USA — Soldier Turns Brush With Death Into Message of Hope

WASHINGTON — Army Capt. Joshua Mantz was dying on a hos­pi­tal bed in Iraq.

Army Capt. Joshua Mantz speaks with Iraqi chil­dren while on patrol near Sadr City, Iraq, about an hour before an ene­my sniper attacked his unit and near­ly killed Mantz, April 21, 2007. A mil­i­tary med­ical team brought him back to life.
Cour­tesy pho­to
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Just moments ear­li­er, a sniper’s bul­let had sev­ered a femoral artery in his right thigh, caus­ing mas­sive blood loss. As the med­ical team strove to save him, Mantz strug­gled to take each breath. He felt the blood creep from his legs to his stom­ach to his chest — a tell­tale sign of a cat­a­stroph­ic injury — and knew the end was near.

He began repeat­ing the names of his moth­er and two sis­ters in his head, over and over, and then had his last thought — a prayer: “Please take care of them.” 

He felt a deep peace and took one last breath. Every­thing fad­ed to black, and he died. 

Fast-for­ward three years and Mantz is a healthy, fit 27-year-old on his way to work at Fort Riley, Kan. With an even pace and ready smile, there are no vis­i­ble, or invis­i­ble, traces of the wound that killed Mantz three years ear­li­er, or of the mas­sive efforts that brought him back to life. 

The inci­dent could have crip­pled Mantz, not only phys­i­cal­ly but also emo­tion­al­ly. But ear­ly inter­ven­tion saved him on both fronts, he said. 

Three years ear­li­er, Mantz was serv­ing on his first deploy­ment after his 2005 grad­u­a­tion from the U.S. Mil­i­tary Acad­e­my at West Point, N.Y. That day, April 21, 2007, had start­ed off with a human­i­tar­i­an mis­sion in a small Iraqi com­mu­ni­ty near Sadr City that Mantz had vowed to help. His unit had just dropped off some sup­plies when they were divert­ed to anoth­er part of the sector. 

On their way there, a rock­et-pro­pelled grenade shot past their Bradley fight­ing vehi­cle. The sol­diers then noticed a sus­pi­cious vehi­cle dri­ving slow­ly near the Bradley and stopped the car for a search. As Mantz ques­tioned the dri­ver in Ara­bic – he had majored in the lan­guage at West Point – Army Staff Sgt. Mar­lin Harp­er, the senior scout of the pla­toon, con­duct­ed an explo­sives test. 

Mantz did a quick visu­al sweep of the area and grew con­cerned when he saw the unit was in open ter­rain and dan­ger­ous­ly exposed. He called out to Harp­er, “Move to the oth­er side of the truck.” 

That’s when the sniper fired off an armor-pierc­ing round. The round passed through Harper’s left arm, exit­ed out his chest, and entered Mantz’s right thigh, sev­er­ing his femoral artery. 

The scene shift­ed to slow motion as Mantz slid into shock. He heard noth­ing but the mut­ed shot, like a low thud, and then his voice call­ing out for a medic. He looked at Harp­er, saw the shocked expres­sion on his face and watched as he col­lapsed to the ground. 

Mantz’s world sud­den­ly sped into high gear. Unaware of the sever­i­ty of his injury, he dragged the 250-pound sol­dier, who felt “light as a feath­er,” to safe­ty and then began admin­is­ter­ing first aid. 

He called for his medic again but had trou­ble speak­ing. He passed out momen­tar­i­ly as the medic approached. 

The 19-year-old medic rushed to aid Mantz; it was too late for Harp­er. They raced to the aid sta­tion about 10 min­utes away while Mantz lay in the Bradley, feel­ing weak and extreme­ly sick. 

“At that point I made it my goal to make it to the aid sta­tion,” he said. “I was in the hard­est work­out of my life, and I was deter­mined to fin­ish it.” 

That’s when Mantz arrived at For­ward Oper­at­ing Base Loy­al­ty – and flat­lined. The med­ical team fought valiant­ly for 15 long min­utes to bring him back. They refused to give up until they found a weak pulse. 

“It just proves that our mil­i­tary med­ical teams will fight for the lives of sol­diers with the same feroc­i­ty and val­or as sol­diers in the bat­tle­field,” Mantz said. “They’ll stop at noth­ing to save a life.” 

Mantz woke up two days lat­er in the Green Zone, with­out brain dam­age and with his leg intact. 

They had pumped 30 bags of blood back into the sol­dier to save him. The sur­geon had even pulled sol­diers out of the field to ensure there was enough blood. 

