In one precise motion, Sergeant Richard Anthony Doyle slapped a gun magazine into his M-16 rifle, pulled the charging handle back to load the first round in the chamber and naturally placed his right index finger a few millimeters above the trigger like he had practiced hundreds, maybe thousands, of times before.
Yet outside of the relative safety of Camp Liberty in Baghdad, a simple mistake could prove fatal.
Now, Doyle, a sophomore history major from a small town in Illinois, is still confronting the demons of his experiences in Iraq.
One afternoon in August 2005, Doyle was injured when an improvised explosive device (IED) detonated as his company patrolled a rural sector of town a few miles from Baghdad International Airport.
“The last words I remember were, ‘Look out, look out!'” Doyle recalls. Then, as he has since pieced together, he was ejected from the vehicle and was saved by the back, left passenger door that kept the up-armored humvee from further rolling over onto its roof.
His next recollection is being pinned under 7,000 pounds of twisted metal.
“I no longer really cared about the pain in my leg, or that the humvee had me trapped. My primary concern was to find my weapon,” Doyle remembers. “Your training kicks in… you enter a self-preservation mode and you do whatever it takes.”
Doyle and everyone in his unit survived the attack, but the injury would ultimately cost him his leg.
In his 10 weeks in Iraq, Doyle tells of other infantry men, individuals he considered friends, who made the ultimate sacrifice. He recalls witnessing friends getting shot as they entered a home, and of entire squads (groups of four) being lost to roadside bombs.
“We all knew men who were shot when they breached a building. Nine out of 10 times, when we were clearing an insurgent house, they would be waiting for us…and the first one in the door was shot,” Doyle remembers.
“Even if your buddy was hit, your mentality was to keep moving forward to contain the threat, even if it meant stepping over your friend. Otherwise, it could be your entire squad hit because you didn’t react the way we were trained.”
“You know,” he continues, “Sometimes it was one [fatality], sometimes just the vehicle would be a total loss [with IED bombs] and sometimes the vehicle and all the troops would be lost.”
With military-like exactitude, Doyle even retells of the day his convoy was saved by a seven-year old Iraqi boy.
“We were traveling on a dirt road, going 60 mph, when a young, Iraqi boy ran out in front of the vehicles yelling in broken English, ‘No-no, boom-boom GI, no-go GI!’ He was waving his hands, rapidly opening and closing his fists to keep us from going any further. Well, there were four 155 MM mortal rounds pointing to the middle of the road set to go off right where we were going.”
These stories are frequent in many military families, as the United States enters its eighth year in Iraq and maintains a presence of over 50,000 troops.
But perhaps more extraordinary are the stories of individuals with no longer able-bodies that have fully adjusted to new lives as students, dedicated parents and loving spouses.
The sacrifice of individuals like Tony Doyle could never be repaid with a simple medal, life-time benefits or a small article in the university’s newspaper. It will, however, let those brave men and women know, whether fully-abled or disabled, that their immense sacrifice for their country did not go unnoticed.