Wounded warrior, hero reunite in Kuwait
March 14, 2013
CAMP ARIFJAN, Kuwait -- Nearly six years after being pulled from the wreckage of an explosion in Afghanistan, a survivor formerly assigned to the 10th Mountain Division (LI) was unexpectedly reunited with his rescuer here March 4.
When Staff Sgt. Michael A. Stagg last saw retired Sgt. Brian C. Fleming, dazed, burned and lying in a hospital bed, he couldn't imagine ever seeing him again.
It was either fate or coincidence that they happened to recognize each other in passing on Fleming's stop in Kuwait from Afghanistan while he participating in Operation Proper Exit II.
"Operation Proper Exit is about bringing wounded warriors back into the war zone and leaving on our own terms," Fleming said. "I didn't have any one reason to go on the trip, because I never felt I really had any issues with closure. I never felt like I left anything there. Now, I really believe, the whole reason I came was to walk past my friend on the way back."
Fleming and Stagg were able to confront some of their demons by sharing terrifying memories of the experience that brought them together that day in July 2006.
They had deployed with 4th Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division (LI), and were traveling with two others down Highway 1, near Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, when a white minivan they were passing exploded, shooting shards of shrapnel through their humvee and showering it in white phosphorus.
"I was in the passenger seat and the (vehicle-borne improvise explosive devise) detonated about three feet from me," said Fleming, who was an infantryman at the time. "The blast completely destroyed the vehicle and put about a two-foot crater in the highway."
Stagg, who was the only medic in the vehicle, recalls being the only person coherent enough to respond.
"My instincts just set in," Stagg said about his reaction after the explosion. "I knew it was time to do my job."
Stagg carefully maneuvered around the phosphorus to pull Fleming and the other two passengers from the vehicle before the fire progressed.
"I don't really remember anything until the point when I was lying down in the dirt, after Stagg had gotten me out," said Fleming, who was treated for second-degree burns on his neck and face and third-degree burns on his hands. "It really hurt. They told me to calm down, but I was in pain and I was angry."
Fleming had taken the brunt of the white phosphorus, a substance capable of burning through bone, insoluble to water and fueled by air. There was not much Stagg could offer him for treatment.
"I was like, 'keep yelling man,' because that's how I knew his airway was fine," said Stagg, who could only ease Fleming's pain by shielding him from the grueling desert sun.
Exhausted, Stagg breathed a sigh of relief when an Apache helicopter flew over the horizon, because then he knew they would be OK.
"This guy is a bona fide hero," said Fleming, who was glad to have the chance to show Stagg his gratitude in person. "I don't know where I would be if he didn't pull me from that vehicle. He absolutely saved my life."
Through their reunion, both Stagg and Fleming discovered that sharing their experiences and feelings in the aftermath of the attack would help to heal internal wounds.
"Nothing in my Army career would've prepared me for that. And to be the only medic, had I froze, all four of us could've been killed," said Stagg, a native of Harrington, Del. "I was lucky enough to walk away with just a little bruise and some nightmares. My bell was rung, I'll tell you that much."
Talking with Fleming also allowed Stagg a chance to settle a painful guilt that has plagued him.
"That morning I was supposed to be on the gun, but being that I knew the way to Kandahar and was the only medic, we decided that I would drive and I put that private on the gun. It's heavy when you're in a leadership position and you make a decision and people end up hurt because of it," said Stagg, holding back tears. "But to hear Fleming say, 'you did the right thing and it wasn't your fault,' really means so much."
Now a resident of Celina, Texas, Fleming is an author and motivational speaker, while Stagg works at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, as clinic operations noncommissioned officer in charge of the Troop Medical Clinic. They agreed that no matter how far apart they are, they would always be linked by that traumatic experience.
"Once something like that happens, you get rocketed, mortared, or hit with a VBIED or anything like that and survive, you instantly have a bond that no one can break," Stagg said. "It's just a horrible time that you share; you can relate to each other and feel open. I can tell him everything hands down and I know that he won't pass judgment on me, because he knows -- he's been there."
Their reunion offered both Stagg and Fleming a chance to close the door on the memories of their last encounter with a proper exit and open a door for new and better ones.