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Two Friends Survive Blast in Iraq, Receive Purple Hearts Together

By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, July 27, 2007 – “Martinez! We made it!” Army Sgt. Luis Rivera-Valentin shouted to his fellow soldier Sgt. Luis Martinez upon seeing him in a coalition hospital in Baghdad.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Army Sgts. Luis Martinez and Luis Rivera-Valentin wear the Purple Heart Medals they received July 27, 2007, at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Washington, D.C., for wounds received in Baghdad in April. Defense Dept. photo by John J. Kruzel
  

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

Hours before, on the morning of April 22, Rivera-Valentin and Martinez rode through eastern Baghdad in an RG-31 Nyala mine-protected vehicle. They were clearing roadside bombs insurgents had littered across the landscape.

Around 1 a.m., an explosively-formed penetrator -- a shaped charge designed to penetrate vehicle armor -- exploded into the vehicle.

“The bomb hit right on my side window,” Martinez said. “The shrapnel came right through my eye, destroying the lens and the cornea.”

Hot shrapnel ripped through the vehicle and also hit Rivera-Valentin’s eye, leaving him partially blind too.

“Right now, I don’t have any lens in my left eye,” he said, motioning to an eye patch held fast over his eye socket by an elastic band.

The two National Guard soldiers met after Martinez was promoted to sergeant and transferred into Company A, 130th Engineer Battalion, from Puerto Rico. As they became friends, they realized they had much in common. In fact, one could say they lives were mirrored.

Each man’s hometown lies a few miles off Autopista Jose de Diego highway near Puerto Rico’s northern coastline, where each lives with his wife and two kids.

They sat next to each other inside the same vehicle when it was rocked by the detonation. Their lives flashed before their eyes at the same exact moment while on the same road in a foreign country.

The soldiers wheeled next to each other on stretchers, and each man reached over his gurney and held his fellow soldier’s hand in the hospital. Matching black oval patches now cover each man’s single injured eye.

And at Walter Reed Medical Center here, where each soldier’s uniform was pinned today with an identical Purple Heart Medal, doctors told each man he has a 50 percent chance of regaining vision in his damaged eye.

But the two friends don’t worry about the surgeries that will take place over the next three months, they say, and their friendship has been reinforced during their mutual recoveries.

“We talk all the time about having faith in God, and that we’re going to fine,” Martinez said. “We talk about it, we cry about. The more you talk about it the better you feel about it, and the more you raise your spirits.”

Rivera-Valentin is equally optimistic. “I feel very well. I give thanks to God everyday because at least I can see my family,” he said.

The soldier says he’s confident in the medical attention he’s receiving at the Army hospital. “They’re great doctors,” he said. “They say they’re going to do their best.”

Rivera-Valentin and Martinez were two of 14 soldiers who received the Purple Heart Medal at Walter Reed today. The Purple Heart, awarded to U.S. servicemembers wounded by an instrument of war in the hands of the enemy, is one of the most recognized and respected military decorations.

Today’s recipients are among the nearly 27,000 servicemembers wounded in Operation Iraqi Freedom and nearly 1,500 wounded in Operation Enduring Freedom.

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