Face of Defense: Marine Survives IED Blasts

COMBAT OUTPOST SHUKVANI, Afghanistan — Lance Cpl. Andrew J. Armstrong’s fel­low Marines call him “Rock,” and the name fits him well. The Corinth, N.Y., native has sur­vived two road­side bomb blasts. He is still in the fight and shows no signs of stop­ping.

improvised explosive device - IED
Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Andrew J. Arm­strong has sur­vived two impro­vised explo­sive device attacks in Afghanistan.
U.S. Marine Corps pho­to by Lance Cpl. Bryan Nygaard
Click to enlarge

But the mem­o­ry of the first explo­sion will always be engraved in his mind.

On Dec. 10, 2010, Arm­strong, a for­ward observ­er with Fire Con­trol Team 5, Sup­port­ing Arms Liai­son Team Chuck, 2nd Air-Naval Gun­fire Liai­son Com­pa­ny, was on a patrol with sol­diers of the 32nd Geor­gian Light Infantry Bat­tal­ion. He was accom­pa­nied by his team chief, Marine Corps Sgt. Jamie Lee Lant­gen, and Navy Pet­ty Offi­cer 2nd Class Greg Christ, a hos­pi­tal­man. Also present was Marine Corps Cpl. Alex Wil­son, 3rd Bat­tal­ion, 5th Marine Reg­i­ment, who was attached to the Geor­gian liai­son team, and Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Sta­cy Green, 1st Bat­tal­ion, 8th Marine Reg­i­ment, who was work­ing with the Afghan Nation­al Army embed­ded train­ing team.

The patrol mem­bers were aboard four mine-resis­tant, ambush-pro­tect­ed vehi­cles, and they were dri­ving through the vil­lage of Corgu­lat in mid-after­noon. They then spot­ted some­thing sus­pi­cious on the road: three rocks stacked on top of each oth­er. It was a sign of a pos­si­ble road­side bomb.

The patrol stopped, set up a perime­ter around the area and called in an explo­sive ord­nance dis­pos­al team to inves­ti­gate.

“It’s TIC time!” yelled Lant­gen, using the bat­tle­field acronym for “troops in con­tact.”

The Marines and Geor­gian sol­diers had learned to expect con­tact with insur­gent forces dur­ing that time of day. Min­utes lat­er, the patrol start­ed tak­ing fire.

Marine Corps Sgt. Christo­pher Holm, the team leader for Fire Con­trol Team 6, was on an obser­va­tion post and saw the patrol tak­ing fire from the east. He radioed the Marines and told them to take cov­er on the west­ern side of the vehi­cles.

“I just turned the cor­ner, and the next thing I knew, I was on the ground,” Arm­strong said about being thrown from the explo­sive blast. “My ini­tial thought was that I had been hit by [a rock­et-pro­pelled grenade]. I felt pain in my right arm. First thing I did was wig­gle my fin­gers and toes to make sure they were still there.”

Green was killed instant­ly from step­ping on the road­side bomb. Lant­gen was stand­ing between Green and Arm­strong. His right arm was bro­ken, and the right side of his face and body was cov­ered in blood from shrap­nel wounds. Arm­strong was shield­ed from the blast by Lant­gen, and absorbed only about 10 pieces of small shrap­nel around his neck, and his elbow was swollen from a piece of Green’s gear that hit him on the arm.

Christ was knocked uncon­scious, but moments lat­er woke up and imme­di­ate­ly began admin­is­ter­ing med­ical aid to Lant­gen.

The fir­ing stopped as soon as the impro­vised explo­sive device det­o­nat­ed. Arm­strong tried get­ting up. He said it was com­pa­ra­ble to the open­ing scene of the movie “Sav­ing Pri­vate Ryan,” in which Tom Han­ks’ char­ac­ter, Cap­tain Miller, expe­ri­ences shell­shock just as he lands on Oma­ha Beach.

“I was messed up bad — I had tun­nel vision. I could­n’t real­ly hear any­thing. I was shak­ing,” Arm­strong said. “I saw doc work­ing on Sergeant Lant­gen. Then I saw Staff Sergeant Green’s body. I did­n’t know it was him at the time. I asked Wil­son if it was one of our guys. He grabbed me, told me not to wor­ry about it and pulled me away from him.”

Every­one was in a somber mood when Arm­strong returned to base. Green had been killed, and Lant­gen, a valu­able mem­ber of the team who every­one looked up to, was lost to injury.

Lant­gen, a vet­er­an of Iraq, was known to delib­er­ate­ly expose him­self to draw ene­my fire so the rest of his team knew where to aim.

“IEDs don’t see your rank or what you’ve accom­plished — they just see a vic­tim,” Arm­strong said.

Marine Corps Cpl. Matthew Williams, a radio oper­a­tor with Fire Con­trol Team 5, remem­bers see­ing Arm­strong for the first time that night.

“His face told the whole sto­ry,” said Williams, a native of Tem­ple, Texas. “You could tell he’d been through hell. The first thing he said when he got back was, ‘I don’t want to go back to [Camp] Leath­er­neck.’ ”

Weeks lat­er, dur­ing anoth­er patrol, Arm­strong was with­in 20 meters of anoth­er blast. Nobody was killed, but Arm­strong had been exposed to a sec­ond road­side bomb. It is pol­i­cy in Afghanistan for troops to remain on a for­ward oper­at­ing base if they are exposed to three IEDs.

Marine Corps Capt. Ramon Pat­tugalan, the team leader for Fire Con­trol Teams 5 and 6, did not want to risk hav­ing Arm­strong con­fined to Camp Leath­er­neck.

“It was tough to see that look on his face when I told him he could­n’t go out any­more,” Pat­tugalan said. “He’s a true team play­er. He’s the type of guy that does­n’t want us to go into the fight with­out him.”

Arm­strong begged Pat­tugalan to let him stay in the fight. Pat­tugalan told him that he did not need to wor­ry — he had a plan.

Pat­tugalan, who serves as the joint ter­mi­nal attack con­troller for Fire Con­trol Team 6 and coor­di­nates close air sup­port for the Geor­gian troops, has men­tored Arm­strong into becom­ing a joint for­ward observ­er.

“He helped me learn how to con­trol air­craft,” Arm­strong said. “That way I can go to Joint For­ward Observer’s Course when we get back to the States. Even­tu­al­ly, I can be a team chief.”

Even though Arm­strong is not allowed to go out on patrols, he has been des­ig­nat­ed as a pri­ma­ry machine gun­ner and is able to pro­vide over­watch from obser­va­tion posts around the base. He said it is a wel­come break from being inside the com­bat oper­a­tions cen­ter.

“I still get to bring out the [M240 medi­um machine gun] and I still get to get in on the action,” he said. “I don’t like being in the COC watch­ing things hap­pen on a TV. I’m just not real­ly an office type of guy.”

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)

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