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Wounded Guardsman Returns to Duty After Convalescence

By Master Sgt. Bob Haskell, USA
Special to American Forces Press Service

CAMP AS SAYLIYAH, Qatar, March 15, 2004 – Staff Sgt. Matt Hayden was reasonably sure in early March that he could be home in Rhode Island instead of pulling military police duties here, near the capital city of Doha, where he was completing his year of active duty as a National Guard soldier helping to fight the global war against terrorism.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Rhode Island Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Matt Hayden and Sgt. 1st Class Edward Rose, members of the 115th Military Police Company, are completing their year of Operation Iraqi Freedom duty in Qatar after enduring their share of hazardous duty in Iraq. Photo by Master Sgt. Bob Haskell, USA

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

Hayden figured the three wounds he received when a rocket-propelled grenade exploded about 10 feet from him Aug. 5, 2003, in Iraq probably were severe enough so he would not have had to spend the winter in this small country beside the Persian Gulf.

But that is not Matt Hayden's style. He is a former Marine who was determined to uphold his personal honor and the good name of the National Guard in one of the world's most dangerous regions.

"I probably could have milked it and said I was all done. I probably could have stayed in Rhode Island after I had finished my convalescent leave. But I had to get back to my guys," said the 3rd Platoon squad leader in the Rhode Island Army Guard's 115th Military Police Company from Cranston.

So the man with the Purple Heart reported here Nov. 12 to complete his yearlong tour with the 150 or so other members of his outfit, who also have learned some harsh lessons about how terrorists wage war.

Three of the115's soldiers have been killed in Iraq during this past year, and many others have had to deal with their own fears of fire. Some have been ambushed from rooftops while conducting a presence patrol through a market place in Fallujah in the deadly Sunni Triangle north of Baghdad.

Some have taken fire while escorting military convoys. That is how Staff Sgt. Joseph Camara, 40, and Sgt. Charles Caldwell, 38, were killed Sept. 1 when an improvised explosive device, "a rigged 155 mm shell," Hayden said, struck their vehicle.

Spc. Michael Andrade, 28, died from injuries sustained in a vehicle accident in Balad on Sept. 24.

They will be honored again for making the ultimate sacrifice around Memorial Day in late May.

"Mikey always had a smile on his face. Nothing ever got him down," said Sgt. 1st Class Edward Rose about the young guardsman from Bristol, who was listed among the National Guard's 48 Operation Iraqi Freedom casualties, as of late February.

Hayden was 34 on Aug. 5, when he came as close to dying as he cares to contemplate.

He had been a Marine at Camp Pendleton, Calif., from 1986 to 1991. He had been a campus security officer at Johnson and Wales University in Providence for four years. He had never come under fire until nearly 10 years after he joined the Rhode Island Guard in 1994 to get into police work.

Hayden was among about a dozen U.S. soldiers who came under attack at about 3 p.m. that day at the Fallujah police station, where U.S. troops were delivering small arms to the local police officials and where maintenance people were checking out nine confiscated trailer-trucks, Hayden said.

One RPG knocked out the power when it hit a transformer about a mile away, he recalled. Terrorists opened up on the station soon afterward, just as he was coming outside.

Debris from the grenade that exploded just a few yards from him gouged a hole in his left hand, tore away part of a steel plate in the back of his body armor and ripped into the back of his right knee.

"My hand was steaming. It really hurt," said Hayden, who recalled that the pavement was unbearably hot, as was that afternoon.

Other Guard soldiers came to his rescue.

"I was yelling for a medic, but I couldn't hear myself," Hayden recalled. "Cpl. Scott Keegan ran over to help me. He saved my life. Spc. Richard Gaudet fired at the terrorists with his 9 mm pistol, because he didn't have time to get his automatic weapon off the humvee. Sgt. Mike Pellegrino fired a couple of grenades at the RPG location and then laid down suppressing fire with his automatic weapon."

The 20 or 30 minutes from when he was hit until he was trucked away from the police station seemed to last forever, Hayden said. Then he had to deal with the possibility of losing his wounded leg.

Hayden, who still has a few pieces of shrapnel in his body, acknowledged he was lucky. None of his vital organs or major nerves or tendons was hit, and he figures he is about 95 percent recovered after undergoing surgery four times in Iraq and in Germany and at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. The last location, Walter Reed, is where Vice President Richard Cheney gave Hayden the Purple Heart.

Doctors cut muscle from his calf and took a skin graft from his upper thigh to repair his knee. Medical people told him it could take him up to a year to fully recover. Hayden proved them wrong and passed a physical fitness test, including a two-mile run, to rejoin his unit a little more than three months after his injuries.

Yes, he is ready to go home again when his entire company returns to Rhode Island in late March or early April. He hopes to begin training at the Rhode Island Municipal Police Academy in August.

Hayden and Rose insisted they harbor no regrets about their personal experiences. "I wish that Mikey and Todd and Joey were back," said Rose of their comrades who were killed. "We'll all remember them forever. But we're all soldiers who were called by our country to do a job. We did the best that we could."

(Army Master Sgt. Bob Haskell is assigned to the National Guard Bureau, Arlington, Va.)

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