FORT LEWIS, Wash. - 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.
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 the events that culminated in Waiters' receiving a Distinguished Service Cross, only the 17th awarded since the war on terrorism began and the first to a Fort Lewis-based Soldier.
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. The regulation states, "The act or acts of heroism must have been so notable and have involved risk of life so extraordinary as to set the individual apart from his or her comrades."
Waiters arrived at Fort Lewis Monday from his new duty station, Fort Wainwright, Alaska, to receive the award from Army Vice Chief of Staff, Gen. Peter Chiarelli, in a Thursday ceremony at Soldiers Field House. Waiters visited Monday with reporters at I Corps headquarters to recall the day 18 months ago when he put the lives of fellow Soldiers above his own.
Prep for the worst
"Hey, Voodoo, let's go," Waiters struggled from sleep, responding to his nickname shouted by fellow medic, Sgt. Joseph Miller.
Waiters was a specialist and senior line medic attached to A Company, 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment in April, back in Iraq less than a month after R&R leave.
His battalion, Sykes Regulars, had moved in March to Diyala Province from Baghdad while he was on leave in the states. The initial 5-20 Inf. Bn. mission was to clear the date palm groves that enveloped the provincial capital 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 MEV drove in tandem with Attack 5, company executive officer, 1st Lt. Timothy Price. The medic from Lacey pulled out his burn kits, with special gauze, blankets, dressings, Vaseline.
"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 BFV across the field. He turned to 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.
"Awesome thing to behold"
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. As dramatic as the explosion was, the VBIED had only 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 one.
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 his body as he dragged him to the same Bradley that helped with the first casualty, getting him to precious oxygen.
No one left behind
As he gasped for breath, he 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.
Nobody should have lived
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 Sgt. 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."
His former XO 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."
Don Kramer is a reporter with Fort Lewis' Northwest Guardian.