Wounded Warrior Diaries: Army Wife Enlists, Escapes Death on Afghan Mountain
By Navy Lt. Jennifer Cragg
Special to American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Nov. 18, 2008 Many wounded warriors who have served in support of Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom have paid the price for their participation in combat. Depending on that price, many view not only themselves as a hero, but those who were lost.
Army Spc. Susan Downes holds an Afghan girl during her tour there in 2006. Downes was seriously wounded there in November 2006 when the convoy she was riding in ran over a bomb. Courtesy photo
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
“I was just doing my job. I think we all were,” said former U.S. Army Spc. Susan Downes, who was injured in late 2006 while serving a one-year deployment to Afghanistan. “You know, heroes, I think we all deserve that title. I mean, we're going over there and putting our lives out there. You know, we're getting injured for the people here.”
Downes doesn’t regret her participation in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, but rather she welcomed the chance to serve her country after her husband was medically discharged in late 2004. Soon after his discharge, Downes made the decision to don the Army uniform and follow in her husband’s footsteps. She enlisted on Dec. 29, 2004.
“I missed the military lifestyle. I missed the friendships that [I] made. Just the whole camaraderie … everybody together,” Downes said. “I wanted something … more from my life.”
Transforming From ‘Girlie Girl’ to Soldier
Soon after Downes joined the U.S. Army, she underwent six months of training and was sent to Afghanistan to serve a one-year deployment. Then in her early twenties, Downes had to undergo a major transformation from what she calls her “girlie-girl” days of high school. After her training, she was assigned to the 18th Military Police Brigade’s 95th MP Battalion, 230th Military Police Company in Kaiserslautern, Germany.
“The excitement … that I was serving my country because of the war and everything and I knew I would probably be deployed [as an] MP,” Downes said. “I knew that when I signed up and I was ready to go because… it would make me feel proud of myself [for] serving the country and going over there and doing what I thought … was right and what I needed to do.”
Her career choice as an MP was rooted from her desire to join the FBI. “I had this whole big plan, go serve for five years … take some school while I was in there, and maybe go [criminal investigative division] … and, after that, try the FBI,” said Downes.
But, as plans often do, they changed for Downes on Nov. 28, 2006 when she was severely wounded in combat while deployed to Afghanistan’s Lowgar province, about an hour south of Kabul. She had just returned from a two-week R&R.
“The day I was injured I had actually gotten back from R&R like two days earlier,” added Downes. “[My supervisor] asked me to volunteer for a mission, and I accepted as a gunner. And, it was a good morning, it was a peaceful morning.”
Downes added that most people probably don’t comprehend the beauty of Afghanistan. “Believe it or not, Afghanistan has some really pretty scenery,” said Downes. “[On the day I was injured,] the snow was already coming down and I felt really great that morning. I had a lot of motivation, I guess because I was back with my unit and I was happy to actually go back out again.”
And, as fate would have it, on her unit’s last mission to the area, she suffered such severe injuries that many of the medics tending to her believed she might die.
A Life-changing Moment
On the morning of Nov. 28, snow was accumulating quickly and the temperature was falling.
“About 30 minutes into the mission, all I remember is actually getting cold because the snow had started to fall down really fast,” added Downes. “And, I was fixing my neck gator up and that’s the only thing I remember.”
Downes, who was in the lead Humvee that morning, was in the only vehicle of the three-vehicle convoy that was destroyed in the roadside bomb blast.
Downes and an Afghan interpreter survived the blast, but two others -- Staff Sgt. Michael A. Shank, 31 of Bonham, Texas and Spc. Jeffrey G. Roberson, 22, of Phelan, Calif. – were killed.
Downes believed that her survival was largely due to how she was positioned in the Humvee. “In the truck, I was the lead gunner. [I] had the .50 calibar … [and] I was standing up,” she said. “I never sit down because you can’t really get any kind of good security when you’re sitting down. I think if I had been sitting down in that truck that day, I wouldn’t be here.”
When the lead armored Humvee was struck, the vehicle flipped on its side, pinning Downes. “The gunner’s shield was actually on top of my legs holding me down in the truck,” she said.
Several members of her unit attempted to pull her from her pinned location, but were only able to remove her after her unit collectively assisted in lifting the one-ton Humvee.
Once Downes was removed from her pinned location, she would not only lose both of her legs from the knee down, but would also suffer several setbacks before receiving medical treatment, namely, a four-hour wait for a MedEvac due to hazardous weather.
“They refused MedEvac because we were in the mountains and the snow was coming down pretty hard. It was a blizzard pretty much by then,” Downes said.
The Longest Day
The unit’s only other option to save Downes’ life was to transport her to the nearest NATO hospital, and eventually to Bagram Air Base in Kabul. On the first leg of the six-hour convoy to the nearest hospital, she had lost nearly all of her blood supply. Upon arrival to the NATO hospital, the medics discovered that the hospital had run out of Downes’ blood type -- O negative.
Downes said the medic in charge had to make a life or death decision for her: He gave her O positive blood in attempt to keep her body warm during the remaining convoy to Bagram.
“The medic in charge that day actually made that decision … so he could keep my body warm,” Downes said. “But either way, he said I could have died, but he wanted to at least keep my body war enough until we got to Bagram.”
Not only did Downes survive the bomb blast, but she endured 10 hours of life and death survival. For her, the guiding force to remain in the fight was her two children, who were living stateside with their father.
“I knew I had something to live for so, I think having my children, I think that really is what, you know, kept me alive, kept me fighting,” Downes said.
Downes remained at Bagram for a few days prior to her transfer to Landstuhl, Germany. On Dec. 3, she was transferred to Walter Reed Army Medical Center here where she remained in rehabilitation for the next year and a half.
While at Walter Reed, an occupational therapist introduced Downes to the idea of using a therapy dog.
“I’m an advocate about these dogs. I want to get every solider a dog. It is … one of my main goals,” Downes said.
Since leaving rehabilitation, Downes and her family and her therapy dog, Leila, have moved back to her hometown of Tazewell, Tennessee. Prior to her move back to Tennessee, Downes was hired by a local construction company to manage their administrative department.
Downes now has new goals for herself. “I want to go back to school. I like graphic design, and that’s what I want to go into,” she said.
(Editor's note: This is the first in a series of Wounded Warrior Diaries. Navy Lt. Jennifer Cragg is assigned to the New Media Directorate of the Defense Media Activity)