Wounded Guardsman Lives to See Retirement
By Sgt. 1st Class Gail Braymen, USA
Special to American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Feb. 23, 2004 A standing-room-only crowd watched, teary-eyed but smiling, as a Florida Army National Guardsman was ceremoniously retired from military service at Walter Reed Army Medical Center here Feb. 21. Soldiers, civilians and children filled the conference room for the occasion.
Staff Sgt. Dustin Tuller accepts a flag from his eldest son, Dillyn, during a retirement ceremony at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington Feb. 21. Tuller, a member of the Florida Army National Guard's 3rd Battalion,124th Infantry Regiment, was medically retired from the Army. He lost both legs from injuries sustained in an attack in Baghdad in December. Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Gail Braymen, USA
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Staff Sgt. Dustin Tuller sat at attention in a wheelchair, his Class A uniform trousers neatly folded beneath his left hip and right thigh, as his battalion commander read the official orders retiring him from the Army.
The 28-year-old college student, father of four and infantryman, had both legs amputated after being wounded in an attack in Iraq in December.
Army officials expedited his medical retirement when doctors feared he wouldn't survive his injuries. "I was in a coma when I got my retirement papers," Tuller said. "I wanted to have a retirement ceremony, because I've been in the Army for 10 years. I always wanted to be a soldier.
"If they hadn't retired me, I'd still wear the uniform, even with no legs."
The Company B, 3rd Battalion, 124 Infantry Regiment, soldier was almost killed and two others were injured during a raid in an area of Baghdad that the Army had designated simply "Section 17."
Tuller had just positioned his squad outside a building to provide security during the raid when the soldiers came under fire. It was two days before Christmas.
Weeks later, and 2,000 miles away from the streets of Baghdad, Tuller awoke from a coma in a German hospital. He had been shot four times in his legs and pelvis.
While Tuller was unconscious, doctors had prepared his family for the worst. "We've actually been told twice that he wasn't going to make it," said Tuller's brother, Daniel, an Air Force C-17 transport loadmaster stationed at Charleston Air Force Base, S.C.
Christmas Eve was the first time doctors notified the family they didn't expect Tuller to survive. The second time was 13 days later, when he went into cardiac arrest.
Tuller's prognosis had been so grim, Army officials decided to retire him from military service in a procedure called "imminent death processing." This can be applied when a soldier is expected to die within 72 hours from a medical condition incurred or aggravated in the line of duty.
Imminent death processing allows the Army to retire the soldier, even with fewer than 20 years of service, thus providing additional benefits for the soldier's family.
Tuller served in the Army for a total of nearly 10 years. He entered active duty in 1994 and became Florida Army National Guardsman the day after he was discharged from active duty in 2000.
But, despite his gunshot wounds and resulting complications, including kidney failure, during the flight from Baghdad to Germany, Tuller survived. "I remember some (about the attack)," Tuller said. "I had just gotten done putting my guys in position. I was putting myself in position, and that's when I got shot in the back of the leg. "After the first shot, I went to the ground and started crawling and yelling for a medic. I was looking for a concealed position, but there's not much cover in an urban environment."
The attacker had fired at Tuller from a window in a nearby building. "As the guy was shooting me, I was shooting back," Tuller said. "I shot an entire magazine."
Tuller doesn't remember what happened after the attack in Baghdad. The next thing he does remember is waking up in a hospital in Hamburg, Germany.
Although doctors hadn't yet been forced to remove his legs, Tuller knew his lower body was badly damaged. "I was afraid to even reach down there," he said.
Members of Tuller's family had been by his side almost the entire time he was unconscious. His brother Daniel, sister, Brandie, and wife, Alisha, arrived in Germany just days after the attack and spent almost a month with him there before he was moved here to Walter Reed.
"When my wife came to Germany, she split the children up," Tuller said. "Two went with my parents and two went with her mom."
But everyone -- Daniel, Brandie, Alisha and the couple's children, Dillyn, Zachery, Dammyn and Lexi, his parents David and Linda, and his mother-in-law Tracy Harding was at Walter Reed to help celebrate Tuller's survival.
During the retirement ceremony, Maj. Gen. Walter Pudlowski Jr., the acting deputy director of the Army National Guard, pinned a Purple Heart medal on Tuller's uniform and Lt. Col. Thad Hill, his battalion commander, pinned on his Combat Infantryman Badge.
Command Sgt. Maj. A. Frank Lever III, the command sergeant major of the Army National Guard, presented Tuller with several items, including a flag and several commemorative coins.
Officials at the ceremony gave the Tuller children a collection of Army National Guard games, comic books and other materials.
Dillyn, the eldest, eagerly opened a pack of Army National Guard trading cards and flipped through them, excitedly calling to his parents when he found one with a picture of a soldier wearing a desert camouflage uniform and Kevlar helmet. "Look!" he said, grinning. "It looks like Dad!"
Like many amputees, Tuller experiences "phantom pain" in his missing limbs. "Man, my feet hurt," he said quietly, closing his eyes and lowering his head. But after a brief pause, he continued explaining what medical procedures still lie ahead.
It's too soon yet for physical therapy and for doctors to start fitting him with prosthetics, he said. "I still have bandages and open wounds."
Before his unit left Florida in January 2003, Tuller was a student at Pensacola Junior College, preparing for a career as a physical education teacher. He's been away from school for more than a year, and it will be several more months before he's released from Walter Reed and can return home to Pace, Fla.
But the interruption in his life and physical changes in his body haven't changed his plans. "I'm going back to school," Tuller said firmly, "and I'm going to be a physical education teacher."
(By Army National Guardsman Sgt. 1st Class Gail Braymen is assigned to the National Guard Bureau, Arlington, Va.)