LUIS GALLEGO CARDONA — Special to Southern News
About the Author:
Luis Gallego Cardona is a 22-year-old mathematics major that was born in Colombia before moving to Stamford, Conn. In 1996. He moved to Cape Coral, Fla., and joined the marine corps after graduating high school.
Cardona was stationed at Camp Lejeune near Jacksonville, N.C., before being deployed to Iraq in Aug. 2008 and Afghanistan—where this story took place—in August 2010.
Cardona is now living in Hamden and attending Southern as a freshman. With Veteran’s Day approaching, Cardona said he views the holiday differently after coming home.
“It feels good,” said Cardona. “It definitely puts a lot of pride in you.”
One of my most moving experiences had to be on Oct. 20, 2010 around 10:30 a.m., somewhere in the deserts of Helmand, Afghanistan. I woke up inside my armored truck and I noticed everyone else was missing. I remember hearing Sergeant C outside with my driver Lance Corporal H hooking chains up to our truck because it had broken down. As I came outside, I remember my assistant gunner yelling, “G! Grab this ammo and put it on the ground.” He dropped a can of .50 caliber ammo practically on my head. As I fumbled to catch it, White 5 came hauling ass toward us. White 5 was the call sign for our Platoon Sergeant.
He immediately dismounted the vehicle and started yelling to hurry up and get my things together because I would be moving into another vehicle. The line-up didn’t look great; I was going to be jammed in the middle of two people in one of the trucks carrying 5,000 gallons of JP8 fuel. The bad part was that I had checked all these vehicles the night prior to us leaving and I knew they had no middle seat.
I instantly started pleading with Sergeant C to talk to our platoon sergeant and let us ride in a bigger vehicle designed to fit more people. To this day I remember his response as being “Haha G, go f**k yourselves, I’m riding in the 6×6.” The 6×6 was designed to carry up to 12 passengers in the back. Since it took only three people to man this vehicle, the back was empty and we considered it a limo ride. Then my platoon sergeant changed his mind. He told me to grab my assistant gunner and driver and wait for one of the last 6×6’s in the back. He then turned to my sergeant and told him to get his ass to the front vehicle again.
Every day I remember me flicking off my Sergeant, telling him, “Haha sucks to be you b***h, have fun riding in the lead vehicle again.” These could have been the last words I ever told a living man. After I mounted the other truck, I fell back asleep. I woke up to sounds that I will remember until the day I die. “White 4 is hit!” I started to do the math in my head immediately. White 4 was the call sign for the first vehicle in the convoy. The fact they had been hit was no surprise to me. Being in the lead vehicle you are generally the first one to strike an Improvised Explosive Device. There was a short static and what seemed like a long pause on the radio before the next words poured out. “RED FLARE! CORPSMAN UP!” When my head finally took in those words, every hair on my body was sticking straight up. My stomach dropped to the floor and I was at first a bit short of breath. Red flare meant someone had been injured. Corpsman up meant someone was dying and in dire need of medical attention.
The radio exploded with chatter coming in from everyone. They needed litter teams and more corpsmen. I was in the truck designated to be a litter team, so we broke away from the rest of the convoy and rushed to the scene of the attack. I have never heard a truck’s engine screaming so loud; never heard so many sounds of metal clashing together and moving at what was definitely not a speed recommended for this vehicle. I was just hoping the truck would not break apart before we arrived. Little did I know in a few minutes I would be hoping to stay alive.
As I kicked the door open, I took a few seconds to take in everything. We were inside of a village where cooking pots were still burning. This meant the villagers knew the IED was planted and left seconds before the attack. I yelled at my assistant gunner and driver to grab the litters as I took a magazine from my pouch and loaded up my M4.
Funny thing, my weapon jammed and I spent the next 10 seconds fumbling with it. As I finally loaded my weapon and walked up, I stopped in my tracks because everything seemed like a movie. There was a fellow marine sitting against the wall of a house with a bloody bandage across his head. He took a puff off a cigarette as he looked at me and gave me the finger, a sign between us that he was OK.
As I continued up to the first vehicle, I noticed a few people gathered on the passenger side of the vehicle. There was a lot of screaming and a horrible smell of burning human flesh. The armored doors had been completely blown off the vehicle and the bottom of the truck had a huge gaping hole on the side. The V-shaped hull was split in half; about five inches of armored steel had been cut like butter. As they pulled my sergeant out of the back, he was screaming so loud it almost hurt to listen. His glasses were completely shattered. His mouth was full of blood. His neck was completely soaked in red and I could see a wound underneath his chin. As my eyes slowly took in the image of his body, I came to notice something else was not right; his leg was hanging by flesh just below the knee.
The smell and the sight of that alone almost made me throw up, but I kept it together for him as I knelt down and starting talking to him. I grabbed his hand, and he squeezed so hard. What happened next was the most moving moment of my life.
He started to confess all his wrongdoings, started to say his final goodbyes. He gave us all messages to carry back to his wife and family if he didn’t make it through. I remember Sergeant C saying, “I’m just glad it was me and not you guys.” I fought so damn hard to keep the tears from rolling down my face. I embraced his hand as I felt his warm blood trickle down my forearms, and I told him, “you are going to be all right. You are going to get on a bird, get out of here and be home in no time drinking beer.” In my head I knew there was a chance he could come out of this alive. Just when I thought things could not get any worse, all Hell broke loose at once.
I remember mortars impacting close to me, RPGs going overhead and a lot of gunfire. For the sake of this essay I don’t want to go into detail. I just remember the last part when I loaded my sergeant up on the helicopter. I told him everything was going to be OK, that people were now going to take care of him. I told him to keep the faith and not to worry about us–that we will be fine and that I would see him home and we could drink a beer and kick back.
As I was there holding his hand, I got a size 10 boot in my chest kicking me off the helicopter. That was the crew chief of the helicopter telling me to get the hell off because they had to leave. That was the last I saw of Sargent Childers with two legs. I would see him four months later to the day in Camp Lejeune, NC. This time, however, he was walking with a cane and a prosthetic leg.