Wounded Fort Polk warrior displays strength, dedication to country
April 15, 2011
- Wounded Soldier learns life lesson: "work hard and enjoy life. It truly is a gift."
FORT POLK, La. - The United States Army Soldier's Creed is a standard by which all Soldiers are encouraged to live. It neither discriminates based on rank nor years of experience. The creed focuses on loyalty, duty, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage. Many Soldiers practice these core values daily.
One Soldier, Sgt. Erik Bittel, A Company, 4th Brigade Special Troops Battalion, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, demonstrated these values during his life-changing experience with the Army.
The 4th BSTB was deployed to Wardak Province, Afghanistan in mid-October. One of their responsibilities was route clearance. Their focus was on the Tangi Valley, an area that had little American presence.
In November, they were clearing a route early in the morning and encountered a device that disabled their vehicle. After a while, they restarted route clearance, only to encounter arms contact. The Soldiers halted dismounted clearance and returned to their vehicles.
They worked their way through a villa that had a series of "S" turns when Bittel's truck was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade. Bittel immediately turned to driver, Pvt. Devon Harris Jr., who was killed in the attack. Bittel tried to give Harris aid. "My first thought was to render aid to Private Harris, but after a moment, I realized he was dead and there wasn't a chance to resuscitate him," said Bittel.
A medic arrived at the vehicle, instructing Bittel to get out of the truck so he could assist. "That's when I realized I had injured my arm," said Bittel. The medic told Bittel to sit and calm down. "I actually wanted to grab my weapon and pull security. I tried to argue, but he said no. Then he started treating me," said Bittel.
Bittel was so focused on his fellow Soldier, that he never noticed his own wounds. He took shrapnel in his left arm, with a piece severing the central nerve in his hand. Shrapnel was also embedded in his left leg and hip region. The worst injury was a cut to his common carotid artery, the main artery that carries blood and oxygen through the neck to the brain.
"They quickly rendered first aid and got me medically evacuated. Their expedience and professionalism definitely saved my life," said Bittel. He was airlifted to Bath, Afghanistan, then to Landstuhl, Germany, where he had emergency surgery. A stint was placed in his neck to help control bleeding.
He was sent to Fort Bragg, N.C. for additional treatment, where his parents arrived 45 minutes after he did. During the flight, the stint in his neck shifted place, requiring additional surgery. Bittel received in-patient care for 14 days and worked through occupational therapy and rehabilitation before returning to Fort Polk about three weeks ago.
"I jumped up and down to get sent back here. I should have been there (Fort Bragg) for a few more months, but I didn't want to get assigned there and not be at Fort Polk when my Soldiers come back. I pretty much forced them to give me return to duty orders here," said Bittel.
Fort Bragg's Warriors in Transition Unit gave him a tool to put around his hand to help develop additional range of motion. "I was so infuriated that I couldn't use my hand, I did nothing but work with it all day, every day. With that, I got the majority of my strength and motion back. I have about 35 degrees of motion pulling my hand backward to do now. It's one of those things that just takes time," said Bittel.
While Bittel has come a long way with rehabilitation, he still has a lot of work ahead of him, he said. He starts additional therapy soon.
While many in the civilian sector would consider ending a job that caused so much damage to their body, many Soldiers feel a duty to their country and their fellow Soldiers and continue their job. On April 7, Bittel re-enlisted in the Army.
"My people are so important to me. My job as a non-commissioned officer is a meaningful and purposeful thing to do in life. It's something that I feel I'm good at and I want to continue doing. I enjoy training Soldiers, dealing with their issues, even if it's aggravating at 2 a.m. Having that task and purpose is really what drives me. I couldn't imagine doing anything else," said Bittel.
The bond between Soldiers is another reason he chose to re-enlist. This bond is difficult for
anyone to understand unless they have experience as a Soldier, said Bittel. "There is nothing in the world like it. I have friends I went to war with in Iraq and Afghanistan that I would do absolutely anything for and they would do the same for me. When you go through combat with people and support each other, you have friendships that develop that are stronger than anything," he said.
Bittel decided to join the Army when he was unhappy with where he was in life. His father was a Vietnam veteran and Bittel spent a lot of time around people who were in the military, who prompted his interest.
"I needed a change and I figured this would be a big time change. The Army has been good to me and I see no reason to get out. This is a place where I fit in - where I've made the best friends I ever had. I can't see walking away from that," said Bittel.
After injuries, many Soldiers yearn to rejoin their units. They want nothing more than to be there to protect their fellow Soldiers and ensure their safety.
"The physical stuff is easy for me to deal with. The hardest thing for me is waking up and being here - not with my guys going out on missions every day. The thought of my guys being harmed or going out on simple patrols aggravates me to no end. Civilians ask, 'why would you want to put yourself in harm's way'' I want to put myself in harm's way so I can help out my people and be there for them when bad things happen. It infuriates me that I can't do that now," said Bittel.
Unfortunately, Bittel has a lot of rehabilitation and requires doctors' clearances before he is deployable again. "They said it would be six months before my full range of motion came back in my hand and I need to be cleared by vascular surgery as far as the neck stuff goes," said Bittel.
Despite being unable to return to his unit, Bittel does his best to stay in contact with his Soldiers. "Their mission set is very demanding, so they don't have a lot of time to call or be on the Internet. I e-mail back and forth whenever I can," said Bittel. "I'm proud of all the Soldiers that are still there. I think they deserve a lot more respect than they get now. Route clearance is a hard thing to do. I think every one of those people is a true American hero for what they go out and do every day."
A day never passes without Bittel thinking about his unit and what they are doing, he said. "My experience as a whole flashes through my mind at points. Our combat outpost was pretty small, but on either side we were surrounded by mountains and it was beautiful. We had fun goofing off and hanging out in our downtime. When you have hardcore mission sets, doing dangerous route clearance missions on an almost daily basis, your downtime - even the little things like cards, Monopoly, or watching a movie - is that much more meaningful. It's that difference from looking for bombs and being able to sit down and play cards for a bit," said Bittel.
The deployment experience changed him, according to Bittel, especially after difficult experiences in a prior deployment to Iraq from late 2007 to early 2009 and his injuries in Afghanistan.
"You really have to go out and make the most of every day and enjoy it. Do your best to be a righteous person. Private Harris no longer has the opportunity to do that. To honor him and everyone else that's been lost, I have to go out and I have to do the right thing - be a good person. Obviously, there are brethren of mine that don't have the opportunity to do that anymore. Work hard and enjoy life. It truly is a gift," said Bittel.