Monday, April 16, 2007

Armenian officer wounded in Iraq recalls his experience

Published in April 14, 2007 Armenian Reporter

Armenian officer wounded in Iraq recalls his experience
* Senior Lieutenant Georgi Nalbandian looking to return to army service

For about a month 25-year-old Senior Lieutenant (Sr. Lt.) Georgi Nalbandian of the Armenian Army has been at the Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington. He was seriously wounded in action in Iraq on November 11, 2006. Our Washington Editor Emil Sanamyan sat down with the officer on April 11 to write down his story. “From everything I’ll say, you’ll see that I am both lucky and unlucky,” he said.

“I am from the town of Ararat originally. There I finished school in 1998 and enrolled in the Military Engineering Academy in Moscow. That September I began my first year. After graduating from the Academy with only A’s and B’s I was commissioned a lieutenant in the Armenian Army in 2003.

From then on and until November 2005, I served in the Vayk-based regiment of the 4th Army Corps – this is a forward deployed combat unit [on the border with Azerbaijan-controlled Nakhichevan]. I was then transferred to the Military De-Mining Center in Echmiadzin. After nine months there I on my own initiative volunteered to serve in Iraq as a commander of a de-mining team. We were the fourth rotation going to Iraq in July 2006 for a six-month period.”

First Armenian servicemen arrived in Iraq in January 2005, where they continue to serve under Polish command in the multi-national division in central and southern Iraq.

"We arrived in the town of al-Kut. There was not anything special going on at the time. But we did get decent combat assignments. We dealt primarily with unexploded ordinance that all over the place there. We found and destroyed that ammunition.

Along with soldiers from El Salvador we helped secure the coalition military base in al-Kut, to make sure none of the improvised explosive devices (IED’s) got inside the base perimeter.

And together with Polish soldiers we drove out on field reconnaissance missions in the area. My job was to make sure key bridges were not rigged and again to find the unexploded ordinance. We got attacked once at the time, but the explosion was in the front of the vehicle and we did not take casualties. That was the first time.”

What about that day?

“No, that happened at night. I remember it all. All the way to the hospital’s operating room. We had an assignment to check out this area of an ammunition dump. Previously we reconnoitered that area with the Poles. As we realized, what we found was the Iraqi army ammunition storage. Much of it was destroyed in the [U.S.] aerial bombing. But there was still a lot of stuff still unexploded lying around, including mines, 155-mm missiles, artillery shells, grenades, anything you can imagine, I can’t really list it all. It was a large area of about 300 by 400 meters, with stuff lying around quite densely.

We needed to clean that area up since there was evidence that terrorists were coming in, taking some of that ammunition out to presumably use it either directly or make it into IED’s. We could see the tracks from their digging. It was clear there were not looking for lost treasures there.

So that morning of November 10, at about eight in the morning, I guided a group of Slovak soldiers on five Humvees and several Czechoslovak-made Tatra armored vehicles with a de-mining machine in tow to that area, to tell them what is where, so that they could begin with the clean up. The place was about three kilometers off the main road. You needed to take one of several gravel paths that had been cleared previously.

We got in safely and they proceeded to destroy some of the anti-personnel mines there and were generally assessing what could be done with that place. There was no system of any kind, with various ordinance lying everywhere, so they were trying to find a way to organize their work.

The plan was to go in for half a day, so we did not really bring along much in the way of water or food. Just days earlier Saddam was sentenced to death and there was apprehension there might be an increase in attacks. So by 2 p.m. we began to move out. We could not turn the convoy around and had to take another road. But as we started moving those big Tatras began to sink into the gravel that in some places became really powdery from all the explosions. As we tried to pull out some of the vehicles, others would sink in. It was a comic situation really.

By 6 or 7 it gets dark there and dangerous. We called in reinforcements from the base. Salvadoran soldiers on four more Humvees arrived along with a crane. Salvadorans secured the perimeter around the convoy. But that crane too got stuck. Then U.S. and Iraqi special forces arrived with even a bigger crane – that was a really powerful machine that pulled almost all of the vehicles out, but then itself got stuck. So it got even funnier.

In the end, it was already past 1 a.m., we got the order that those that had been at that dump since the morning, and we were really dead tired by then, could go back to the base. The others would stay until the remaining vehicles are pulled out.

I got into the back seat of one of the Polish vehicles together with a Slovak. A full moon was out, so we turned off the headlights not to draw attention to the convoy. We talked a little, but I remember I was falling asleep. I was asleep.

It was a miracle or what, I don’t know, but it was as if someone pushed me a second or two before the explosion – as if I sensed it was coming. Instinctively, I drew my hands to cover my face and the next thing to happen is explosion ripping us apart.

I would typically have gloves on my hands, but I took the left one off to hold up the MRE (the U.S. Army-issued Meal Ready to Eat) that we just had, and forgot to put it back on. So I lost the skin on this hand.”

Nalbandian points to the burn covering much of his left hand.

“I saw that flame – on sunny days I still can’t go outside without sunglasses – heard the screams, felt the heat. So I realized I was OK, I was not dead.

(The Polish driver and Slovak sitting next to me were killed in the explosion. The other Pole sitting next to the driver was hit in the knee and has since had trouble walking.)

I moved my legs – the left one was heavy, the right one also felt like it was there. I looked up and saw bullet traces coming in and realized we were being ambushed. I heard the shooting, the Humvee kept moving, but the heat was getting worse and I couldn’t breath. I started feeling around trying to find my machine gun. I would always keep it next to my left leg, but I couldn’t find it. I started to suffocate, opened the door and tried to jump out, pushing with my right leg and that’s when I saw I had no right leg left and blood was gushing out of where it used to be.

I fell on the ground, with my right leg left under the driver’s seat. I was in shock and for a moment began to think that was all a dream and nothing had happened. But then the pain began and I realized my other leg was on fire. I put it out and took cover.

The Humvee stopped a few meters away. By then our large caliber machine guns opened up, and it sounded like the enemy began to disperse, at least they could not fire at us anymore. I waived my hand, calling out that I was still alive and needed help.

They ran up to me with a stretcher. The medevac vehicle was right behind me, so they quickly took me in and brought me to al-Kut. Our base doctor Major Vigen Tatentsian met us at the gate and began to stick me with needles with painkillers, IV and whatever else I don’t know. They took my clothes off. I was losing a lot of blood and couldn’t breath so they stuck a tube into my throat.

In just ten minutes or so, an American helicopter arrived to take me to the hospital in Baghdad. By then I was heavily medicated, so it felt like the normally 45-minute flight from al-Kut only took a few minutes. I was losing consciousness, they were bringing me back out. I was really thirsty, but they could only give me a wet cloth – it was not even a drop of water.

As soon as we reached the Baghdad hospital they operated. I remember those three round medical lamps above me. They gave me another incision and everything I ate that day came out of me. I was high on morphine and wondered what these ten people in white were doing around me. They kept sticking me with needles. And after one incision I felt completely paralyzed. I couldn’t even move my eyes. It really felt like death. Then I either fell asleep or lost consciousness, I don’t know.

When I came to, Captain David Gyozalian, who is our liaison officer in Baghdad, was next to me. I was still high on morphine, so I was laughing and smiling. He told me that they cleaned the wound and would be taking me to a hospital in Germany in the next three hours.”

All coalition soldiers wounded in Iraq, after receiving first aid and emergency surgery, are evacuated to the U.S. military bases in Germany for further treatment.

“The pain kept coming back, so I asked for morphine and sleeping pills, and I really already woke up in Germany after a six-hour flight. Then there was a second surgery and four more surgeries soon after. Those three weeks I could hardly move even in the bed. Pain continued, including the phantom pain - that was really bad. By the end of that third week I for the first time got into a wheelchair and got tired really quickly.

Our officers based at NATO in Brussels, Colonel David Tonoyan and Major Mher Israelian, would visit me almost every week. Special thanks to them, make sure you write about them, they helped bring me back to life. Talking to the doctors, everything. They were constantly there and brought me anything I needed.

The Defense Minister, who is now Prime Minister Serge Sargsian, called two days after I arrived in Germany. His Deputies have been calling since then. General Seyran Ohanian, the commander of the Karabakh army, who had a similar wound during the war, and has a prosthetic and gets around fine, also called.

My brother came to visit for three days. (I did not want my mom to come see me in that condition, so I asked for my brother to come.) He is also an officer with the Defense Ministry. My cousin who is a professional soccer player for one of the clubs in Finland also came to visit.

Then doctors began talking about moving me to U.S. for rehabilitation treatment. And as I was about to go it got postponed and then the chief doctor said that I would stay in Germany, at the U.S. military medical center in Landstuhl. There were probably some financial reasons or something, so they first decided to keep me in Germany. All other wounded coalition soldiers, Romanians, Latvians, others were treated there and fitted with prosthetics. I got my first prosthetic leg before the New Year. There were some problems with it, but nothing that could not be resolved.

But then all of a sudden they told me they would put me on the plane to U.S. for further treatment and rehabilitation. It was just as the news about Walter Reed was all over television. I finally arrived here at Walter Reed on March 9.”

Sr. Lt. Nalbandian is very happy with the treatment at Walter Reed, where he is the only non-American servicemen that he knows of at this time. What about the recent scandal around Walter Reed?

“I didn’t personally sense any of that. I spent a week in the hospital ward for amputees – there were no problems and the care was excellent. I didn’t even see any evidence of recent repairs or anything. So, I don’t really know what the whole issue was about. I heard that one or two doctors were not doing their work and were disciplined. But that was before my arrival.

They are now fitting me with a new prosthetic. With the one I have now, I can walk quite well and even run. But I can’t walk up the stairs. The new prosthetic would give me more agility. They also said they would give me additional prosthetics for running, for swimming and also one as a replacement.

They are treating me as one of their own.”

There are Armenian doctors here at the hospital, one is a surgeon, another psychologist, Sr. Lt. Nalbandian said.

“They invited me over to their homes, including for Easter. Other local Armenians came to visit me and took me to the local Armenian Church the other week. So, I don’t have to stay in the room and watch TV on weekends. I use Skype to call my brother in Armenia – we talk almost every day.

And of course, the Embassy here, Ambassador Tatoul Markarian and Defense Attache Colonel Armen Sargsian met me as I arrived here, and they and others from the Embassy continue to visit and helping me out.”

And what will he do after the treatment?

“I want to go back into the service. I always tell everyone, what happened to me is nothing. Things are fine – I can walk, run, swim, drive a car. What’s the difference? I am a fully functioning person, it’s not like I am missing both legs.

I want to go back on active duty. If I see that I can’t handle the physical aspect of the service in the field, I’ll request a transfer to headquarters – there is enough work there too. There are plenty of combat officers in Armenia with prosthetics who serve both in the field and in the headquarters.”

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