Spc. Josel Carrillo was on a routine peacekeeping patrol the night he earned his Purple Heart. He sat in the back of a Humvee with three other soldiers, and they rumbled through the streets of Kirkuk in northern Iraq, just as they did every night.
Out of nowhere, an explosion rocked the vehicle. What happened next is difficult for Carrillo to recall.
"I just remember a big cloud of dust. Everything's in slow motion. When the dust settles, you look around," he said last week in an interview at his parents' Juneau home.
A trained medic, Carrillo's first thought was to look for his buddies. One was down, and he immediately began patching him up. Another wasn't moving.
"Once I patched up my buddy, we took a look at Thomas. They say he was dead on impact," Carrillo said.
They put him back in the vehicle, and rode back to their safehouse on rims. The explosion had blown all the tires. It wasn't until about an hour later that Carrillo realized he himself had taken shrapnel to the neck, shoulders and back. The metal remains lodged in the 21-year-old Juneau-Douglas High School graduate, a permanent souvenir of his military service to go with the Purple Heart he earned as a result of the injury.
Carrillo joined the Army in February 2001, and found himself in Vincenza, Italy, with the 173rd Airborne Brigade seven months later. He joined out of high school because he wanted to see the world.
He was in Italy when his unit got orders to go to Iraq, and was surprised because his unit wasn't supposed to operate in the Middle Eastern theater. But duty called, and it told Carrillo and his unit to put on their parachutes and prepare to jump from a plane into the Iraqi mountains.
The 173rd's mission on March 26, 2003, was to secure the Bashur airfield in northern Iraq. In the dead of night, 1,000 soldiers rained down on Bashur, 150-pound rucksacks loaded with meals-ready-to-eat, ammunition and cold-weather gear. Carrillo also carried photographs of his family and a pocket Bible.
He had jumped from a plane about 25 times before in training, so the procedure was instinctive. But the emotional situation wasn't routine.
"We had a six-hour plane ride to Bashur. For about the first hour we talked. After that it was just really quiet. People were reflecting on things," he said. "(In the days before the jump) you're pretty much a nervous wreck, knowing that what you're going to do will probably get you killed, and knowing that you've got to do it."
It's like in the movies, Carrillo said. Soldiers line up at the door, and a jump master orders them out one by one. There's a big blast of air that shocks the lungs and the senses. It hits hard, and then you're falling, falling, into the pitch black.
"It feels like forever, but I bet it wasn't more than a minute," he said.
Soldiers hit the ground at 30 or 40 mph. There are many sprained ankles, but those don't count as an injury. The first thing on Carrillo's mind when he hit the ground was his weapon. He had to get up with his gun at the ready as fast as possible. Though he jumped with 1,000 others, he didn't land with any of them. Once out of the planes, the soldiers scatter, and their mission when they hit the earth is to locate their assembly points and meet up with their company.
By dawn, the airfield was secure, and Carrillo had gotten through the first of a year of nights in Iraq. Despite his injury, he didn't have many run-ins with hostile Iraqis.
"Most of them were friendly, or didn't want to fight," he said. "The Iraqi people are awesome. They gave us food and water, they'd try and speak English, we'd try and learn their language."
Carrillo's company lived in an Iraqi neighborhood, in a mansion vacated when they arrested its owner, a high-ranking member of Saddam Hussein's Baath party. The soldiers became acquainted with their neighbors, and by the time Carrillo left, he says they knew the names of everyone living on a particular street. He is convinced his Iraqi friends are better off now than they were under Hussein.
"When we got there, it was a shock to see the way they were living. They had no rights. All the stronger guys who were taking everyone else's stuff were the bad guys. They didn't play by the rules. We took those guys out of power," he said.
Between patrols and drills, and aside from talking to their Iraqi neighbors, there wasn't much opportunity for entertainment. Diversions consisted of talking to everyone in the platoon for an entire month, until someone found a pair of dice. The soldiers played dice all day long, until someone received a chess board in the mail. Later on, someone else got the board game "Risk," a military strategy game in which players must take over the world to win.
"That's a great game. We played Risk for about six months," Carrillo said.
He returned home on leave in mid-March, and goes back to Italy April 7. Once he's done with his four years, in early 2005, he hopes to go to college and perhaps eventually become a paramedic. But he says he'll keep good memories from his time in the military.
"It's been a good experience for the most part. A lot of it I wouldn't wish on other people," he said.
Masha Herbst can be reached at email@example.com.