Face of Defense: Wounded Paratrooper Returns to Fight
September 23, 2009
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan, Sept. 21, 2009 - Sometimes, you just gotta laugh - even in combat. That's the attitude of Army Sgt. Simon Baum, and one of the things his fellow infantrymen like most about him.
Two years after being severely injured by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan, Baum jokes that he has returned to avenge the IED attack - for his injuries and the death of his iPod. "I was really pissed my iPod was broken!" he said.
Although Baum, a sergeant and team leader with Company A, 2nd Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, jokes about the injuries he suffered in Afghanistan, it would take two years, five surgeries and a possible medical discharge before he returned to the job he loves.
Baum, of Saginaw, Mich., was driving a Humvee in a convoy in eastern Afghanistan's Paktika province on June 5, 2007, when he was seriously injured by a roadside bomb - but never lost his sense of humor.
The two dozen vehicles of the 82nd Airborne Division's 4th Brigade Combat Team, 73rd Cavalry Regiment, 4th Squadron, Troop C were escorting a group of engineers past barren, rolling hills when suddenly, there was a violent explosion.
"We were listening to Led Zeppelin inside the truck, I will never forget that," Baum said. "I heard 'Good Times, Bad Times,' and that's the last thing I remember."
The impact was at the front of the vehicle, and Baum took the brunt of it. When Baum came to, he saw the truck's windshield was gone. He looked down to make sure he still had all his limbs and saw the four-foot deep blast crater directly below him. Covered in soot and bleeding from shrapnel cuts, he fell as he tried to get out of the vehicle. Then he felt blood on his face and realized he was in pain.
Spc. Ryan Greenwood, the gunner in Baum's vehicle who also was injured, and a medic dragged Baum away from the Humvee. Baum's right wrist was severely broken, his right fibula was fractured, he had torn cartilage in his right knee and numerous small cuts from shrapnel. He would later be diagnosed with mild traumatic brain injury.
Even as Baum drifted in and out of consciousness, he managed to make his combat buddies laugh, telling his platoon sergeant, Sgt. 1st Class Benjamin Weber who also was in the Humvee, he was sorry he hit an IED; that he didn't hit it on purpose.
"There was a lot of laughing," Baum said, "Man, that was crazy. I can't believe that happened."
"You can't do much about it but laugh," said 1st Sgt. Matthew Parrish, Baum's first sergeant. "You have to have a sense of humor ... because you're alive."
Four days later, Baum was strapped to a litter in plane taking off for Germany for treatment. No sooner did the aircraft ease into a cruise than Baum saw a bright flash through one of the windows, and the pilot commenced a series of gut-churning evasive maneuvers. As if it wasn't enough that they blew him up, the Taliban were trying to shoot him out of the sky.
After multiple surgies and therapy, Baum was transferred in December 2007 from 4th Brigade to Fort Bragg's Warrior Transition Battalion. When C Troop's paratroopers returned from their 15-month deployment in the spring of 2008, Baum was waiting for them as they got off the plane. He later went to the promotion board and became a noncommissioned officer.
But all was not well at the transition battalion. Baum missed being on regular duty.
"I view that time as if I were out of the military. I didn't feel like I was in." he said.
Baum wasn't happy to be back in the rear. He spent most of his time recuperating from a series of wrist surgeries, and his mind was always with his fellow paratroopers, he said.
"My unit was deployed and I wasn't doing a lot." he said. "I had an overwhelming sense of being worthless. Here I am home, and my buddies are still fighting."
After visiting a friend in the amputee ward at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Baum said he was humbled. His life was not so bad.
When Parrish heard that Baum was leaving the transition battalion in April 2009, he started making phone calls to get him back in his unit.
"I thought he was a solid soldier, and saw good things in him," Parrish said. "He cares about soldiers. To me, there's nothing more important than that in an NCO."
And the soldiers missed him. "He never let anything get to him," Staff Sgt. Aaron Best said. "Whenever I'd be in a bad mood, he'd make a joke and get me smiling again."
Baum's favorite part about being an NCO is passing his knowledge and experience down to younger troopers, he said.
"I was excited to come here and be a team leader," Baum said. "I've got a great group of guys."
For all his good humor, Baum is serious when it comes to taking care of his paratroopers, and his experience has shown him how serious his job can be.
"I've been through this before," Baum said. "I understand the real danger of what I'm doing."
The 30-year old combat veteran celebrated for his sense of humor became even more celebrated when, two days before leaving for his current deployment in Afghanistan, he and his wife Rebecca found out that they would be having their first child -- and their second and third.
The next time Baum returns from Afghanistan, he will not only be a leader of soldiers, but also a father of three. He approaches the enormous task of raising triplets with characteristic calm.
"I still don't think I've let that sink in," he said.