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San Diego veterans of World War II, Vietnam, Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan

Grenades, rockets, bombs, machine gun fire in their ears

Sailors in a motor launch rescue a man overboard alongside the burning USS West Virginia during or shortly after the Japanese air raid on Pearl Harbor.
  • Sailors in a motor launch rescue a man overboard alongside the burning USS West Virginia during or shortly after the Japanese air raid on Pearl Harbor.
  • Chief Stuart Hedley
  • United States Navy
  • World War II and Korean War
  • Public speaker
  • Clairemont

Juan Hidalgo (right) in Iraq: "The enemy seems to be on drugs."

Juan Hidalgo (right) in Iraq: "The enemy seems to be on drugs."

It was Sunday morning at 5 o’clock. Hedley jumped out of bed below deck on the battleship USS West Virginia and began shining his skate shoes. he had a roller-skate date later that day with Juanita Suarez.

The date was December 7, 1941. The port was Pearl Harbor. As Hedley prepared to go on liberty he sat down with a quartermaster for a cup of coffee. He tells what happens next.

Stuart Hedley: "We thrashed like mad to get the oil and water and fire away."

Stuart Hedley: "We thrashed like mad to get the oil and water and fire away."

“All of a sudden I hear ‘away fire and rescue party!’ The officer of the deck saw a fire on Ford Island without realizing Pearl Harbor was under attack.

“I made a beeline from the quartermaster’s quarters up five decks to my locker to get my hat. There I got kicked in the seat of my pants by First Class Boatswain’s Mate Hicks who says, ‘Get to your battle station on the double! This is the real thing!’ I realized I wasn’t going to put out no fire.

“When I came out on deck planes were diving from every angle, their .50-caliber machine guns splitting open the deck. When I saw Lt. Commander White shooting at planes with his .45 I thought, ‘What kind of war is this?’ He asked me where my battle station was. I pointed to gun turret 3.

“When I was going up the ladder to the turret a Japanese torpedo plane flew by the port side of ship and I could see the faces of the pilot, co-pilot, and radioman. They were laughing like everything.

“W.E. Crosslin was already down in the pit at his trainer station. He trained the gun’s direction. As the gun pointer, I set its elevation. This is where we had to be because it’s our battle station. But we’re not gonna fire no 16-inch shell in Pearl. We’d destroy the harbor.

“We could hear the machine gun bullets hitting the turret and we felt the thud of a torpedo and Crosslin says, ‘Stu, let’s see what’s going on.’ So we took the sight cap off the periscope. That’s when I saw the Arizona explode and about 32 bodies flying through the air.

“A few minutes later an explosion blew away our foot pedals and the hatch by our feet and knocked us back into the elevating screw. An armor-piercing shell blew away part of the turret and lodged inside without detonating.

“Two things saved my life. The shell did not explode and my feet were not down where they were supposed to be. If they were I’d have no legs and probably wouldn’t have survived.

“Crosslin says, ‘Stu, let’s get the hell out of here.’ We came out on the deck. The ship had a 15-degree list and water was up to our knees. Gasoline from a plane and glycerin from the top of the turret ignited when the shell hit. Fire was everywhere. All eleven men from the other side of the turret were burned beyond recognition. I said to Crosslin, ‘If I don’t get killed today I’ll live to see the end of this war.’

“Then our skipper, Captain Mervyn Bennion, was killed. Shrapnel from a bomb drop on the Tennessee flew across to our ship and tore his stomach open. He died in the arms of Doris Miller, his orderly.

“Dorie picked up a .50-caliber machine gun, held it in the crux of his arm and started shooting down Japanese planes as they flew by.

“We were ordered to abandon ship. We had to go over a line to the Tennessee, which was between us and the beach. Five of our buddies were jimmying across the line and a Zero came in and strafed all five of them. I told Crosslin ‘were not going over any lines.’

“After we found a gun barrel to run across and jumped to the Tennessee a Marine yelled at us, ‘Get over to the beach!’ ‘How?’ ‘Swim, you idiot!’ The fire was three times as high as a house.

“We jumped in and swam underwater. We broke surface twice before we got to the beach. The water was full of oil and it was blazing. We thrashed like mad to get the oil and water and fire away just to get a breath of air and then went right back under. At the beach we got picked up by an ambulance and taken to the dispensary.”

