Baghdad Purple Hearts: Heroes Abroad

Before I get into the exact story of how I received my Purple Heart, let me introduce myself. My name is SSG Michael Virnig, and I deployed to Operation Iraqi Freedom 2 (OIF) as the Infantry Rifle Squad Leader of 2nd Squad, 2nd Platoon, 2nd Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division. (I know, it's a tongue twister.)

I deployed with a unique squad of soldiers with various backgrounds and diverse personalities. We called ourselves the "Meatshields" — we even made our own patch. We called ourselves this because a lot of us are into "Dungeon and Dragons" type games and books, and in these books the infantry, or warriors, are affectionately referred to as "Meatshields," since they are basically your first line of defense against the enemy. So, since we are infantry soldiers and planned to meet the enemy head on, it only seemed appropriate to call ourselves the Meatshields.

Being a Meatshield meant you were part of a close-knit group of people who cared about you. We knew each other’s families, and we looked out for each other, both on and off work. Even today, the soldiers of the Meatshields look after each other even though we are all separated in different units, states, or countries.

So, without further ado, this is the story of how I earned my Purple Heart during OIF 2.

The 2nd platoon was tasked to conduct night operations in and around the Abu Ghuraib Market in Baghdad. We were responsible for the north side of the market and the villages in the area north of the market. After conducting a mounted patrol of the area we established a vehicle position about two blocks north of the market in order to observe anyone trying to enter the market from a northern side route and deter insurgent activity in the village.

It was nearing midnight when we set up our position. My squad was the dismount squad, and we were responsible for security and emplacement of obstacles. The Meatshields dismounted the trucks and immediately set out wire obstacles to prevent access to our position. Once this was complete, I called my team leaders to the middle of the position in a covered area and issued instructions. My instructions to my squad were to conduct "Clover leaf" reconnaissance routes starting from different clock directions at the vehicle position.

We broke up into three groups of three men each — one non-commissioned officer and two soldiers in each group. The intent was to take small fanning routes no more then one block away from the position, out and in. We started from three separate positions and cleared the area 50-100 meters in all directions from the vehicles. During this time the vehicles watched the rooftops and recorded our movement. Once complete with the reconnaissance patrols, the squad met up again at the initial covered point. I had the team leaders brief me on anything they saw on their routes and then ordered the soldiers back to their trucks. I returned to my truck, after reporting to the patrol leader, and briefly spoke with the soldiers in the truck to see if they saw anything while I was gone. Everything was quiet, so I was going to grab a seat and some water.

I opened the the rear passenger door to my truck and was preparing to step inside when I heard a distinct thump … thump …. thump. The soldier that was sitting in front of me was going to sit down at the same time and so both of our doors were open. We both heard the sound at our feet … thump … thump … thump. We both looked down to see a hand grenade settling to a stop right between us at our feet. We simultaneously yelled "GRENADE" and attempted to get into the truck for cover.

Within two seconds of seeing the grenade, it exploded, filling the interior of the truck with black smoke. The blast of the grenade took our senses away; neither one of us had ever experienced an explosion that close before. My head was throbbing and ringing from the concussion of the grenade, and I could tell that the guy in front of me was feeling it also. Within seconds the smoke cleared and I sprang into action. The only thing I could think of was, "Is anyone hurt?" I grabbed the guy in front of me and inspected him for injuries. He complained of stinging pains in his hip, hands, and thigh areas. I checked the gunner of the vehicle, who was one of my squad members. He switched out with the gunner when we returned from patrol to give the gunner some rest from the turret — he was fine other than ringing in his ears.

The driver and rear driver’s side passenger were fine other then some ringing in the ear. At this time I called over the radio for the medic and to give a situational report to the patrol leader of what just happened. As I was reaching for the radio, the gunner in the truck behind me opened fire on a rooftop about 50-75 meters east of our position. The gunner reported seeing the grenade thrower on the roof and initiated contact and was given the order to cease fire by the patrol leader.

At this time, I pushed my squad out to various positions around the vehicles to secure the area. I moved the soldier, who was complaining of stinging sensations to the rear of my truck and designated that as the casualty collection point. The medic arrived to assess the soldiers and care for the wounded. I left the soldier with the medic and joined my squad pulling security. The company commander was with the patrol and took control of the situation from the patrol leader and myself. The CO was observing the medic and the soldier when I noticed that my right leg was wet between the top of my boot and my knee. I looked down and realized it was covered in blood, so I let my team leaders know that I was moving back to be looked at by the medic and for them to maintain security.

While the medic was looking after my leg, the CO took my squad and went and cleared the building where the gunner had seen the grenade thrower. As they were passing by I noticed that the gunner of my truck was very confused and wobbly, so I stopped him and had the medic examine him; he had a concussion and it was starting to set in. They were unable to find any evidence of where the enemy was or had gone, so they returned to the truck and we began the sequence for medical evacuation.

At the medical treatment facility, the patrol dropped me and the other two wounded soldiers off . The patrol wished us well and returned to the area where we were attacked to further search out the enemy. The soldier that was in front of me during the attack received several pieces of shrapnel to the buttocks and hand, mostly superficial and easily removed. The gunner had a concussion and was taken to another location for treatment. I received shrapnel to my right thigh and shin, which they were unable to remove. Lucky for us, the grenade landed basically smack dab in the middle between the doors and us.

My rear passenger door absorbed a lot of the shrapnel and kind of split the blast. While the rest of it hit our exposed side as we tried to climb into the truck. The piece in my shin worked its way out of my body in 2006 and the piece in my thigh still remains.

We never captured the man who threw the grenade …

Read more Iraqi blogs from Michael's friend, Randall Cornelison
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