Mantz was med­ical­ly evac­u­at­ed to Wal­ter Reed Army Med­ical Cen­ter here. The day he got out of the inten­sive care unit, the psy­cho­log­i­cal inter­ven­tion began. Clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gists came to see him bed­side, some­times two or three times a day. They asked him if he remem­bered what hap­pened, each day ask­ing for more details. 

As his body mend­ed, Mantz also began to heal emo­tion­al­ly. Talk­ing ear­ly and often can help to ward off the emo­tion­al impact of dev­as­tat­ing events, he said. 

“If you don’t talk about it, you’ll nev­er be able to learn from it,” Mantz said. Most impor­tant­ly, he said, it’s vital to look back objec­tive­ly. Oth­er­wise, he explained, there’s a ten­den­cy to self-blame, even when not at fault. 

“It’s impor­tant to real­ize what you could and could not con­trol, what you were able to do and not do,” he said. “It gives you a dif­fer­ent perspective.” 

Mantz said he’s also found it help­ful to focus on the pos­i­tive. Look­ing back on the day he was injured, rather than dwell on the loss, he focus­es on the fact that his sol­diers car­ried out a med­ical evac­u­a­tion under extreme stress with­out a hitch. 

After just four months, Mantz felt phys­i­cal­ly and emo­tion­al­ly recov­ered enough to return to Iraq. 

His fam­i­ly and friends tried to sway him, but he was set on going, he said. He not only want­ed to rejoin his sol­diers, but also need­ed to know he was emo­tion­al­ly healed enough to con­tin­ue on in his job. 

A third ben­e­fit revealed itself upon his return. Mantz found out the med­ical team that saved his life, includ­ing sur­geon Dr. Dave Debla­sio, was still in Iraq. He decid­ed to pay them a sur­prise vis­it to thank them in person. 

“It was a very emo­tion­al moment, like a reunion,” he said. His med­ical records were hang­ing on the wall in the clin­ic, serv­ing as a reminder of the med­ical mir­a­cle that brought Mantz back. 

Mantz fin­ished out his deploy­ment as an exec­u­tive offi­cer while word of his mirac­u­lous return from the dead spread, gar­ner­ing him nation­al atten­tion upon his return. 

While he’ll always be grate­ful for the ear­ly med­ical inter­ven­tion that saved him, he said, he’s intent on spread­ing the word about the impor­tance of ear­ly psy­cho­log­i­cal inter­ven­tion as a pre­ven­tive mea­sure. He’s since spo­ken to thou­sands of troops, offer­ing a mes­sage of resilience, and to count­less fam­i­ly mem­bers of lost loved ones, offer­ing a mes­sage of hope. 

To the troops, he stress­es the impor­tance of speak­ing ear­ly and often, and urges line lead­ers to keep an eye out for signs of trou­ble in their troops. To fam­i­lies, he explains what those final moments of life were like for him. 

One moth­er he met had lost her son to a road­side bomb. It had sev­ered his legs, and he died short­ly after. She wor­ried that her son, who was a moun­tain climber, had lost his will to live the moment he lost his limbs. Mantz explained to her how the sur­vival instinct had kicked in for him after he was wound­ed and how des­per­ate he felt to live, no mat­ter what the impact of the injury. He said he saw the clo­sure in her eyes. 

That moment, he said, was his first response to a per­son­al ques­tion that had been nag­ging at him since his recov­ery: “Why am I still here?” 

Mantz offered to have his sto­ry doc­u­ment­ed for the Real War­riors cam­paign in hopes of reach­ing even more peo­ple. The cam­paign is spon­sored by the Defense Cen­ters of Excel­lence for Psy­cho­log­i­cal Health and Trau­mat­ic Brain Injury, and fea­tures sto­ries of ser­vice­mem­bers who sought psy­cho­log­i­cal treat­ment and con­tin­ued suc­cess­ful mil­i­tary and civil­ian careers. 

He offers a new twist to the cam­paign. Rather than stress­ing the impor­tance of seek­ing help after expe­ri­enc­ing emo­tion­al issues, he empha­sizes the impor­tance of ear­ly inter­ven­tion as a pre­ven­tive measure. 

Mantz is due to deploy again, although he’s not sure if it will be to Iraq or Afghanistan. But in either case, he said, he’s ready. And this time, he’s giv­ing him­self anoth­er mis­sion: to help his com­rades deal with the stress­es of war. 

“I’m look­ing for­ward to it, espe­cial­ly know­ing what I know about resilience,” he said. 

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

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