One Man's War on Terror The American GI from Berlin
Part 5: 'One Man Down!'
Jamaleldine suddenly saw movement close by, on the canal bank. Then two or three figures emerged out of the darkness and began running directly toward him, toward his Humvee and toward Dixon and Nethery, who were firing from the vehicle's left and right windows.
Jamaleldine tried to fire at the attackers with the machine gun on its mount, but it was no use. The Humvee was on the embankment above the men, and the attackers were able to run up the slope while remaining outside the angle of fire, as the edge of the turret was in the way of the machine gun barrel. The enemy kept on running toward them, toward Dixon, toward Nethery.
In an attempt to stop them, Jamaleldine ripped the heavy gun from its mount, and, with bullets flying around him, finally got the attackers in his sights. But he doesn't remember whether he ever managed to pull the trigger.
That was when he felt the impact, felt his head being jerked backward by the force of the bullet as it hit him in the face, just to the left of the corner of his mouth. Suddenly he collapsed, falling down in the truck with a torn cheek, a hole in his temple and a piece of metal in his jaw. Dixon screamed: "Jamaleldine! Jamaleldine! We've got somebody wounded here! One man down!"
Three Humvees back, the Americans had set up an improvised first-aid station, where medics knelt over the wounded, hoping to prolong the "golden first hour," provide first aid and do whatever they could to prepare the casualties for transport and get them away from the battlefield as quickly as possible.
Jamaleldine doesn't remember how he got there. Someone -- Sergeant Garcia, or Nethery -- dragged and pulled him to the first-aid station. He was losing a lot of blood, in pulsing surges, and he remembers looking up at the sky and seeing the tracers from the rockets that were being fired from the Apaches. He also remembers the ear-splitting roar of the enemy semi-trailer truck exploding after it was fired on by the Americans. When the semi-trailer's load detonated, it sent a 400-meter (1300-foot) flame shooting into the sky.
It was time for a "9 Line MEDEVAC," an emergency call from the battlefield, which consists of a clear sequence of instructions radioed to helicopters in the area. According to military regulations, the call must include specifics on the location, the radio frequency, the number of wounded, the severity of their wounds, the equipment needed, the situation in the field, identifying characteristics of the landing site and the nationality of the wounded. None of this information was provided that night.
Instead, Sergeant Vicente Nicola, a 28-year-old armored infantryman in one of the Humvees whose parents are from Puerto Rico, radioed the following message: "Whoever can hear me out there: We have Jamaleldine here, and it's not looking good. He won't make it unless we get some help right away."
Nicola, who had never even met Jamaleldine, made it his mission to save his life. He too had been hit by a bullet only minutes earlier. The projectile had gone underneath his scalp, traveled halfway around his skull and then reemerged on the other side. The sergeant's face was covered in blood. He repeated his call for help whenever the shouting and noise on the radio subsided for a moment. But all responses were negative. At one point he was told that the nearest helicopter was 40 minutes away. "That's too much," Nicola said. "We need it now. Right now!"
Chief Warrant Officers Kevin Purtee and his co-pilot Allen Crist, members of the Bravo Company of the First Battalion of the 149th Air Regiment, were flying one of the Apache helicopters above the scene. For the two men, who had been in combat duty for the past 11 months, the night at Donkey Island was their longest work shift in Iraq.
Purtee and Crist were listening in on the radio communications coming from the ground troops, and they heard Sergeant Nicola's call for help. It wasn't the first time that a man lay bleeding to death on the ground while they flew their pirouettes in the sky. But this time they had had enough. They began discussing the situation. Purtee, 46, has been a helicopter pilot for 25 years. He served in Operation Desert Storm in 1991 as well as in Bosnia. He comes from Kansas City, wears glasses and talks and thinks like a cowboy.
Using his radio he said to Crist, who was sitting in front of him and more than a meter lower down in the Apache's double-seated cockpit: "What do you think? We could get him out "
Crist, 26, is a man of few words. "Yes, sir," he said.
Purtee replied: "But then you'd have to get out. You'd have to hang on outside, do you understand?"
"Yes, sir," said Crist.
Purtee changed his radio frequency and called Nicola. He said: "Give us a place to land and we'll get your man out of there."
