A GOOD WACKING
The Story of US Army Sergeant David Emme
“When we got to Talafar, I noticed that there were no children out and about, only teenage boys. I saw several of them give us the ‘cut your throat’ sign. At the time I thought they were doing this because they wanted to see harm come to us. But after thinking about it, I wonder if they knew something was planned and were trying to stop our convoy or warn us. The thing is, if they had tried we probably would have ran them over or even shot them.”
Dave Emme joined the Army in May 2001. “I was a retread. On June 14, 1990 I was standing on the yellow footprints of Parris Island, South Carolina at the tender age of 17. I spent five years in the Marine Corps, three of them in Okinawa. I kept extending because of the great church there, Maranatha Baptist Church. I found that I liked reading and studying the Bible as well as discussing and teaching it. For those reasons I thought it was only natural to go into a full-time ministry as a preacher.” After getting out of the Marine Corps, Dave enrolled at Pacific Coast Baptist Bible College in San Dimas, California, but the college was going through a period of transition. There were large debts to be paid off, the curriculum was disorganized and the faculty at odds with one another. After a couple of years, Dave became disillusioned and dropped out.
Over the next few years he drifted through a series of low paying jobs. “I was lost. In the end I went back to what was familiar. I grew up watching war movies, reading books on war, playing war as a kid. Plus I’d already served five years in the Marine Corps. I figured going back into the military was a no brainer. I figured I could do 15–25 years serving my country while getting a degree or two from Liberty University—say a double Bachelor's in Business Management and Religion. That way I would have my bases covered. I would end up with a ministry in a small church that would not be able to pay my salary. I would be a blessing to a church without wondering where my next paycheck would come from.”
Dave joined the Army. He was assigned to Supply and Logistics and stationed in Ft. Lewis, Washington with a unit that was transitioning from a heavy combat brigade to a sleeker, lighter Stryker Brigade (1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division). He had previously been in a tank unit (1/33 Armor Battalion). “I left Joint Readiness Training Center in Fort Polk, Louisiana for Fort Lewis. We turned in the tanks and transitioned to a RSTA (Reconnaissance Surveillance Target Acquisition) Cavalry unit, known as 2/14th Cavalry.”
He became a supply sergeant for six months and then went to the arms room as the unit armorer along with conducting supply operations. “I picked up rank quickly because of my experiences as a Marine NCO, and in December 2003 I was promoted to sergeant. I was given the supply room of Charger Troop. In the nine months before deployment, I trained up with the ‘trigger pullers’ while working full time as a supply sergeant.”
On September 30, 2004 Dave deployed to Mosul, Iraq as part of an advance party to set up the billets and equipment for his troop. On October 19th, while preparing his unit for a move to Talafar, he was wounded in a mortar attack. ”I heard the first mortar drop about 25 meters from my position. Being mortared twice a day, we got used to hearing mortars coming in. This one was different, very close. I jumped into a mortar shelter with about 15–20 infantry dudes piling in behind me. I was the most protected but I got wounded the worst.”
A mortar hit one of the trailers where the soldiers lived, and shrapnel came into the entrance at an angle, bounced off the cement wall and missed every soldier except Dave and one other. “I ended up with shrapnel in my arm, hand and leg. My platoon sergeant, SSG Jason Forgey ran out and opened the door to the CP and shouted to the XO to give him a medical bag, yelling out that ‘Emmis’ (my nickname) was hit.” Another mortar hit at a tree nearby and wounded SSG Forgey in the back of the head. “We all survived and returned to duty the next day. We were the first soldiers wounded from our troop.”
The unit (2/14 CAV) went to Talafar. After four weeks Dave was put on a mission to truck Iraqis the US had recruited for the national police force to Mosul for training. Without enough personnel and equipment, so far they had not been able to train them.
“We loaded them up on FMTVs, big square supply trucks. Since I was the supply sergeant and commander for the supply vehicle, I was gunning on a .50 cal. When we got to Talafar, I noticed that there were no children out and about, only teenage boys. I saw several of them give us the ‘cut your throat’ sign. At the time, I thought they were doing this because they wanted to see harm come to us. But after thinking about it, I wonder if they knew something was planned and were trying to stop our convoy or warn us. The thing is, if they had tried we probably would have ran them over or even shot them since almost anyone who tries to stop a convoy in Iraq intends harm.
