The deep boom of an explosion shook the ground and awoke Staff Sgt. Christopher Waiters from sleep on April 5, 2007. The 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division Soldier had bedded down seconds before at the end of a nine-hour guard-duty shift in Old Baqubah, Iraq.
A vehicle-borne improvised explosive device had detonated on a street nearby, engulfing a Bradley Fighting Vehicle and its crew in flames. That insurgent attack led to Waiters, now assigned to Fort Wainwright, Alaska, receiving a Distinguished Service Cross, only the 17th awarded since the war on terrorism began.
The DSC is the Army's second highest award given for "extraordinary heroism ... while engaged in military operations involving conflict with an opposing or foreign force," according to the Army regulation that governs military awards, AR 600-8-22.
Waiters was a specialist and senior line medic attached to A Company, 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment. His battalion's mission was to clear the date palm groves that enveloped the city of Baqubah.
Waiters readied his medical evacuation Stryker vehicle for casualties on the ride to the site of the burning Bradley.
"In the war on terror," he said, "there are no little wounds. It's all big stuff. You're thinking the worst-case scenario. We train our medics that way."
The medical vehicle drove in tandem with another Stryker including 1st Lt. Timothy Price, the company executive officer. "We pulled around the corner," Waiters said,
"and the whole street's on fire. Folks everywhere. People are running. People are shooting."
The Stryker vehicles pulled up to form a makeshift security perimeter next to a soccer field about 80 meters from the burning Bradley, Price facing west and the MEV east. Both started firing at enemy gunmen. Waiters saw two "trying to hook quick right on me" and engaged them with his M-4 rifle. But his mind was on the Soldiers trapped in a Bradley across the field. He turned to fellow medic, Sgt. Joseph Miller.
"I'm leaving," he said to his friend.
"You're not going anywhere," Miller said.
"I gotta go," Waiters said. He remembered his friend again warning him as he dropped the ramp of his Stryker and sprinted into the chaos.
"You might not come back," he heard Miller's voice behind him.
"All I could think of was burning truck, casualties, American Soldiers injured," Waiters said.
Price said the after-action-review process determined that the Bradley had been targeted because it straddled a main north-south avenue of approach for the insurgents. The explosion had triggered a complex, three-sided ambush.
"It happened so quick," Price said. He was talking to Miller as he pulled up to the site in his Stryker, together formulating a plan for suppressing enemy gunmen from multiple directions while getting to the casualties as quickly as possible.
"By this time, Doc was already out of the Stryker, dismounted like a flash and was gone," Price said. "It was already happening. There was a moment of disbelief. All of the sudden, there he goes, bullets flying down the road. It was one of those surreal moments. Hell, he's about 10 steps ahead of me, already en route to the casualty.
It was a pretty awesome thing to behold."
As Waiters dashed into the open street, an insurgent truck came at him through the smoke with its gunner firing. A U.S. .50-caliber machine gun made short work of the vehicle. Waiters dodged the wreckage and sprinted the rest of the 80 meters to the burning Bradley.
"When I got about halfway down the road, you start thinking about things," he said. "What am I doing' I'm not going to lie to you. I was scared as hell. But part of me just said keep going. I thought, 'I'm already in hell, might as well keep going.'"
He attracted small arms fire from all directions as he pulled the first American crewman out of the vehicle. Waiters helped him regain his breath in smoke-filled lungs, then wrapped his burned hand. When another Bradley rolled up to help with security, he loaded the wounded Soldier on board and went back to the burning vehicle.
Waiters saw the gunner's hand snake out of the turret. Despite the flames, he went through the top, grabbed him and pulled out the gunner. He shielded the victim's body as he dragged him to the same Bradley that helped with the first casualty, getting him to precious oxygen.
As he gasped for breath, the Soldier told Waiters of a third crewman in the crippled Bradley. Without hesitation, the medic turned heel and went back to the vehicle, now almost completely in flames. He tried to get into the turret again, but this time it was hopeless.
"I couldn't because of all the diesel fuel burning up there," Waiters said. "I ran around to the back, kicked open the escape hatch and climbed in."
He saw the arm of the third crewman, but when he grasped it, he realized there was no way the Soldier could have survived. He stepped out to catch his breath and assess, then tried to accomplish his recovery mission of the body.
Suddenly, .25 mm. rounds began cooking off and bouncing around the inside of the vehicle. "I couldn't breath and I lost sight of the Soldier," he said.
He struggled to breathe and see. With his clothes charred and the bottoms of his boots melted, he ran back to his vehicle to get a body bag. He returned once more, climbed into the troop compartment and pulled out the deceased crewman.
Soon afterward, another medical team arrived to take control of the scene and Waiters, Miller and crew sped the casualties to the nearest forward operating base for medevac.
Another medic on the scene, Sgt. Jeffrey Anello, said he was shocked when he surveyed the wreckage.
"Seeing the Bradley smoldering and knowing he was able to retrieve two of the Soldiers in it alive, it was amazing," Anello said. "By the looks of it, nobody should have been alive. We're very proud of Sergeant Waiters, serving alongside him for three-and-a-half years. It sets a standard for us, of putting others before yourself, to do your job."
Price said he was awed by Waiters actions that day, but not surprised.
"This wasn't the first time Doc Waiters put himself in harm's way to help his boys out," Price said. "He and Doc Miller went on hundreds of patrols. The guys were always glad to have Doc Waiters and Doc Miller along because they knew they'd do whatever it took to get our guys back."
Though he has only a single Purple Heart, Waiters survived a number of near misses.
"He got hit in the head once in Buhriz in the helmet, got nicked in the shoulder on patrol with us one night north of Baqubah, had a water bottle shot out from his face earlier in the deployment, and got nicked in the wrist in Old Baqubah," Price said. "This guy has been in harm's way many times before this happened. He's being modest when he says he was just doing his job. The guy is a true hero for what he did."