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Robert Riley, Navy medic, recalls brush with death

July 30, 2011 • Local News

Emily Russo Miller
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.

“It sounded like the Conex boxes that you pull on the back of a trailer or train,” he said. “Well, there’s a machine that picks those up and moves those and stacks those, and we thought that one had dropped one.”

One of his friends gave him a hard time, and said, “Hey, Doc. Why don’t you put down your damn spaghetti MRE, and go see what the hell is going on over there?”

“OK, fine,” Riley replied. “Looks like nothing, but I’ll go look.”

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.

“Thompson, do you smell that?”
“Yeah, but I don’t know what it is.”
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