“I got on the radio and told people what I had seen and warned them to keep an eye open because I felt that something would happen to our convoy. We entered an Iraqi traffic circle. My vehicle had crept up on another FMTV. I told my driver to slow a little when going around the circle to keep our distance. That is the last thing I remember. An IED exploded on the left side of our truck. I happened to be scanning on my weapon system to the right and was totally exposed to the blast.”
When Dave regained consciousness, he was still in the vehicle. Shards of metal pierced his left eye and his left ear drum was blown out when shrapnel from the blast penetrated his head. He had no sense of where he was or what had happened. “My driver started yelling at me to get out of the vehicle. I cried, ‘No my head hurts too much!’ He dragged me down and I fell about six feet. I was wondering why in the h-e-double hockey sticks did this guy cause me to fall six feet. He picked me up by my equipment and put my hand on his shoulder and told me to run with him. Then I heard my .50 cal go off and that was that.”
Months later Dave’s battle buddies told him what had transpired. “When the IED blew, several things happened. First, there were about 25 insurgents trying to shoot up my vehicle. I was the most severely wounded; no one else got shot. With bullets snapping at our feet I got out of the vehicle. SFC Podplesky got on my .50 cal and started blasting everything—cars, people, buildings. There were insurgents shooting from the ground floors, windows and from on top of buildings. Several insurgents started rushing the vehicle, and some NCOs on the ground shot them at point blank range. There were at least four insurgents shooting RPGs at us, two shooters in front of us and two to the left. A car bomb sped toward our convoy.
SFC Podplesky and two or three others with .50 cals and small arms fire took the suicide vehicle out before it could do any damage. When we got word back to the base what was going on, reinforcements headed out immediately. When they did, insurgents started clogging the road with traffic to stop them. Our guys began smashing vehicles off the road and causing cars and trucks to crash and flip. Quite a few insurgents in those vehicles were killed. Apparently the plan had been to destroy the whole convoy. Needless to say they did not succeed.”
Meanwhile, Dave and his driver reached the safety of a Stryker vehicle and took off. “While we were in the Stryker I got some of my vision back in my right eye. It had taken us about forty minutes to get to the spot where we were attacked, and about ten minutes to get back to the Forward Operating Base. The only thing I could think of was, ‘This will get me some time off work.’” Once Dave got safely back to his FOB he tried to walk down the ramp of the Stryker. “I thought I had passed out again after walking down that ramp, but apparently I was still awake and kept on asking the medics if I was okay.”
When the medics started ripping off his equipment to check for wounds, Dave “coded.” His heart stopped and his breathing ceased. “I didn’t see a white light nor remember floating over my body, probably because I was immediately given CPR by the medics.” He “coded” a second time on a medevac chopper. “I remember waking up and thinking, "Never rode in a chopper, want to see what it is like—cool!" I tried raising my body and head and was unable to. So I started tracking the blades against the mountains we were weaving in and out of. I got dizzy and passed out again, and that’s probably the second time I died.”
Dave awoke ten days later from an induced coma at Walter Reed Medical Center. He had been medevac’d to Mosul, loaded on a C-150 and flown to Baghdad where he was operated on, then flown to Landstuhl Medical Center in Germany, and finally Walter Reed. “I didn’t know where I was when I woke up. Doctors told me that they had taken a good-sized hunk of skull off on the left side because my brain had swelled up twice the size of a normal brain.”
Dave had shrapnel in his brain and over 50 percent loss of hearing. To replace the part of his skull—a bit bigger than the size of a hand—he was given a prosthetic skull in the procedure called a cranioplasty. “They told me I had serious Traumatic Brain Injury. Although I got most of my mental faculties back, I still have word aphasia, which means you can’t remember what things are called. Sometimes I get lost in conversations for no apparent reason. People tell me jokingly that losing their train of thought happens to them all the time. I know they are just trying to comfort me—but it doesn’t help.”
The cartilage in his neck was also ruptured. While it has healed, Dave still has some slippage of neck bones which at any time could guillotine his spinal chord and perhaps cause paralysis. Contact sports like touch football became a fond memory. “I have a major loss of hearing in my left ear and some loss in my right ear. My vision is now different in both eyes. Consequently, sometimes when reading something on paper or the computer I occasionally miss what is written. The hole in my leg has healed. I have some cool scars on my face. Chicks dig scars; you can tell any story you want of how they got there.”