Hedley was assigned to the heavy cruiser USS San Francisco the next day. Emotion shows on his face when he says he wanted Crosslin to come to the San Francisco with him. Crosslin was assigned to the USS Honolulu and was later killed by a torpedo strike.

Hedley participated in 13 major battles in the Pacific aboard the San Francisco and he was aboard the USS Massey when atomic bombs were dropped and Japan surrendered. He also served in the Korean War. He never got a scratch.

  • Petty Officer Second Class Hinson R. Hicks
  • United States Navy
  • World War II, Korea, Vietnam
  • Chula Vista

Hinson Hicks: “We had some good days and we had some bad days."

Hinson Hicks: “We had some good days and we had some bad days."

“When it’s calm it’s nice but it can get pretty rough out at sea on them destroyers. It can be hard to get some rest. I couldn’t get seasick, because I had to go down and fix food for the officers. I wanted to shoot guns, but back in them days they didn’t let you be anything but a steward. We couldn’t even wear our rank. They give you what we call a ‘loaf of bread,’ a little white marker you put lower on your arm.

“In the Korean War a ship called for help at Pusan. So many ships came it was like a city in the water. All of them guns and all of that firing. The enemy was shooting their big guns at us but the shells were dropping in the water. It looked like a city in that water. I know someone took a picture. That’s a picture I would like to have.

“We had some good days and we had some bad days. Thank God I made it.”

  • Sergeant John M. Crespin
  • United States Marine Corps
  • Vietnam (three tours)
  • Retired from shipyards and aerospace industry
  • Chula Vista

John Crespin: “Hue City was horrible. They got snipers everywhere. There’s bodies everywhere."

John Crespin: “Hue City was horrible. They got snipers everywhere. There’s bodies everywhere."

Crespin was assigned to MCRD San Diego in August, 1967 and deployed to Vietnam in January 1968 as a Private First Class.

“I was a grunt (infantry rifleman.) Two weeks into deployment I was in Phu Loc, our battalion rear. We had a quarter-mile-by-quarter-mile perimeter set up with trenches and concertina wire. We hung coke cans on the wire and put rocks inside.

“We’re 18, 19 years old. Two, three in the morning Viet Cong would creep up to the perimeter, start shaking the wires and cans, start barking like dogs, and yell, ‘Tonight you die, Marine!’ ‘Tonight you die, Marine!’ Nothing happened, but my buddy Andy Sarchini got the shakes real bad. A corpsman came and took him away.

“The next day they put me in a chopper. I went out to Hai Van Pass for road security. On my first day we start walking up a hill in a staggered column. I’m second in line, first on the left. My team leader, a son of a preacher man, was walking point. Ten feet from where the road made a turn he was killed by a booby trap. A tank mine went off. He was just full of metal.

“I’m telling myself, ‘I hope I’m not the next one in line, I just got here. It’s not right.’ They put someone else with more experience at point. Chopper came in. Took the team leader.

“We continued with our mission, going up the hill, securing the bridges. Right around that turn on the other side, we got ambushed again, this time from the back.

“I grew up on a farm with weapons. I’m an American. I got an M16, and you can kiss my ass.

“I started firing. I’m the only one. Everyone else went off to the side. I finished that first magazine and I know they’re somewhere up there. I’m shooting, I’m shooting. The damn thing jammed on me. So I’m in the middle of the damn road and they’re yelling at me, ‘Get to the side. Get to the side.’

“I’m trying to remove the magazine and put another magazine and chamber a round and it jammed on me again. If I have a complaint about being a Marine in Vietnam in 1968 it’s being issued, without testing, that piece of a shit of an M16. That was the M16A1.

“Shame on that son of a bitch, whoever said let’s get rid of the M14, which don’t jam and is made of stainless steel, and replace it with the M16, which is nothing but cheap carbon steel.

“When it rains during a monsoon you’re looking down at a rusty piece of shit that is only going to give you one round or two rounds. If you get into a firefight you’re screwed. And there were days I didn’t have a helmet liner. I had to wait for the next guy to die.

“After Hai Van Pass, somewhere early first week of February they brought us down to Phu Bai, which was our regimental rear. That night we slept in cots. Next day everybody is getting loaded down with ammo, everybody’s taking extra grenades. I looked around and there were hundreds of Marines. We are now preparing to go into Hue City because of the Tet offensive. I was there for the whole thing.

“Hue City was horrible. After four days, on a Tuesday night, Sarchini shows up with the new guys coming in. Now he has in mind that he got the shakes and is two-three weeks behind, so he wants to make it up.

“We’re fighting in a school yard. He’s on the other side of a building from me. They got snipers everywhere. There’s bodies everywhere. As soon as daylight came I hear this crack. Their weapons, the AK-47 and the SKS, make a crackling sound. Our weapons have a different sound.

“It was close enough that I heard the crack. It’s only one round so I know it’s a sniper. Shit, who is it? I know it ain’t me. Sarchini. We were told not to stand in front of a big window or a door. You crawl like a worm. Whatever the Lord gave us, you stay down. Wait. Wait. Just wait until the sniper gets tired.

“Sarchini stood in the front of the window. They yelled at him to get down. He came up the second time — right through the mouth. They already had him sighted the first time. So the second time it’s like waiting for a rabbit to come out of a hole.

“It’s memories like that that I carry with me. When I talk to a therapist I tell them, ‘Don’t try to take those memories away from me, because they’re mine.’ They’re my memories, and I will live with them.

“All that shit with Jane Fonda and the anti-war, get that shit out of your mind. Find ways to survive. A lot of men died because of poor weapons. A lot of men died because of all the shit that was going on back here in the states.

“Now today a guy in the service is a national treasure. Back then as soon as we got back to the states they told us go to the bathroom and take your uniform off and blend in with the population.

“It is my job now, as a member of this VFW post (Don Diego, Barrio Logan) to make sure that our Iraq veterans, our Afghanistan veterans, are taken care of.

“Whenever a young man or woman puts that uniform on, goddammit, you respect them, and you make their life as easy as you can.”

Crespin says he is “happily married to the beautiful Hortensia Roji Crespin,” who is a member of the women’s auxiliary at the Don Diego VFW.

  • Lance Corporal Ruben Rivera
  • United States Marine Corps
  • Vietnam
  • Retired Body and Fender Technician
  • Lemon Grove

Rivera deployed to Vietnam from ‘68 to ‘69 with the 26th Marines as an infantry rifleman.

“We were there to kick some ass, and that’s what we did. We were what they called the battalion landing team. When someone was causing a lot of problems we would go there and kick ass.”

“In the first week of my deployment on my first operation we found a tunnel with 107 VC. Five of ‘em came out fighting and we killed them. We captured the rest. The tunnel was 158 yards long, two levels deep.”

“You always had to watch out for booby traps. They were really dangerous back then.

“The shoebox booby trap was there to maim you. They dug two shoeboxes in the ground and put a grenade across them which leads to pegs by a wire. They would cover it up and you would either step on the left one or the right one. You had more than a 50/50 chance of hitting that. It would blow off your leg.

“And then they had punji pits, and the pits were at least four feet deep. Down in the bottom of the pit they would put sharpened bamboo sticks. And they would shit on them and piss on them so you’d get infected when you fell in it. It wouldn’t kill you but it would sure in the hell get you sick from all the diseases on it.

“Then they had the whip traps where they would bend the bamboo out to the side and when you hit the wire it would spring right at you and it would be a bunch of spikes hitting you. They had the ball or log with spikes too that would come down from a tree and maim you.

“They had markers on their booby traps. You could have three rocks in a row, crossed sticks, a piece of paper, a blob of mud. You don’t step on those or you’d be taken out. When you see something strange you gotta stop and check it out.

“I came close to booby traps all the time. If you don’t find ‘em you’d be a goner. We had a guy from the 5th Marines, Delta Company. He was walking in the middle of the road. We walked in staggered columns, two rows on the right and one on the left, but none in the middle. This guy walked in the middle and stepped on a piece of paper. It blew both of his legs and one of his arms off. The guy was gone.

“If you don’t do what you’re supposed to do shit can happen. In the Marine Corps you always follow the rules because there is a reason for them. I respected the guys who went before me and passed down the lessons they learned.”

  • James H.
  • Lieutenant, junior grade
  • United States Navy
  • Vietnam
  • Coronado

"They tried to take the sunken boat out away from Go Noi, but it was too heavy."

"They tried to take the sunken boat out away from Go Noi, but it was too heavy."

“I didn’t want to ambush there. My boss Steve had been out all day on Go Noi Island, and boats were on ambush there the night before.

“Go Noi was about four or five miles upriver or east of our outpost near Hoi An, so by the time we got near the island, it was nearly dark. I asked the two boats who followed the boat I was on to set ambush in bends of the river nearby. We were all out of sight from each other.

“I didn’t know until 40 years later that Go Noi had been an enemy stronghold. North Vietnamese regiments controlled the island off and on. The Marines swept the area in 1967, 1968, and 1969 and found a mine factory and many enemy bunkers.

“What bothered me as soon as we set ambush was the number of flares being sent up across the river. Made our boat visible. Plus we could hear voices from across the river. I asked my Vietnamese crew members; they claimed they were North Vietnamese voices.

“How much later was it? Fifteen minutes? Thirty? An explosion. I thought someone was shooting from across the river — two hundred yards away. Engines, I shouted to the boat captain. Engines were dead. Radio! I wanted to call the other boats who were near but out of sight. Radio was dead.

I looked down. The water was up to my knees. We were sinking. Tore off my flak jacket — too hard to swim with it. Started to swim after my Vietnamese sailors. They had habit of zipping up their flak jackets, and that would make it hard to pull off the jackets in the water.

“As if by a miracle, one of our companion boats showed up and picked up what must have been seven of us flailing in the water. Once both companion boats were together, we started firing into the bank next to our sunk boat.

We called back to the base, got Puff the Magic Dragon (a plane with high volume machine guns) to come out to Go Noi and fire around the sunken boat.

While we moved back and forth, I asked if anyone was hurt. Rabbit (the boat captain) and two of the Vietnamese had some superficial wounds. Slowly I realized that my left butt cheek was warm. And I saw a bunch of small tears near the lower hem of my blouse and tiny metal pieces in the torn part of the blouse.

“An hour later we got back to base. We were examined at our outpost’s sick bay. Had to pull down my pants and shorts and let everyone see my wounds. A helo medevaced us to the Navy hospital in Da Nang.

That night the surgeon made nine incisions to remove the larger pieces of shrapnel. And I had to lie prone for a week while possible infection seeped out of the wounds. Then they sewed me up.

“A pro football player from L.A. had his picture taken with me. Sent the photo home and wrote that I was slightly wounded. The IV in the picture scared my parents.

“Later in the day after surgery my boss and the chief petty officer of our river division came to cheer me up. They told me that underwater demolition team divers found remains of home-made grenades that blew up our boat. They were North Vietnamese mayonnaise cans filled with plastique.

"They tried to take the sunken boat out by helicopter, but it was too heavy, and it fell back into the river.

“The UDT guys searched Go Noi on top of the bank and found a spider hole with an NVA hat with brain matter and blood on it about ten feet from where our boat had been. In the water the divers found my glasses, watch, and helmet blown off by the explosion."

  • Sergeant Major Jim Lewis
  • United States Marine Corps
  • Vietnam
  • El Cajon

Jim Lewis: "They left us all by ourselves in the jungle.”

Jim Lewis: "They left us all by ourselves in the jungle.”

“The most important thing I could say is that I went into Vietnam with 14 men in my squad and I left Vietnam with 14 men in my squad,” says Jim Lewis.

“We went through some serious, serious firefights but we had no casualties, no injuries — except me. My hearing was damaged from grenades going off right next to my right ear. And I don’t know if they were ours or the enemy’s.”

“What did you say?” he says with a laugh in response to a question about his hearing injury.

He says he was among the first Americans deployed in Vietnam. “People don’t remember how early we were there. Even at the time they seemed to forget about us. They left us all by ourselves in the jungle.”

After leading 14 men in Vietnam Lewis became a drill instructor and trained new Marine recruits in San Diego.

  • Lieutenant Bill Fiscus
  • United States Navy
  • Vietnam
  • El Cajon

Bill Fiscus: "I can’t give any details or talk about specific missions."

Bill Fiscus: "I can’t give any details or talk about specific missions."

“Submarines are hours and hours of boredom sprinkled with two to three minutes of terror,” says Bill Fiscus. He served in the Navy for 30 years, 16 of them aboard subs.

He says you have to be calm to work in a submarine. “You can’t be claustrophobic. You can’t be schizophrenic. None of that.”

Seaman Fiscus worked as a diesel engineman aboard the USS Catfish in 1967. “We provided support for the fleet and for special missions in the western Pacific. We transported SEALs and other special forces and conducted electronics surveillance.

“I can’t give any details or talk about specific missions. It’s still all classified. When we went on a mission we knew nothing about it until we were under water. ‘Run silent run deep’ was our motto.”

Fiscus retired as a lieutenant after working at North Island.

  • Staff Sergeant Jaime Yancey
  • United States Marine Corps
  • Vietnam
  • Retired engineer and CEO
  • Ocean Beach

Jaime Yancey: “We were responsible for the air space in Da Nang."

Jaime Yancey: “We were responsible for the air space in Da Nang."

Yancey deployed to Vietnam in March 1968 as a corporal. He was a communications technician in a light anti-aircraft missile battalion.

“We were responsible for the air space in Da Nang. Most Marines will tell you that they never saw any Vietnamese or Chinese or Russian helicopters or any MIG jets from Russia. It was because we were there. They knew we were there. We did what we had to do, which was be there.”

“The internet was put in place in 1969. A lot of people are not aware the internet was invented by the military for the military. It was called Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency at that time. I am very familiar with that because I became an engineer and I was working with it as a civilian contractor. My entire life from the time I was 18 until the time I retired was defense-related.”

  • Petty Officer Second Class Jim Higgins
  • United States Navy
  • Vietnam
  • Retired maintenance technician
  • El Cajon

Jim Higgins: "I ran into McKinney in the ready room just before he departed on a mission."

Jim Higgins: "I ran into McKinney in the ready room just before he departed on a mission."

Higgins served two cruises aboard the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk during the Vietnam War. “It wasn’t a pleasure cruise,” he says.

“When you have 5000 guys on a ship they are going to get testy. You gotta let them blow off some steam.” He remembers “going to beach” in Thailand, Japan, and Hong Kong. One of his fondest memories involves the skewers of “monkey meat” Filipino street vendors would sell in Olongapo City, Philippines.

“You didn’t know if you were eating monkey, dog, cat. But it sure was good.”

Higgins remembers Lieutenant Clem McKinney, a radioman for an F-4J Phantom fighter plane. They were assigned to the same squadron, the Fighting Aardvarks, and both played on its basketball team.

“Some time about May 1972 our ship was in the Gulf of Tonkin. I ran into McKinney in the ready room just before he departed on a mission. We talked about basketball. Told him I’d see him when he gets back.” He pauses. His eyes tear up and his deep voice softens as he continues. “He never came back. His pilot got shot down by a surface-to-air missile over Vietnam.”

  • Captain Reed Olson
  • United States Marine Corps
  • Retired
  • La Mesa

Olson deployed to the Indian Ocean aboard the aircraft carrier USS Midway from 1980 to 1981. It was during the Iranian hostage crisis.

He was an F-4 Phantom pilot. He remembers his first time at sea.

“I was an FNG (f-----g new guy), my first time in blue water ops. After completing a mission I returned overhead the Midway and was waiting for my Charlie time (time to land.)

“My backseater (another FNG) noticed something trailing the ship by 1000 yards and reported it as a possible sub. We didn’t know it was the bombing spur the Midway towed behind it for bombing practice.”

The Marines never heard the end of it from the Navy sailors on ship. “The next morning we came out and found little red subs stamped all over our plane.”

Olson relishes the time he flew the Phantom. “When I was a maintenance test pilot I got a Mach 2 patch in the F-4, which was rare. At that speed the roar of the air going past the canopy was deafening and the flight controls felt like they were stuck in concrete. It was a fantastic fighter for the time.”

  • Sergeant Major Juan Hidalgo Jr.
  • United States Marine Corps
  • Iraq
  • Retired
  • Congressional candidate (51st District)

Juan Hidalgo: "Ten minutes after crossing, white flags. It seems the locals are on our side."

