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Wounded Warrior Diaries: Canine Handler Battles Injuries to Return to Duty

By Navy Lt. Jennifer Cragg
Special to American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Nov. 18, 2008 – Despite losing a leg in combat, Army Sgt. Chris Alvin Burrell is focusing on his rehabilitation to one day return to what he calls his “normal day of work.”

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Army Sgt. Chris Burrell is focused on his rehabilitation since losing a leg in an explosion in Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood on Dec. 26, 2007. He hopes to return to his job as a canine handler. Courtesy photo
  

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

“My main focus right now is to heal properly and quickly in the right timeframe, and just make sure I’m healed to where I can return to duty,” said Burrell, who is assigned to the 16th Military Police Brigade’s 108th MP Company, Airborne Air Assault on Fort Bragg, N.C.

Prior to his injury, Burrell was an MP in Iraq. The best part of the job, he said, was working with the military dogs, which is something he hopes to return to soon.

“I love my job as a canine officer. Dogs are my life. It’s something that I do great,” Burrell said. “I’ve talked with a lot of people and I’m in the process of working my way back to Fort Bragg to get back with a dog and go back to my normal day of work.”

Waking Up With a Bad Feeling

Getting back to “normal” is something Burrell has been focusing on ever since his life changed the day after Christmas in 2007. He woke up that morning and had a bad feeling about the day, he said.

“I had a feeling that morning, I just didn’t know what it was. But, at the time, you kind of just got to brush it off, because if you start worrying about things, then you just get tunnel vision,” Burrell said. “Then you can’t focus on the mission that’s at hand, and then you jeopardize the mission.

“So, the main thing is just to stay focused, make sure you do your job, take care of your soldiers and drive on.”

Burrell was in the lead vehicle of a four-vehicle convoy when it was struck less than a half mile from the forward operating base.

“It was a really bad area we were going through,” he said. “We were travelling into Sadr City, which is pretty much the stronghold of the militia at the time. It was always really, really imperative that we were always on our game, aware of all our surroundings at all times.”

Sometimes it took as long as 90 minutes to work their way through Sadr City, he said.

“We tried to travel through what we call mahalas, which are like back alleys,” Burrell said. “A lot of times, you won’t find too much of a threat in there. Sometimes you will … maybe small arms fire. We tried to stay off the main streets… because …we were having a high volume of [enemy attacks] at that time.”

As the convoy approached an overpass, Burrell had an eerie sensation.

“We traveled it numerous times before, but there’s just so much trash, so much debris and things that are just everywhere underneath this overpass on the side of the streets, it’s just really, really hard, and I wouldn’t say impossible, but it’s nearly impossible to keep an eye on everything that’s happening that entire time,” said Burrell.

“Everything Was Black”

As the convoy proceeded at no more than five miles per hour assessing the surroundings, everything went black.

“I didn’t hear an explosion. The next thing, I know, everything was black,” Burrell said. “I could hear my driver, Specialist Erin Neilson, yelling to me that we needed to get out of the vehicle because it was on fire.”

But Burrell couldn’t move. He didn’t have the strength to exit the burning vehicle.

“The whole series of these events were kind of like picture frames,” he said. “Everyone started exiting my vehicle. My gunner dismounted, grabbed his weapon and pulled up a fighting stronghold position to take cover for us. My driver had exited the vehicle to assess the situation. Our vehicle was just crushed. We were hit by a triple charge; three different charges of an EFP [explosively formed penetrator].”

The triple charge had demolished the vehicle. “One of them came through, went straight through the middle of the door. We don’t know how that didn’t kill me,” Burrell said. “One hit underneath of my seat, went through the side of the vehicle and blew up the battery box, which is what caught on fire … and just destroyed the vehicle.”

Burrell added that the third charge is what took off his leg. “All of them were on my side of the vehicle, came in between the front wheel well and the doorframe where there’s no armor at all,” he said. ”"It came in at an angle, and you could see from the pictures where it came through. It came through at an angle, it just took off my knee, and went directly straight up through the roof.”

About the time everyone was exiting the vehicle, Burrell was pulled out of the back passenger door because his door wasn’t usable.

“I remember being pulled out in a lot of pain,” he said. “I remember looking at the vehicle and the vehicle was engulfed in flames. I don’t know how anybody came out of that,” he remembers thinking.

Once Burrell was removed from the burning vehicle, one of his friends, assisted in applying a tourniquet, which Burrell believes saved his life.

From Heartbreak to Lofty Goals

After Burrell was taken back to the FOB, he had asked about the three others in his vehicle. Everyone had survived the explosion. The only person injured was the interpreter.

“The interpreter, who was in the back seat, actually had a heart attack when it happened,” added Burrell. “He ended up quitting on us that night. I don’t blame him for that. You know, it was a rough day.”

After initial treatment at the base, Burrell was later transferred to Balad where a nurse broke the news about the loss of his left leg.

“I was so distraught,” he said. “I was angry, I was upset, and I was heartbroken. There [were] just so many emotions going through me at the time. It was really rough.”

After treatment at Balad, Burrell was transferred to Andrews Air Force Base, Md., and eventually to Walter Reed Army Medical Center here for follow-on treatment.

Burrell is still at Walter Reed, but hopes to get back to Fort Bragg before January

Burrell has set some other lofty goals. “Some goals and high marks I’ve set right now, of course, is just to be able to … fight the battle so that I can return to duty … in a timely manager and go back to doing what I love, which is working with dogs and being a canine handler.”

He also has set high goals in his personal life by recently participating in the New York City Marathon, riding a hand-crank bicycle.

Burrell added that his overall goal is just to be able to return to his normal life and be accepted by society.

“I would just challenge each person not to use ignorance as an excuse, or not to be scared, [or] feel awkward in front of a wounded warrior, but to just comfort them and then just act like they’re a normal human being,” he added.

(Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of Wounded Warrior Diaries. Navy Lt. Jennifer Cragg works in the New Media Directorate of the Defense Media Activity).

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Related Sites:
Wounded Warrior Diaries
Warrior Care Web Portal
Warrior Care News
Wounded Warrior Resource Center
Special Report: Staying Power


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