Dave left Bethesda to recover at Walter Reed Medical Center for the next two years. He could barely talk and went through months of intense speech therapy to learn how to recognize and remember words. Like Rob Kislow, who tested out different types of prostheses, he was asked to participate in clinical trials having to do with TBI. “I was asked if I would go through an experiment with a drug called X to see if it would help in my recovery. I had no idea if I had the drug or something else but I said yes. In the clinical trial, I had to go see some nurses to do weekly and monthly testing, and I was constantly taking different kinds of mental exams which forced me to think. That was a good thing.”
“In the meantime I tried reading, doing logic puzzles and playing Mahjong on a PDA. My best friend, Steve Smith, called me every day and we talked from one to three hours a day for eighteen months. Talking with Steve did a lot to get my mind working. Without him, I don’t think I would have recovered as much as I have.”
After getting his prosthetic skull he got a job at Walter Reed. “I started working with Mr. Kitt in the baggage room. Storing baggage was one of my responsibilities as a supply sergeant. This was a minor task in the Cavalry, but a major one at WRAMC with so many soldiers filtering in and out of the hospital.” After he worked there for about four months the job started becoming easy and he knew he was ready for the next step.
“I took over the supply room for the Medhold Company. They had no equipment accountability or ordering system, so I started building the systems to reclaim accountability of equipment and start the flow of office supplies. Before I got there you were lucky to get a pen, a notebook or printing paper. For example, we were supposed to get a new uniform issue once in Medhold Company, but when you were coming from the battlefield you got nothing like that. It took me over a year to get a new issue. That was because once in the supply system, the Brigade S-4 just kept things bottled up there in the bureaucracy. I convinced the S-4 officer to put this process in my hands, which he did. After I took over it wasn’t long before a soldier could put in for a new uniform and literally have the paperwork to go to the PX to get it the same day.”
A few months later, Dave worked with the Wounded Warrior program to return to the civilian workplace. His first job was as an unpaid intern at the Federal Highway Administration in Washington, DC. His hope was that an internship might turn into a full-time job.
“The first interview I went to was with Paula Ewen of the Federal Highway Administration. I told her that I did not see myself holding a stop and go sign on the side of the road, that I wanted to work for a logistic branch of the government. She not only offered me a position but grabbed hold of my arm as I left and told me she would not let go ’til I said yes. I believed her and relented and it was one of the best decisions I made. I became a sort of personal assistant to her. If I can ever work again, she is the type of boss I want.” By far the biggest challenge Dave faced during this time were his headaches, constant migraines that kept him home for days at a time. “Once, I felt so guilty not going to work that I did not go back for six weeks. Paula called me at home and told me she understood that I was going through some bad times and to come back any time I was ready. I was not to feel any guilt about the time missed. She and the agency were there for me, not me there for them. The next day, I reported back to work.”
Dave retired from the Army in September 2006 with 30 percent benefits. He was approved for Social Security disability and received 200 percent from the VA.
Today he is attending Muhlenberg College. “Heather Bernard of the American Council of Education told me about Muhlenberg and helped me get into the school. My goal is to overcome some of my TBI issues so I can successfully re-enter the work force.” His first year was a resounding success. “I always thought that people would follow me to class protesting the war, or penalize me for having a conservative viewpoint. This is not the case at Muhlenberg. Professors and students want to hear your stories and show their appreciation and support regardless of politics. Because of the support of many professors I‘ve succeeded in my classes, with only one B, the rest A or A- and a 3.82 GPA. I feel it’s important to tell people my GPA and the courses I’m taking, not because I want to boast, but to clear up the fact that though some of us veterans were affected by TBI, we can still accomplish great things.”
Dave is optimistic about his future. “It would be easy to say, ‘I have done enough in thirty-five years to take it easy; certainly, I have earned this.’ But God has a purpose for me, to be a blessing to someone, and that takes work. Through all my experiences since I’ve been injured I have found it pays to be proactive and to push to rehabilitate myself. If nothing else I will have gained the satisfaction that I know I have lived a good life and framed my living to be a pleasure to my Lord and a blessing to others.”
Army: 2 Purple Hearts, Army Commendation Medal, 2 Army Achievement Awards, 3 Army Good Conduct Medals, 2 National Defense service Medals, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, Non Commissioned Officer Professional Developement Ribbon, Combat Action Badge.
Marine Corps: Meritorious Unit Commendation, Good Conduct Medal, Sea Service Deployment Ribbon with one star.
From Hidden Battles on Unseen Fronts: Stories of American Soldiers with Traumatic Brain Injury and PTSD by Celia Straus for the Armed Forces Foundation, published by Casemate Publishers. Copyright © 2009. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved. www.armedforcesfoundation.org.