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Samantha L. Quigley, American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Nov. 7, 2008 –
The detonation of a large roadside bomb near Baghdad on May 3, 2005, caused enough damage to Army Sgt. Robert Bartlett’s body to cost him his life -- and it did, at least temporarily.
Bartlett was providing route security with 1st Battalion, 64th Armor in the 3rd Infantry Division’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team near Baghdad when an armor-piercing bomb behind a road barrier was remotely detonated.
“It blew through my vehicle and basically cut my face in half and took my gunner’s legs and took the top of my truck commander’s head off, and then went out the other side of the vehicle and kept on going,” he said. “I think they said it was a 40-pounder, [but] I can’t be for certain on that.”
What he is certain of is that the bomb contained ball bearings that caused severe trauma to his hands and chest.
“My gunner and I were just embracing each other, because we thought we were about to die and didn’t know who else was hit,” Bartlett said. “I’d lost sight in my left eye and my right eye was going in and out of vision, [and] I couldn’t do anything with my hands. Obviously, I had a head trauma, and I was losing air with every breath.”
As it turned out, Bartlett had a collapsed lung and internal bleeding.
Fortunately, a second truck commander sitting behind Bartlett was thrown clear of the vehicle. He awoke in the middle of the street and, after three tries, was able to open door of the truck, which somehow was still running.
“He helped get me to the back seat and drove my gunner and me out of there,” he said. “The truck was just grinding with metal. Ball bearings went through the motor, through the transmission, and all the tires were riding on their rims.”
The truck lasted long enough to get the soldiers to another truck in their convoy, which in turn got them back to the support hospital at Camp Rustamiyah. A medical evacuation helicopter had been called, but it didn’t arrive before Bartlett stopped breathing.
“I ended up dying there,” he said. “I respiratory arrested on them, and they did an emergency [tracheotomy] and got me going again.”
The helicopter evacuated Bartlett to the 86th Combat Area Support Hospital in Balad, where he died again. Doctors revived him, and he was flown to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, where he stayed for a couple of days before moving on to Walter Reed Army Medical Center here.
“The planes were running full, and they wanted to send the people who had a chance for living [to Walter Reed],” Bartlett said.
Nearly five days after he was injured, Bartlett arrived at Walter Reed where his mother, father and brother were waiting. But when doctors brought him out of a drug-induced coma, he stopped breathing again. Again, doctors were able to revive him.
“Twice in Iraq and once at Walter Reed and once when I was little, but that doesn’t count for this,” Bartlett said with a chuckle as he tallied the number of times his heart has stopped. “I just think God’s got other plans for me.”
After 18 months at Walter Reed, he worked to get stationed at home in Gilbert, Ariz., and attached to the Veterans Affairs medical facility there. Since his surgeries were scheduled every three months, he said, he figured he’d free up a bed for another servicemember and just fly back to Walter Reed for additional surgeries.
In the middle of his recovery, Bartlett reconnected with a woman he’d met before he deployed who participated in a fundraiser during his recovery that made it possible for the soldier’s family to be with him.
“We started dating after I got blown up,” Bartlett said of his relationship with his wife, Jordan. The two had been introduced before he left for Iraq, but Jordan decided he was too old -- he enlisted at 30 -- and he wanted to be single while in the military, Bartlett explained.
“I didn’t want to put anybody through me not coming home,” he said. “I knew what I was doing. … [I was] a scout sniper.”
After his first surgery, Bartlett went home on convalescent leave and was thanking everyone for their support when one of his buddies asked him if he remembered Jordan.
“I said, ‘Yes,’ and went over to her and told her she didn’t know it yet, but I was going to kiss her in three months when the swelling in my face went down,” he said. “The next day, we went on a date and we’ve been together ever since.”
While Bartlett continues to heal and waits for medical boards to determine his level of disability, he has picked up the cause of urging other servicemembers to seek treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.
“These guys just have to take advantage of that and realize that to be vulnerable is OK,” he said. “You’re in good company, so you’re not vulnerable.”
Bartlett said his goal is making “America and the world a better place.” The Purple Heart he earned in Iraq might say to some that he’s already done that, but Bartlett doesn’t see it that way.
“That’s the medal you get for being in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he said. “It’s the award that everybody wants, but doesn’t want to go through the process of getting. It changes your life forever. War changes you forever, but getting injured in war definitely increases that.”
Until he learns the outcome of his medical boards, Bartlett said, he is undecided about what his future holds. But, he added, he has no regrets about his past.
“It’s the best thing I ever did in my life,” he said. “I love the military and I love the United States so much more now. I really understand everything. I was a skeptic that our government was doing a good job and I was wrong. I was absolutely wrong.”