Jamaleldine was lying in the dust, next to thorny bushes, his life slipping away as he lost large quantities of blood. The men lifted him into a Humvee and slowly drove away, cross-country, until they were a good distance south of the battlefield, where there was no enemy fire. They shouted at Jamaleldine not to fall asleep. They drove up and down hills, their headlights switched off, for at least a kilometer. Then they got out, lit flares in the sand for the helicopter and stepped back from the makeshift landing site.
There are no official rules on landing an Apache helicopter outside a secured US airbase, and landing one in the desert at night is a dangerous proposition. Setting it down on the edge of a battlefield is sheer lunacy. At that moment, it wasn't clear to Purtee and Crist whether they would be fired or congratulated. No general would risk a $16-million helicopter for a single man, but that was exactly what Purtee and Crist had decided to do.
During the landing, the helicopter disappeared in a cloud of sand and dust, completely obscuring the ground below. Purtee would later say that he flew "by smell." The slightest mistake would have been enough to destroy the Apache and kill its crew. But he managed to land the chopper safely.
Crist climbed out of the cockpit to make room for Jamaleldine. When Nicola and a soldier named Brijil brought him to the helicopter, "he wasn't exactly looking great," Crist recalls. In fact, he had the waxy and glassy-eyed look of a dying man.
Crist wrapped a wide strip of nylon around his body, a ridiculous excuse for a safety belt, and hooked it to a handle on the helicopter using a carabiner. Crouched on the AH-64's narrow left stub wing, he rocked his body back and forth to check his stability, and then he gave Purtee, in the roar of the turning rotors, the signal to take off.
It was a short flight, but it saved Jamaleldine's life. For the next 15 or 20 minutes, as Purtee flew the Apache slowly and at a low altitude over the desert, the wind whipped at Crist's body and his hands cramped up from the exertion of holding on. Jamaleldine remembers how he felt himself losing consciousness and how he kept biting into his own flesh to stay awake. He fell asleep nonetheless.
When he woke up, he was lying in a hospital bed at Balad, the large US airbase north of Baghdad. His jaw was wired shut and his external wounds sutured.
A photo that was taken when Kevin Purtee and Allen Crist visited him at Balad Air Base shows the two men standing next to his bed, clearly beaming with the feeling of having done the right thing. Jamaleldine, who couldn't speak, wrote on a piece of paper: "Sorry for messing up your chopper." He had been told that Purtee and Crist had flown back into the battle after dropping him off, and that Crist sat in Jamaleldine's blood for three hours. In the end, Crist wasn't fired as he had feared. Instead, he was awarded a medal.
In the beginning, during the first few months after Donkey Island, Jamaleldine couldn't sleep. He couldn't help thinking about his work schedule. He'd lie in his bed, thinking: "Now it's dinnertime in Ramadi," or "Now I'd be standing guard on the roof." He had to wear scissors around his neck so that he could cut open the wires holding his jaw shut in case he had to vomit.
But all of that will soon be over, he says now. Another two or three operations and then, by 2009, "I'll be the same old guy again."
He sits at the dining table in the apartment in Opferbaum, his wife Zuhaira next to him. There is an unspoken question in the room. What happens next? Zuhaira wants him to leave the battlefield for good, to find a desk job, be it in the army or in the civilian world.
But Jamaleldine isn't sure what he wants to do next. He almost lost his life twice, and yet he says he can imagine going back into combat. The enemy hasn't been defeated yet, he adds. The freedom to live and travel in the currents of globalization is still under attack. Men like him are still needed, and there is still plenty of work to be done.
Jamaleldine, on sick leave until further notice, is interested in going to Afghanistan as a sniper. But perhaps he will keep his promise after all and apply for a desk job. He doesn't know. He doesn't know what the right thing to do is. He says, almost in passing: "Damn it, I actually wanted to be a soccer player." But this Jeff, the young boy who once lived in Spandau, no longer exists, and he knows it.
The war is always there between him and that other life. It often takes the form of an argument: with his father, his wife, his friends. At other times, it manifests itself as silence, as he sits there, his jaw wired shut, in silent disagreement with Zuhaira.
He has built a house in Opferbaum, not far from the village square, just around the corner from the war memorial. They'll be moving in soon, Zuhaira, Jeff and their children. Perhaps he'll find calm there. Perhaps he'll find his way back to a more peaceful life.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan