Memorial Day commemorates those who were killed while serving in the armed forces, but Brian Castner hopes that we will remember those who survived injuries but might not have if not for bomb suits, armors, and other advances. His book The Long Walk is now out in paperback.
In late 2007, as Adam Popp lay next to a smoking bomb crater, his new stump of a leg pouring his life into the awaiting Afghan dirt, he did two things only possible in the last decade of conflict. He called his father from the battlefield on a satellite phone to say that he was bleeding out. And then he lived.
We’re not remembering Adam Popp on Memorial Day. In previous wars, we almost surely would have.
Technical Sergeant Popp was an Air Force Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) technician assigned to a US Army patrol in Paktia province, clearing a route to a new Special Forces medical clinic for local civilians. The Improvised Explosive Device discovered by Afghan police on a highway outside of Gardez was classic in nearly every—a bulky bag sprouting wires stuffed into a drainage culvert under the road.
A culvert packed with explosives presents a particularly dangerous and challenging problem. If the bomb remains unfound, and the attack proceeds as planned, the damage to an armored vehicle driving over it is catastrophic. Find the device and simply blow it in place, and you have shut down a highway for weeks or months, until over-taxed engineers can finally fix the span. If the culvert hole is too small, an EOD robot can’t access it. If the bomb is too big, the robot isn’t strong enough to pull it out.
It was because of this last condition that Sergeant Popp found himself on his hands and knees in the bomb suit, 80 pounds of overlapping Kevlar plates, yanking out the device by hand. The bag itself Popp freed with a grunt and tossed harmlessly to the side. No, the bomb that nearly killed him was a second device, hidden in the ground, specifically placed to kill the bomb technician responding to clear the culvert. Popp was set up. He shifted his weight from his left knee to his right, and his world exploded.
At 3 in the morning, the phone rang in a home in tiny Lanesville, Indiana. No one answered, so the answering machine picked up. Shouts, screams, and confusion, silence, pause, and the phone rang again. The home’s occupant was now awake, so he answered.
“Dad, this will be hard to hear, but I want you to hear it from me. I’m hurt really bad, but I’m awake, and I think I’m going to make it.”
The explosion had sent Popp cartwheeling. His right leg was ragged hamburger. His right arm was fileted and dislocated, flopped to the side at a funny angle. Lying on the ground, multiple tourniquets on each limb, Popp dialed his childhood home phone number, the only one he could remember. Within minutes the medevac helicopter flew him to the nearby surgical center at Forward Operating Base Solerno. There the docs knocked him out, and he woke up at a hospital in Germany after multiple surgeries. He had the arm, but not the leg.
Unknown to him at the time, Popp was a bellwether. During the surge in Afghanistan, his story happened, on average, every other day. The Congressional Research Service noted in a February 2013 report that while 67 major limbs were lost in Afghanistan between 9/11 and the end of 2008, 562 were blown off between the start of 2010 and the end of 2012. Military doctors from Brooks Army Medical Center, a major surgical and rehabilitation hub, saw such a flood of patients during that time that they wrote a report for the Journal of Trauma and Acute Care surgery. They found that the rate of amputations as a percentage of traumas had quadrupled, and that the average soldier’s chance of losing a leg had gone up 700 percent during the surge.
The surge was bloody, but it could have been far worse. The bomb suit surely saved Popp’s life, and the fielding of armor of all types—vests and helmets and shoulder guards for every soldier, a fleet of new mine-resistant vehicles—has reduced casualties overall. Advances in emergency medicine have been equally important—over 97 percent of the patients that make it to the Role 3 Hospital at Kandahar Airfield live.
The reduction in deaths has been dramatic. The ratio of wounded to killed in World War II was 1.6. Helicopter transport got it to 2.7 in Korea and 3.3 in Vietnam. In Afghanistan it currently stands at 7.1. In the urban war in Iraq it was a remarkable 9.1. To put it another way, if our soldiers were killed in action in the same ratios in the Iraq War as they were in World War II, we would be mourning over 13,000 dead today.
Memorial Day was born Decoration Day, an annual rite of placing flowers at the graves of soldiers killed in the Civil War (Union wounded to killed ratio: 0.77). We veterans are often quick to note the distinction between this day and November 11; don’t thank me today, I’m still alive. But what about the 562 Adam Popp’s from the Afghan surge, who would be dead but for God’s grace made manifest in armored plates and tourniquets and medics in helicopters holding femoral arteries closed with their fingers? What of the thousands of others with less visible wounds, blast survivors with all their limbs but shredded brains?
Look, perhaps, to Popp himself. Now medically retired from the Air Force, Popp works for Shoulder-2-Shoulder, a Virginia-based company that donates 50 percent of their corporate profits to veteran’s charities as part of their business model. Visiting military amputees in the hospital is part of his job description, patients who get beds instead of graves by virtue of the century of their birth. He’s a peer mentor to those not as far down the healing path. When Popp wears pants you have no idea most of his right leg is steel.
Most importantly, Popp doesn’t need Memorial Day to remember that for some lucky soldiers who didn’t die, the war endures.