to the naval hospital in Bethesda, Md. He recovered there for six days.
He was finally allowed to come home for 30 days to be reunited with his wife, Roswell native Krista Van Winkle,â€ˆthen eight months pregnant with their first child, in December 2009. But the journey to full recovery was far from over. He spent the next five months at the Naval Medical Center San Diego doing rehab for his knee and receiving reconstructive surgery to his face. He endured six laser surgeries on his face.
â€œThey cut my face into a puzzle piece, then put it back together,â€ he said.
Doctors there also removed more shrapnel from his wrist, shoulder, ear, nose, chest and neck, which severed a nerve and left his right ear completely numb.
Today, scars are still visible on Rileyâ€™s face and wrist, but barely. He still has 13 pieces of shrapnel in his face. The most noticeable scar he has is on his left knee from surgery.
He says that the shrapnel that hit his cheek muscle, the source of most of the blood at the scene, struck him in the most optimal place.
â€œA couple inches lower, a couple inches higher, and it would have killed me,â€ he said.
His buddies were lucky, too; they all lived. Thompson had a broken ankle and minor shrapnel, and Brown had internal bleeding from a piece of shrapnel piercing his spleen, which doctors were able to repair. And Mijo, â€œHe didnâ€™t get hit with anything,â€ Riley said. â€œIt was like there was a holy veil over him or something.â€
McLeod, the Army sergeant from another unit on the ground, died immediately at the scene.
Riley later received a Purple Heart, and he now lives in Roswell with his wife and their 18-month-old son, Aedan.
He is still enlisted in the Navy Reserves and could be deployed at any time.