FORT CARSON, Colo. (June 28, 2010) -- The Fourth of July is especially significant to Capt. Fred Babauta, commander of the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program.
This Independence Day marks the fifth anniversary of Babauta awakening from an 11-day coma after encountering an improvised explosive device in Ramadi, Iraq, that twice cut his jugular and left him blind in the right eye.
Babauta was rushed to Balad Air Base in Iraq and transported via Landstuhl, Germany, to Andrews Air Force Base, Md., and Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, before he realized that he was alive.
Army officials ensured that his wife arrived from Guam, and his parents from the state of Washington, in time to see their Soldier awaken.
"They all met me in San Antonio when I arrived," Babauta recalled. "Of course, I didn't know they were there because I was in a coma, but the Army took care of my family."
Babauta remembers his last battle mission like it was yesterday.
"In June of 2005, I was deployed to Ramadi, Iraq, with the 1st of the 503rd. We were the brigade of 2ID that deployed from Korea to Iraq," he said. "About two weeks out from us leaving country, I was walking by an IED and it went off. I was probably about 10 feet away."
Babauta had served in Iraq for nearly a year before taking the one step that burned his entire face, stole half his vision and nearly took his life.
"After the explosion went off, they got me into a courtyard and called quick reaction force to come pick us up," Babauta said. "I was out with a sniper team and there were only five of us. QRF picked us up. They started out with five vehicles to pick us up and they ended up only with two."
The other three encountered more IEDs.
"The two vehicles finally picked us up," Babauta said. "We piled in the back and they drove us back to our outpost. The doctor gave me a shot of morphine, packaged me up, the bird landed right outside our outpost, and they loaded me up."
At that point, Babauta thought he was headed to Al Taqaddum Airbase. The severity of his injuries, however, called for treatment at Balad Air Base.
"I remember them unloading me off the helicopter in Balad," he said. "It sounded like they pulled me into a hangar. I was on a stretcher and they put me on a bed. Doc said, 'Hey, I'm Doc so-and-so, I'm going to put this over your face,' which I guess was an oxygen mask, 'and you're going to feel a real quick pinch in your arm.' I guess he gave me a shot, sort of put me under, and I woke up 11 days later in Brooke Army Medical Center in Fort Sam Houston.
"Eleven days later was July 4th of 2005."
The rest of the trip is a blur to Babauta.
"I think they repaired my jugular in Balad," he said. "From what I understand, it didn't rupture until I got to Balad. I guess it was just probably hanging on by a string, but luckily the timing was great."
An avid Detroit Pistons fan, Babauta went on patrol earlier that day with visions of watching a replay of his beloved team taking on the San Antonio Spurs in Game seven of the NBA Finals upon return to camp.
"This is what I was thinking," he recalled. "I was going to go out for 24 hours. Game seven was going to already happen. Someone was going to record it so I could come back and watch the game. I don't know if you remember that series, but the Pistons were killing the Spurs and the Spurs came back and it was tied up, 3-3. So I was thinking I was going to come back and watch Game seven. It was in San Antonio. So the Pistons ended up losing, and guess where I wake up' San Antonio."
"That was the worst."
At first, Babauta thought he had awakened from a nightmare.
"I remember the nurse when I was first waking up and barely coherent, she was talking to me, 'Yeah, you're in San Antonio. You know the Spurs just won the series'' That was the last thing I wanted to hear. I didn't believe it until the nurse brought in a newspaper showing Tim Duncan hugging the trophy."
The hometown celebration got worse before it got better for Babauta.
"What really got to me was when I got out of the hospital and started going around," he said. "The first place I went was the PX on Fort Sam, in all my bandages and everything, and all I saw was Spurs memorabilia - championship gear, hats and everything. That just really ticked me off."
In the long run, however, Babauta counts his lucky stars to be alive. On the night he came around, folks were launching rockets not only in Texas but across the nation.
"It was amazing," he said. "The nurse asked me if I saw the fireworks outside my window. I didn't see any fireworks, but I guess there was a fireworks celebration that night when I woke up."
Born in Okinawa, Japan, Babauta was an Army brat who spent most of his childhood in Guam. He also lived on Fort Lewis, Wash., Fort Davis, Panama, and Fort Stewart, Ga. At age 22, he left the University of Guam, got married and reported to the 1st Ranger Battalion in Savannah, Ga.
