Wounded Warrior and American Hero - Thomas Lee
A Soldier’s Story
Editor’s Note: Thomas Lee, Jr. is a Staff Sgt E-6. His latest tour was to Taji, Iraq. He also had a tour to Afghanistan and a brief tour in Balugi, Iraq. I met Thomas Lee on a deer hunt with Trijicon Optics (www.trijicon.com), a big supporter of the Wounded Warrior Project www.woundedwarriorproject.org) in Duvall County, Texas, at the Duval County Ranch (www.duvalcountyranch.com). Not very often do you get to meet a true American hero. However I believe once you hear Thomas’s story you’ll understand why I’ve defined him in this way. This is a soldier’s story.
My unit was on routine patrol in two Stryker vehicles (armored personnel carriers). We were heading north along route MSR Tampa, which is the main supply route between Milad and Baghdad. Between the two vehicles we had 10 soldiers. About 8:00 am, we were on the way to relieve another unit. Our mission was to secure the route by watching the road and making sure no one was putting any bombs in the road. In other words, we were protecting the road from insurgents. Our Stryker vehicle started receiving some small-arms enemy fire while we were on patrol. So, I called up my platoon sergeant, who was in the trail vehicle behind us and let him know we were under attack. My sergeant’s vehicle was receiving small-arms fire too. We stopped for a few seconds to return fire. We spotted the enemy, turned the vehicle around, toward them to pursue and headed southbound. I once again contacted my sergeant behind me to let him know we were in pursuit. He gave me the go ahead to pursue the enemy.
We went south where we found an access road that would give us a better fire position on the insurgents. As we moved westbound along that road, I saw people moving north and south about 150 feet in front of us. My hatch on the Stryker was on the left side of the vehicle, and the heavy-weapons system was on the right. I spotted more movement on my left and had my driver pull up closer to identify them.
We still were receiving fire from the north when I spotted three children with their schoolbags on their way to school, south of us. The schoolhouse was about 300-400 meters south of us. Although the enemy fire was coming from the north, it wasn’t very accurate. I was afraid that those children were in eminent danger of being shot by enemy forces. We quickly proceeded west to block and shield the children to keep them from being in direct fire from the enemy. I started screaming at the children to get out of the way and run to the school. The children didn’t understand at first what was happening, or what they were expected to do, but then they ran to the school. I was glad I’d made the extra effort to identify who the children were. As soon as I was sure that the children were out of harm’s way, we started looking for ways to maneuver the vehicle and get better fire power superiority.
We realized we couldn’t move to the west because of the roadways and buildings there. I knew our best idea was to hook up with our other Stryker vehicle and form an L-shaped defensive stance. Then we could lay down a lot of fire power without either vehicle getting in the way. Initially, there wasn’t much small-arms fire. However, as the battle continued, more enemies showed up and started shooting at us. The situation got pretty hot. So, I decided to back the vehicle up, return to Route Tampa and call in a quick-reaction force (two squads totaling 18 personnel with heavier weapons on their vehicles) to come in and help us with this fire fight. And, the quick-reaction force would bring up dismounted troops, which would allow us to get out of our vehicles, reposition ourselves and have a better chance of not only defending our position, but taking the battle to our enemy.
In retrospect, I see that the enemy’s plan was a very well-orchestrated ambush. On the road we were on, we couldn’t turn the vehicle around due to the smallness of the road. We had to back the vehicle up, which I asked our driver, Specialist Orapeza, to do since I was in command of the vehicle at that time. Once Orapeza began backing the vehicle up, we’d only gone about 100 meters when we hit an IED (improvised explosive device). I saw a big white flash and heard the explosion before briefly blacking out.
When I was aware of what was happening, I was sitting down in the vehicle. The first thing I saw when I woke up was that there was no flesh on my lower right leg, starting about 2 inches above the knee. However, I could see the tibia. I also felt pain in my arm, but I didn’t know what was causing it. I wasn’t really concerned about that pain, because I saw that I still had my right arm attached. I looked back at my leg, dug into my pack, found a tourniquet and applied it. I yelled to the other members of my team to learn their conditions. I could hear two of my men in the rear of my vehicle screaming in pain. PV-2 Wilson was actually blown on top of the vehicle and had severe shrapnel damage to his legs and foot. Luckily, he didn’t lose any limbs. PFC Rogers had many internal-organ injuries, included a damaged liver, and a hip injury.
Tomorrow: A Hero Among Us