Juan Hidalgo: "Ten minutes after crossing, white flags. It seems the locals are on our side."

“Back in 2003 I was blessed to serve with and march to Baghdad with the warriors of 1st Marine Division, 1st Tank Battalion.”

The following are excerpts from Hidalgo’s journal during the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

18 March 2003:

“We’re in Ripper, Kuwait. At 0400 Master Sergeant Mike Mummey comes into the staff noncommissioned officers tent and announces, ‘Game on!’ This is what we have been waiting for since January 25. As we mount up, I pray I will not let these great men or their families down. I need to make sure I get them all home.

“As we move north a huge fire is blazing. We see a billowing smoke cloud as 1st Tank Battalion moves towards the Iraq/Kuwait border. What we could not take with us was put in the fire. Today we switch to Zulu time and set into the dispersion area.

21 March 2003 (first day of Operation Iraqi Freedom):

“Airstrikes on Baghdad have been going for 48 hours and the deadline has passed. The time is 0342. In column formation with Alpha Section in the lead we cross the line of departure on the west side of Safwan Hill. As we move into Iraq it’s cold and overcast.

Ten minutes after crossing, white flags. It seems the locals are on our side. Our four tanks head northeast across some serious terrain, which is slowing us down, but we are moving at a steady pace. Approaching an objective in Basrah we see two sets of troops armed with AK-47s. White flags come up after we engage. I call cease-fire for a moment. But they rearm — so we destroy them.

Other troops come out to engage us and our position will only allow that we engage with the .50-cal. Cpl Mulder, ‘Viejo,’ is spotting for me from his gunners position. LCpl Devine ‘The Burn Master,’ is spotting from the loaders hatch. As I engage from my position Devine very calmly says the following. ‘Gunny, they are engaging us and hitting all around the tank.’ My head is in my commander’s sight, but from my peripheral I can see Divine’s legs in the turret. I ask how he knows we are being engaged. He replies, ‘Because rounds are impacting all around us.’ I reach over and gently adjust his position from sticking out of the turret to completely inside the turret.”

25 March 2003 late afternoon to early morning of 26 March.

“We fight through and set a defensive position north of Al Nasiriyah.

“Alpha Section is on the west side of the road with Bravo Section on the east. The grunts hit the road to set a concertina wire barrier at 300 meters before it starts to get dark.

“It is now dark and we are expecting enemy contact. Barbarian-6 calls and tells us that everything coming south is enemy and we are clear to engage.

“About an hour later it begins. We see a bus coming down the road and we call Barbarian-6 to make sure we are clear to engage. Barbarian-6 says, ‘Tank platoon, you are cleared. Anything coming south is enemy!’ I give the fire command and Viejo puts down fire in front of the bus so the bus stops and turns off the lights. The driver sees the rounds impacting and the barrier and starts backing up, then stops. Troops start getting out through the windows and we can see weapons being handed out the windows. All tanks engage and destroy all targets. The enemy seems to be on drugs.

“All night vehicles keep moving towards us and we keep engaging. At one point an old Chevy Impala is just off the road using maneuver tactics. We are tracking at 1600 meters. I give Viejo the fire command and he fires. My wingman ‘Machine Gun Miller’ quickly calls, ‘Target, Target, Target!’ As the obscuration clears we see one guy get out of the car and run away. The roof of the car is peeled back like a tin can.”

  • Sergeant Danny Casara
  • United States Army
  • Iraq
  • Congressional candidate (52nd District)
  • Rancho Penasquitos

Danny Casara was stretchered across a 25-yard field and medevaced to a makeshift hospital in Balad, Iraq.

Danny Casara was stretchered across a 25-yard field and medevaced to a makeshift hospital in Balad, Iraq.

“War changes lives,” says Casara. He served in the United States Army from 1994 to 2008 and was deployed to Iraq in July 2005.

On September 23, 2005 Casara was in an M113 armored personnel carrier, traveling down a Y-shaped dirt road in South Baghdad when an anti-tank mine exploded under his vehicle and flipped it over.

The other two vehicles in Casara’s convoy converged on his position and came under fire. Quick reaction forces came to their aid, followed by Blackhawk and Apache helicopters.

Casara was stretchered across a 25-yard field and medevaced to a makeshift hospital in Balad, Iraq, where he was stabilized.

