Battleland

Dispatches From the Third Front: Day 1–The Hero

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The author, left, and Travis Parker, after blowing up a Ba'ath Party monument in southern Baghdad, 2006.

In north San Antonio, just off of Interstate 35, a towering hospital building dominates Brooke Army Medical Center, one of two hospitals–along with the newly unified Walter Reed National Military Center–that treat some of the most grievously wounded troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. BAMC, as the soldiers call it, is one of the centers of the wars’ third front, a small city designed to repair those whom the wars have broken, and dispatch them to the next part of their lives, what they call, “The New Normal.”

Ten minutes after entering the gate to this Army post, I walked into the Warrior Family Support Center to meet with my guide. The public affairs director said she wasn’t sure which one was Sgt. First Class Travis Parker, but after a half second scan, I pointed to a bald freckled man in a wheel chair hunched over an Ipad. “Right there,” I said.

Travis Parker is no ordinary tour guide for this trip. In the spring of 2005, I joined E Company, 1st Battalion, 22nd Infantry Regiment at Fort Hood, Texas and was assigned to lead 2nd Platoon. Then Staff Sgt. Parker was the senior squad leader and 800-pound gorilla in the group of 29 men. In one of our first conversations, he told me, in no uncertain terms, that I could do many things, but the one thing I wasn’t allowed to do was change the nickname of the platoon: Dogpound. “Why would I want to change the name? It’s really cool,” I asked him. After a quick thought he said, “Fine. Just so it stays.”

Over the next year, we trained together, brought the platoon to Iraq and fought alongside each other. When TIME sent me back to Baghdad in 2010, I wrote about one of the three soldiers to whom I owe my life. Travis Parker is the second. On February 9, 2006, Parker’s gunner spotted insurgents setting up fighting positions to ambush resupply convoys on Highway 1, 25 kilometers south of Baghdad. We set up a counter ambush and sprung a more than 30 minute firefight, the most intense combat action I would experience. My Bradley Fighting Vehicle fired its powerful 25mm cannon to suppress the enemy, but we soon ran low on ammunition. I called to my wingman, and with barely a word, Parker jumped down from his Bradley and dashed across the highway, toting two 40-pound cases of 25mm rounds while tracers zoomed past him and rounds chewed up the concrete near his feet. I met him on the ground, and after trading for some of my machine gun ammunition, he sprinted back to his vehicle as the enemy fire chased him across four lanes. Parker was decorated for valor for his actions that night.

We served the rest of that tour together, plus another in 2008. Even after I gave up command of the platoon, Parker remained a trusted advisor and close friend. He taught me discipline in preparation and how to see the big tactical picture; I taught him how to relax and get things done through kindness and charm. Whether he likes to admit it or not, Parker is a gregarious man who will speak to anyone and flash a huge smile of brilliant white teeth at every opportunity. Just before I left the Army, Parker became a platoon sergeant and took a crew of mostly inexperienced, incredibly young soldiers to Afghanistan. It was his fourth tour. On June 4, a 120 pound bomb exploded underneath his vehicle. The blast overpressure broke bones in his back and crushed his heel bone. He had his first surgery June 22, and since then, Parker has been recovering at this village designed to care for the warriors and their families until they can be shipped out to whatever that new normal may be.

When I first talked to Parker the day he returned to Texas, he said we had to write a story about the myriad people who cared for him along the way and those who continue as part of his recovery team. We timed my visit to what he thought would be the start of his rehabilitation–today he was supposed to take his first steps. Instead, a setback requires another surgery this Friday, demonstrating that healing is not a linear path. It is beset with peaks and valleys and what his surgeon calls “decision points,” critical junctures where they take action down one path or another. An avid runner at the time of his injury, Parker’s goal is to run again. He knows me may never get there, but the goal will remain unchanged, even if the path there undergoes constant alterations.

For the next few days, Parker and his team are allowing us to be rare guests to document this part of his journey, as well as that of other warriors. We will meet their doctors, therapists, families and volunteers and discover what goes on inside this small city as they undertake a very different fight: mending these warriors and so they can return to the new normal of their lives.

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