“First, I heard a pop,” said Capt. Francisco Hernandez, a Civil Affairs team leader with 98th Civil Affairs Battalion (Airborne). “Then heat, concussion wave, all at one time. There’s no sound, other than a buzzing, a ringing in your ear.”
Hernandez was describing what he felt the instant an 82 mm recoilless rifle round exploded off the protective bunker that he and his team sergeant, Sgt. 1st Class Everardo Perez, were trying to enter, minutes after the command outpost’s siren had gone off, warning them of incoming rounds.
Hernandez and Perez, both dazed by the blast, were part of a larger team of Special Operations and conventional forces that had just returned to their command outpost in Logar province, Afghanistan, after conducting a veterinary seminar visit to an outlying village in western central Afghanistan on Aug. 27, 2012.
After his head cleared, Hernandez recalled, “Everybody was kind of looking at each other. My medic grabbed me and put me against the wall, and then he immediately starts putting on his gloves. That’s the one thing I remember — him putting on his medical gloves. I could tell he was yelling at someone, screaming, basically. Three from the company who were stationed there got hit pretty bad. Actually, the one medic they had from that COP (command outpost) had got hit. So our medic had to do all the duties.”
“I remember seeing a flash,” said Perez. “And next thing I knew, I was in another bunker. I guess I had run over there with my linguist and another Soldier. I asked him, where is my medic, where is my team leader? And they’re like, ‘Whoa, what do you mean?’ And I thought, ‘Who… what’s going on?’ Next thing I know, another infantryman comes up to me and says, ‘Your medic is treating another couple of wounded.’
“Of course, the first thing I’m thinking is, one of my guys is hurt. So I ran back to the area where the impact happened. I don’t even remember running from there before. And I see my medic and Captain Long (the 92nd Civil Affairs Battalion veterinarian who had joined the team for the VETSEM) working on an individual.
“So I still don’t see my team leader, and so I turn around, and I ask my medic, because he’s a professional, he knows what he’s doing. ‘Are you good? Do you need my help?’ He says, ‘No, I have plenty of people here helping me. So I turn around, I go look for him (Hernandez). And I find him, and say ‘What’s going on?’ Yeah, it was quite a day!”
Fortunately, the shrapnel from the blast eluded Hernandez and Perez. “The shrapnel went back and up,” Hernandez said. “So you can see where around us, it came all around. The heat wave and the smoke, you could see all through where we were. Outside the bunker, it had burned black.”
For wounds they suffered that day, both Hernandez and Perez were presented Purple Heart medals at a ceremony at the John F. Kennedy Hall on Fort Bragg, March 28. According to the Purple Heart nomination narrative, the single 82mm recoilless rifle round wounded six U.S. personnel, three of whom were medically evacuated immediately.
“From the time of the impact to the medevac was thirty minutes,” Hernandez said.
As Hernandez and Perez did not require immediate extended trauma care, they were evacuated the next day to a nearby forward operating base. There, the forward surgical team evaluated them and sent them on for further tests and treatment at a traumatic brain injury clinic at Forward Operating Base near Shank.
“It was three weeks before we were good to go,” Perez said.
“And we resumed operations. As soon as we were good to go, we kicked out on our next mission,” Hernandez said.
For the next five months, Hernandez’s Civil Affairs team was reassigned to other locations on other civil military operations. “It wasn’t stopping,” Hernandez said. “You desensitize yourself after that. I went out to another COP, and the same thing. You could hear the whistling of the rounds coming in. And everybody’s running around. You’re making sure everybody’s with you as you head to the bunkers. You hear the rounds hitting close to you.”
“Some of them were closer,” Perez remarked.
Hernandez estimated that during the eight and a half months the team was deployed, they endured about 250 rounds of incoming ordnance hitting inside the compounds they were staying.
“You hear the alarm. You start to sweat. There’s a little bit of that like a panic sweat that comes over you,” said Hernandez.
Perez commented, “Yeah, it definitely amped us up for it. You hear the sound, and your adrenaline shoots to the max, as soon as you hear the round.”
Now that he’s back on Fort Bragg, Perez finds that the sound of a siren triggers memories of what happened that day.
“That was one of the first things when I got home,” Perez recalled. “My wife had an alarm on her cell phone to wake her up in the morning that was like a siren. When I first got home, I couldn’t sleep. I was in the living room, and then I heard that siren. And it was like four in the morning. I went over and turned it off. I asked her, please, put music, something else on. I can’t stand hearing that. And still, right now, if I hear a whistling sound, it’s like ‘aghh!’” he said.
“But the bottom line is that our team came home in one piece. And I couldn’t be prouder of our medic for his actions that day,” Perez continued
“The Purple Heart has a significance to everybody that receives it,” Hernandez reflected. “We’re fortunate enough to be able to share it with our Family members, so they can share it with us as well. Whereas for some, they have to share it with all. In that light, you want to pay respect to the award, for its significance as to what it is.”
“Yeah, we brought all our guys back,” Perez commented. “Bringing all my guys back, especially since this was my third trip to Afghanistan. I’ve lost so many friends over there, before. I know a couple of my friends who passed away, and they received the Purple Heart ... just for me to be standing here, it’s a good feeling.”
“Afghanistan is still a challenge,” Hernandez said. “It’s not going to go away. We just have to continue working those conditions in those environments.”
“I consider myself very lucky to have Soldiers of this caliber under my command,” said Lt. Col. Brian Horine, 98th Civil Affairs Battalion commander, after pinning on the Purple Heart medals onto Herandez and Perez, March 28. “I wish them both the very best in the future.”