Story of survival


POSTED: Friday, June 26, 2009

A 22-year-old soldier from Mililani has experienced the rapidly changing character of war in Afghanistan, which has seen a rise in more lethal and sophisticated homemade bombs.

“;Many of us, myself included, expected firefights,”; said Pfc. Anthony Vandegrift from his Central Oahu home, where he is recuperating from a roadside bomb ambush that killed four fellow 10th Mountain Division soldiers. “;It was nothing like they told you. Because there are so many of us there now after the surge, the insurgents now just hide and plant bombs in the road.”;

Vandegrift joined the Army soon after graduating from Mililani High School in 2005. He recalled that his father, Dennis, a veteran himself, had supported his enlistment but had urged him not to join the infantry.

“;But watching the war on the news, it was wrong to sit back when your country needed you,”; the soldier reasoned.

He was sent to Afghanistan a month after his unit, the 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment, part of the New York division's 3rd Brigade Combat Team, arrived in December.

On the afternoon of June 1—close to the halfway point in his yearlong tour—Vandegrift was riding in the lead Humvee in a convoy of six vehicles in Wadat, a province west of Kabul. Strapped in the right rear seat, he was assigned to be the first soldier out of the vehicle whenever it stopped and to immediately secure the area.

The explosion split his Humvee in half, instantly killing the three other soldiers inside.

It was “;like a video game almost,”; Vandegrift told the Associated Press. “;Everything went black and I just remember 'boom.' Not sure if I passed out or not, but when I was able to move around I was upside down. My chunk of the Humvee was blown off from the rest.

“;I landed upside-down in a nearby field still strapped to my seat.”;

Within minutes, a call went out for the quick-reaction platoon to provide backup support. But that platoon was hit by another improvised explosive device.

Killed in the second blast was Sgt. Jasper K. Obakrairur, 26, who originally was from Palau and had joined the Army while attending the University of Hawaii at Hilo.

Vandegrift said he worked with Obakrairur on several missions.

“;He was genuine nice guy to everybody,”; he said.

An Associated Press photographer and reporter were at the trauma center at Bagram Air Base when medevac helicopters brought in Vandegrift and four other wounded soldiers. Three of the soldiers had open fractures in their legs, raw and bleeding, the AP reported.

As the medics worked, with the American flag in the background, they sweated in a room kept warm because critically injured patients cannot regulate their own body temperatures. A loud scream rose from a solder with an open fracture who had just learned one of his buddies was killed.

Vandegrift had one broken leg and the other was injured. His left eye was swollen shut and he suffered from minor burns.

He called his father while still on the emergency room table.

“;I said, 'Hey, Dad, remember how you told me not to join the infantry? Well, I don't regret it, but I got blown up,'”; he told the AP.

Nearly four weeks later and after several surgeries at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany and Tripler Army Medical Center, Vandegrift can walk with a help of a walker. A steel rod was inserted into his left leg after the blast broke his lower leg bones. The tendons in his right leg also were damaged. He was discharged from Tripler on Monday and assigned to the wounded-warrior transitional unit during his recovery period.

While recuperating at Landstuhl, Vandegrift was visited on June 5 by another former resident of the islands—President Barack Obama.

“;He asked me where I was from,”; Vandegrift said. “;And when I said Hawaii, he flashed a 'shaka' sign to photographers ... My father has been trying hard to get that photo from the White House after I told him. The president also visited briefly with a Castle (High School) grad.”;

Vandegrift expects to fully recover from his wounds. He would like to rejoin his unit in Afghanistan, but he can't since Army regulations prohibit wounded soldiers like himself from redeploying if the unit is returning home.