He was transferred to a hospital in Landstuhl, Germany then to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas.

He calls September 23 his “alive day,” the day he narrowly escaped death. Of the six men in the vehicle, two were killed and four injured.

Casara’s injuries included bilateral fractures to his right tibia and fibula, a shattered left tibia, shattered heel and ankle bones to both feet, and a dislocated right hip. He has undergone 24 surgeries.

  • Staff Sergeant Amber Robinson
  • United States Army
  • Afghanistan
  • Communications director at Veterans Museum
  • Chula Vista

Amber Robinson: "This one little girl, she was like 20. I think her parents probably never thought she was coming home in a body bag."

Amber Robinson: "This one little girl, she was like 20. I think her parents probably never thought she was coming home in a body bag."

Robinson's first tour to Afghanistan began early 2006 with the 10th Mountain Division as an Army journalist.

“I did not think when I joined, ‘We are in two wars. I will probably go directly to war.’ But I did. I went directly to war.

“My first tour in public affairs were my glory days, when I got to go around taking photos, being a writer, doing interviews, traveling around the country. I went everywhere in Afghanistan, and I loved it.

“On one of my first missions we went to a girls’ school in Khost Province to hand out school supplies. A girl named Paramina stayed with me all day holding my hand. We played a word game where we would point to different objects and I would say its name in English and she would say its name in Pashto. I was very idealistic at the time and believed we could make a difference there.

“Whenever you go out in Afghanistan you’re constantly wondering ‘what would we do if we hit an IED?’ There was always small arms fire pinging off our Humvee, you know like ting ting ting ting ting. Then our gunner goes up boom boom boom boom boom and we’re not receiving any more small arms fire and we keep going.

“The closest call I had was on Easter. I was flying to Kamdesh with my brigade commander and two generals to take photos of them visiting the troops at the outpost. I watched an RPG [rocket-propelled grenade] go from one side of a ravine in front of my helicopter to the other side of the ravine and blow up. It passed just a few feet from my helicopter.”

Robinson remembers Sergeant Jared Monti. They trained together and were stationed together at her first Forward Operating Base in Salerno. “One day during physical training I was puking up my malaria pills on the side of the rode. Monti yells to me from the turret of his Humvee, ‘Damn, Robinson, I thought you were hardcore!’ That was the last thing he said to me.”

Monti was killed in June of 2006 attempting to rescue an injured soldier during a mission. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.

“When I got to Afghanistan I found my place. I loved to stay out with the guys. These are guys that were out on the front lines, so sharing what they were going through was very important to me.

“I spent a week at the outpost in Kamdesh. When the guys first saw me they were like, ‘It’s a girl! It’s a girl!’ In a few days they chill out and stop acting all crazy.

“They would get attacked during patrols quite a bit. They could defend themselves pretty well from their base but they’re sitting ducks when they’d go out. They’re the bait and they know that. They hate it. They hate going out.

“It was also our responsibility when we did have individuals killed down range to collect accurate information and make sure next of kin were notified before the news was notified. Then we would release names and photographs.

“I would cover all the memorials whenever we had down range memorial services. I would photograph those, interview comrades in arms, and print stories about who we lost.

“During the Memorial they would call the names of the soldiers who were in the unit then call the name of the soldier who died and that was always really emotional and really tough. These were men who had served with the soldier and everything was still fresh in their minds and they’re answering during roll call, then they have to bear that silence of the individual who’s no longer with them.

“The day I decided I was not coming back, we had just lost 4 kids: 1 female, 3 males.

They had just gotten their bodies and they put them in body bags and then put a flag over the body bags and they would put those in the Black Hawks.

“I remember photographing this ramp ceremony and watching these bags. I had just looked at their photos. I remember thinking about their faces. This one little girl, she was like 20. She was so young, and I think her parents probably never thought she was coming home in a body bag. I remember thinking, ‘I don’t want to watch more kids go by in a body bag.’

“Those memorials were the hardest thing about my service. And then it was hard coming home. I didn’t fit in when I came home. I wanted to go back to war. I didn’t reintegrate well.”

Robinson was diagnosed with Addison’s disease, fibromyalgia, and PTSD after her third tour. “My time in combat does what it does. It kind of messes you up.”

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