Saturday, January 9, 2010

Not even war wounds could keep him down

Another fine Texas Hero:

Spc. David Hutchinson promised himself he would walk his sweetheart down the aisle without a cane or so much as a limp — a vow that to him was almost as sacred as the one he would make at the altar.

So, each step the 22-year-old Humble native took at his recent wedding — after months of hospitalization and three surgeries to remove shrapnel from his right leg — was a personal victory. It was another demonstration of his unwavering resolve which had also made him only the fifth U.S. Army Reservist to earn a Silver Star during nearly nine years of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Hutchinson doesn't think he has done anything that extraordinary and is a little embarrassed that he will be the center of attention today, to be publicly honored at the 2010 U.S. Army All-American Bowl in San Antonio.

Hutchinson will be flipping the coin as the highest-decorated of 100 soldiers from Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom being recognized at the game.

There was never any question that Hutchinson was going to enter the military.

“Most of the male members on my mother's side had served in the military, and I thought it was a good thing to do,” he said. “Plus I could use some money for college, because I was paying my own way.”

His time was in 2005, just after he finished his first semester at Blinn College in Bryan in 2005.

His orders came shortly after he'd completed two years at Blinn and had begun working a retail sales job to earn money before finishing his political science degree at Texas A&M University.

He was assigned a one-year tour with a security detail in Afghanistan. Before departing, he was given a few days to say his goodbyes to family and friends.

On the last day before he left, he took his future bride, Jenny, to a gazebo in Eagle Springs near Humble and proposed.

“She had not been a happy camper when I enlisted,” but he added that she quickly answered “yes.”

Never heard the bullets
His yearlong tour turned into only seven days.

On his first mission after arriving in Afghanistan, he would earn the Silver Star and a Purple Heart for what the military described as “actions contributing to the safety of 17 soldiers and showing extraordinary courage, loyalty and selfless-service under fire beyond expectation.”

He was one of the most inexperienced soldiers on patrol when his convoy was ambushed on May 21, 2008.

He and 17 others were traveling in four Humvees along a dirt road from their base in Sharna, where he had barely unpacked his gear, to another base, Orgun-e. Some of the more experienced in the security detail were trying to familiarize the newcomers with the terrain.

Hutchinson was the gunner inside the turret of the third vehicle. He was manning the group's most powerful weapon, the MK-19 automatic grenade launcher.

“This was supposed to be a non-hostile area where they hadn't seen any trouble for 13 months,” he said.

But as they drove between two ridges, an empty truck blockaded their path. Seconds later, they were surrounded by as many as 50 insurgents firing at them.

Hutchinson never heard the hundreds of bullets striking the armored vehicle but later counted more than 300 strikes to his turret alone, where his head and arms were exposed. But he did hear the loud whiz and saw the smoke trails of three or four rockets fly past him, one coming within 2 feet of his head.

But he didn't freeze.

“I had what they call the big adrenalin dump,” he said. “Then everything seemed to go in slow motion. Most of the gunfire wasn't registering — except for the rockets. I never focused on the 20 dudes trying to kill me. I just wanted to protect my friends.”

Hutchinson said he realized the most lethal threat was machine gun fire and rocket-propelled grenades coming from the top of a crest. He fired four rockets that destroyed that nest, but they also attracted the fire of most of the other insurgents.

Two rockets then penetrated the back of his Humvee and peppered his right leg with shrapnel.

“It was like someone hit my ‘off' switch. Everything went black for a few seconds,” he recalled.

When he awoke, he had no feeling or movement from his waist down and was lying in a sergeant's lap.

“The sergeant was covered in blood. I couldn't stand back up in the turret,” he said.

Hutchinson applied pressure dressings to stop the bleeding from shrapnel wounds to the sergeant's face and chest.

At that point, his convoy pushed past the blockade to get the injured medical attention. No one was killed.

Six months in hospital
Hutchinson was flown back to the United States, where he was hospitalized for six months and underwent intensive rehabilitation to learn to walk again.

There's still no feeling in the bottom of his right foot and he has some balance issues. After walking with a cane for a year, he was finally able to stride down the aisle with his bride on his arm this past July.

The couple honeymooned at Disney World, which required a lot of walking.

“I would limp a little if we walked for long periods,” he said. “But I'm starting to be able to jog some.”

His doctors say he will never run again. But he believes it's still a possibility.

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