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