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Long Road Back from Afghanistan

Posted: February 11, 2008 2:20 p.m.
Updated: April 13, 2008 2:03 a.m.
U.S. Army Special Forces Staff Sgt. Aaron Anderson had everything he needed when he climbed into the Humvee in Oruzgan province in south central Afghanistan.

He had an M-4 rifle, a side arm gun, a pair of heavy boots, a Special Forces baseball cap and the steely determination he got from his mother.
It was 9:30 a.m. on Feb. 28, 2006 and the 27-year-old was heading to a small town outside capital city Tarin Kowt to "stir up a hornet's nest."
Extremists and "hard-line fighters" were threatening the locals. If they didn't fight for the Taliban, their families would be killed.
Anderson's three-Humvee convoy had headed out to talk to the locals.
"That's a big thing in the special forces, gaining that rapport with the local population and showing that we're genuinely there to help them," he said.
Like Anderson, a Newhall native, almost all the men in the convoy were from California.
Joe was from San Jose. A guy they called "Easy" was raised in Eagle Rock.
The Humvees were just outside the village when the ground exploded beneath the steering column of his vehicle.
Anderson was thrown 20 feet in the air and landed in the impact crater where the anti-tank land mine had exploded.
Anderson remembers everything.
He felt the impact of landing, but did not feel any pain. Everything was brown and gray and he couldn't hear a sound.
"The first words out of my mouth were 'Thank you, Jesus, I'm alive,'" he said.
But then he flashed back to the 2001 film "Black Hawk Down" when a soldier, rejoicing about his survival, looked down to find half of his body was missing.
Blood seeped from Anderson's mouth, ears and his eyes. Through the haze, he looked down and saw the bottom of his left leg angled 90 degrees to the right. A leg bone had pierced through his boot.
"I thought I had lost the leg. I thought it was detached," he said.
He opened the pockets on his sleeves where he kept his first aid supplies and pulled out a tourniquet.
He wrapped it around his leg, and within seconds bullets flew past his head.
About 10 men had been hiding on the ridgeline above and descended into the village, firing at Anderson's unit.
"Bullets were spraying all over the place," he said.
He tried to return fire, but his gun malfunctioned. He then fired with a pistol until the clip was empty.
The crew in one of the American Humvees ahead turned its vehicle around to shield the bullets and fired at the approaching gunmen.
Anderson turned his attention back to his leg. His hearing slowly returned along with a persistent ringing.
The five men in his vehicle survived, but the driver of the lead tank, Easy, died.
Joe checked Anderson's leg and told him it was still attached. Anderson set up an IV kit to prepare for the medic.
"Instinctively, I started working on myself medically," he said. "In the Special Forces, since it's not a big unit and there's not a lot of guys, you have to take care of yourself before the medic comes because he's probably off fighting somewhere."
An hour and a half later, a military helicopter landed. It was noon in California when a doctor called Anderson's mother, Lori, from the helicopter. He had broken seven bones and shattered the talus bone where the tibia and fibula meet at the foot. Her son may lose his leg, the doctor told her.
He was flown to a medic station nearby where doctors used a DeWalt drill to put pins through his leg to hold the bones in place. A few weeks later he was transported to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
He was taken to the medical center by police escort and passing through the city, he said he felt "a feeling of thankfulness," he said, thankful that Americans have buildings to live in. "We don't have to live in dirt," he said.
The severe swelling of his leg forced doctors to recommend amputation and told him he would never again walk on his own two feet.
He told them he had to fight for his leg.
"It's just stubbornness," he said. "These guys are trying to blow me up, but I'm not going to let them win. If I give in and say, 'Just take it,' I feel like I'm letting them win."
Anderson spent seven months at Walter Reed and underwent 24 surgeries. His family visited him, but walked right past his bed. His raspy voice was unfamiliar as was the full beard he had grown to blend in with the Afghan locals.
While he was at the hospital, the then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld presented him with the Purple Heart medal and he was also awarded the Afghanistan Medal of Bravery.
Even more painful than his injuries, however, was having to leave his unit.
"It's not about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder; it's about post traumatic loss," he said.
The 1999 Valencia High School graduate had enlisted shortly after September 11, 2001 and trained at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina. Following his stay at Walter Reed, Anderson returned to Ft. Bragg. He stayed for more than a year, but his injuries limited his involvement with the military. He could no longer skydive or engage in the same combat he was used to.
He returned to Newhall in December and was granted medical discharge on Jan. 10. He has since started up a security company.
Anderson walks with only a slight limp, but he feels he continues fighting the enemy with each step he takes.
He said the determination and optimism necessary for the Special Forces was something he got from his mother, a cancer survivor who escaped an abusive marriage and raised her children on her own.
"We all have our moments where we wonder how we're going make it," said his mother, Lori. "I've always taught my kids that it's our trials in life that make us who we are."
He credits his faith in God for his survival.
"There were times when bullets flew past your head," he said. "If you took one step to the left or one step to the right, that would have been it."
It wasn't just chance, he said. Someone was watching over him.
"It's not supposed to be this way. I'm not supposed to be here. I'm not supposed to be in this good of shape," he said. "I truly believe it wasn't my time."


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