All of the men in Babauta's family served in the Army. His younger brother, Danny, 32, is deployed. His two older brothers both served four years before becoming policemen.
Babauta, 38, is the proud father of three daughters. "In my house, my girls, they have to play a sport," he said. "They've got to do something. My oldest grew up playing soccer and she's actually on a soccer scholarship to Winthrop University. She just finished her freshman year. The other two play volleyball."
The Army took care of them again when Kylene was a rising high school senior in Colorado Springs. Babauta's boss said he would see what he could do about keeping the family at Fort Carson.
"Hey, I've got a job for you," Babauta recalled of the next phone call. "I'm going to throw your name in the hat and I'll call you back."
"And he hung up on me," Babauta said. "Didn't tell me what it was. Didn't tell me what I would be doing - just I'm going to keep you on Carson with a job. He called me back like 15 minutes later and said, 'Hey, you're going to be the commander of the World Class Athlete Program.' And I had no clue what it was."
"He gave me the telephone number to this office right here and I called up [then WCAP commander] Captain Dominic Black. I said, 'Hey, this is Fred Babauta and they're telling me that I'm going to be replacing you.' I asked him what building number, and he said 1662. And I was like, '1662' I'm in 1667.'"
"I was in the next building - just right down the sidewalk. So I came up here and met Dominic Black for the first time."
That was in September of 2008, Babauta's last day as rear detachment commander for the 1/9 Infantry.
"It was very excited about the job," he said. "Not only excited about the job, but also about being able to keep my daughter here for her senior year as opposed to moving her somewhere else."
"I'm a big sports fan. Some of the sports I wasn't really familiar with, but you ask me now and I can brief you on everything that's going on with taekwondo, fencing and wrestling. I love getting out there and supporting the guys."
Babauta has even grasped the concept of team handball, which he suspected was something akin to racquetball doubles without the rackets.
Instead of leading troops on the battlefield, Babauta now leads Soldiers to international and national-level athletic events. His role, however, is pretty much the same.
"I don't think there's any difference," Babauta said. "These guys are just like Soldiers getting ready to go to Iraq or Afghanistan. There's a train-up period to get where they need to be and all the mandatory training that Soldiers go through to get ready to deploy. Right now, our wrestlers are training for their battle, to get deployed to Council Bluffs, Iowa, to go to World Team Trials.
"It might be in a different context, but I think the principle is the same, as far as getting ready to go. They're going to war. They're going to meet someone on the mat that wants to beat them. So they've got to do everything now to be ready for that match in Council Bluffs. I would imagine everyone here can use that comparison. It's not as life-threatening as deploying to Afghanistan or Iraq, but I think there are a lot of similarities."
As far as Babauta is concerned, the WCAP mission is essential to Soldier morale and retention.
"The Army has asked them to do a job here," he said. "When they stop doing their job, that's when they'll go out and do what the Army enlisted them to do, whatever their MOS is."
"I can't tell you how to be a boxer. I can't tell you how to be a wrestler. I can't tell you how to fence. I can't tell you any of that stuff, but I can tell you how to be a Soldier. When they stop being a Soldier, that's probably the time they need to leave here."
"Not only is it hard to get here, I think it's harder to stay here."
Babauta and 1st Sgt. Chris Button are responsible for ensuring the Soldier-athletes meet all their military obligations, such as mandatory training and completing courses required for promotions.
"We take care of the Soldier side of the house," Babauta said. "Being able to support these guys, and for some of them, their lifelong dream of getting a medal and of being on the Olympic team. It's almost like the proud father moment. You want everything best for your kids. You don't want any of the credit. You just want to make sure that you're able to see them accomplish what they want to do."
"Even the coaches, they don't want any of the credit. They want all of the credit to go to that Soldier, to that athlete who is competing."
Babauta finds it hard to fathom that he was unaware of what was taking place one building away from his previous office.
"Since I just came from down the sidewalk here, I was amazed at what this program was and what it did," he said. "That is one of the conscious efforts I have been trying to do is get more awareness of the program. We've identified that and I think we've made a couple of good strides in that direction. We just need to continue to put it out there."
"Everyone knows Special Forces. Everyone knows a Ranger. We're trying to push hard so that everyone knows the World Class Athlete Program.
"We're making good strides. We just need to continue."